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Women in STEM: Expanding the Frontier during COVID-19

Edited by Jasmine Ryu Won Kang

March is important for a lot of reasons this year: not only is it International Women’s Month, but it is also an approximate year anniversary of COVID-19 lockdowns in Canada. It’s never been so clear the importance of STEM fields, yet it bears examining how difficult it is to work within them as a woman. WHO data indicates that although women comprise about 70% of the global health field, they occupy only 25% of decision-making roles.

Dr. Özlem Türeci was at the forefront of BioNTech’s first COVID-19 vaccine, completing the shot in only eleven months. She credits that achievement with the gender equality within her office, where women make up 54% of the workforce and 45% of the top positions. Türeci herself was the chief medical officer at BioNTech, and expressed the value of often-underutilized women’s talent. Her contemporary and the developer of the AstraZeneca vaccine, Prof. Sarah Gilbert, echoed similar statements. Gilbert gained renown during her work on an Ebola vaccine as well as medicine for MERS before tackling COVID-19 with her 60% female office at Oxford.

Gilbert herself, though, admits to the vast barriers against women in STEM. Only 1/3 of senior positions on her team were filled by women, and she realizes that the pandemic’s effects on careers will disproportionately hit women.

This is a problem that escapes the confines of Oxford. Women in Canada are both less likely to enter and more likely to leave STEM fields, according to 2019 government reports. Once within these jobs, women in 2018 earned an average of $0.76 to every dollar earned by men. Women also earned about 36% of all postsecondary STEM degrees, although notably made up around 57% of Science majors. In Engineering, Math, and Computer Sciences, they fell between 20-28%. Women of color are even more affected, earning only 14% of bachelor’s STEM degrees and facing an even larger gap in pay and leadership opportunities.

That’s not to say that the situation is entirely hopeless. There are some incredible women currently making strides in the field, much like Türeci and Gilbert. There’s also hard data behind them: studies in Europe show that gender equality in STEM fields would bolster the economy, perhaps even by 610-820 billion euros in GDP growth. Although men continue to dominate the field, information technology management boards show the sharpest increase in female representation of any other industry. The WHO even launched a Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative in February with the aim to improve pay, roles, working conditions, and access for women in STEM fields. This is one step of many that could serve to make STEM hospitable for women, alongside access to education and protection within firms.

Women currently in STEM are also paving the way for others, committing themselves to equality and accomplishing incredible feats. “I very much want to see women enabled today and also tomorrow,” Türeci said when asked about equality within her company. That sentiment must ring true in every section of the field for progress to be made. So this month and every month, remember the women that are fighting to be heard in all facets of life, and listen.

Happy International Women’s Month.

Shauna McLean studies International Relations and Peace, Conflict, and Justice through Trinity College while minoring in Near Middle Eastern Studies. She is involved in her community through many avenues including work in Trinity Against Sexual Assault and Harassment and a COVID19 research grant. She loves getting to know Toronto and hopes to keep finding new ways to be an active member of the city and university.
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