Facing labour shortages, Canada needs to mobilize all its talent

Educators, business leaders and governments must seize the opportunity to have girls and women take their rightful place in science

Despite having one of the world’s most educated populations, a gender gap in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) still exists in Canada. On February 11, as we celebrate International Day of Women and Girls in Science, it is essential that we take the opportunity we have to move the dial to achieve gender parity at all levels of research in Canada.

We need girls and women to step up to STEM and to be welcomed. They bring with them not only ideas, intelligence and skills, but also the ability to address Canada’s urgent need for critical knowledge workers. Recent OECD results clearly demonstrate they have the capacity in both math and science. Now, we need to see them as equal and essential partners in all fields of science.

Last fall, the Canada Foundation for Innovation worked with Acfas, a Quebec-based organization that works to advance science, to conduct a survey that asked young Canadians, aged 18-24, their views on science. The results are most encouraging and tell us that young women’s interest in science equals and slightly surpasses that of young men. In fact, the majority of survey respondents support science, and see it as a good field for their age group to pursue as a career.

The gender gap in STEM fields is taking on new urgency since now, more than ever, we need a highly skilled workforce to support research and bolster the economy. We are feeling the effects of a labour shortage that extends well beyond our borders. Countries are already in fierce competition to attract and retain the innovative workforce that is central to modern economies. To maintain its competitive edge in the years ahead, Canada will need to focus on recruiting every college and university graduate, especially in the STEM fields.

And what better time to encourage young women to enter STEM? The pandemic has not only reinforced the importance of science, but it has also put the spotlight on many outstanding role models for women and girls to pursue science: health experts like Theresa Tam, Bonnie Henry, Vera Etches and Rochelle Walensky, and advisors and politicians like Mona Nemer and Kirsty Duncan, just to name a few. Educators, business leaders and governments — federal and provincial — must seize the opportunity to have girls and women take their rightful place in science.

At the same time, we are navigating a world of rapid change where the social and economic aftermath of the pandemic combined with climate change, issues of social justice and global tensions define our course. But with change comes an exceptional opportunity to alter the trajectory of humanity. Research and discovery are powerful tools to inspire a new generation. From advancing renewable energy sources, to building a vibrant economy and a more inclusive society, to developing new medicines that tackle some of our deadliest diseases, research offers the possibility of a future that can be profoundly different from the past.

This is Canada’s chance to replenish the workforce and provide a brilliant example to the world.                

In a society that depends on technology, if we cannot meet the challenges of innovation and production in high-value sectors, we will neither lead nor succeed. We must engage every talented and capable young Canadian so they see their future in research and discovery.

Corporations and federal policies recognize that gender parity in the boardroom is key to greater success. So what are we waiting for? Let’s tap into the immense potential of women and girls now, and encourage them to strive for careers in STEM. We can thus ensure Canada’s success at a time when science is more relevant than ever. 

This opinion piece by CFI CEO and President, Roseann O'Reilly Runte, originally appeared in The Hill Times on Wednesday, February 9, 2022.