A new report on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) from Ryerson’s Faculty of Science found diversity in STEM is necessary for an edge in the market and that diversity is something that can be leveraged for innovation.

“Fully embracing EDI in [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] (STEM) and leveraging diversity to drive innovation is a positive step and an urgent economic imperative. Failing to include EDI in STEM will likely have negative consequences on national productivity, economic growth, long-term prosperity, and global competitiveness,” part of the report reads.

Sarah Chattha [left] and Emma Kelly [right] are both passionate about inclusion in STEM. (Photo by Iris Robin)

The report, released Oct. 12, is based on discussions from a roundtable meeting hosted by Imogen Coe, dean of the Faculty of Science in May 2017. Forty-four stakeholders from various STEM sectors attended this meeting to share perspectives and expertise. Some of them spoke from their personal experiences of being marginalized and others spoke on behalf of people from their sectors.

Coe said that more diversity in STEM would lead to better quality research and that everyone in STEM should be socially conscious.

“That’s incumbent on all of us to take the responsibility to raise awareness and become more educated about EDI issues and to ask our colleagues from other communities about their experiences and what can be done to improve or increase participation,” she said.

Emma Kelly, a second-year chemical engineering student, says she understands the business case for diversity in STEM, but an organization’s motives matter and could result in tokenization.

“I think if you look at it clinically, we’ll make more money if we hire people to make our company more diverse,” Kelly said. “But it might be a little bit counterproductive in that mentality because you hear, ‘Oh, you just got this position or this co-op or this job because you’re a girl and because you’re a person of colour applying and they just need to meet their quota.’ So in that sense if you advertise it just as ‘Oh yeah, hiring for diversity is better for your business,’ it’s kind of cold,” she said.

A 2014 report by Deloitte found that the top three reasons for which Canadian organizations invest in EDI are to enhance employee engagement, to acquire new talent, and to brand the organization as a “socially responsible” or “best place to work.”

Even then, Kelly says, hiring is only one aspect of diversity in STEM. Once an employee from a marginalized background starts their job, the organization needs to be prepared to support them in that environment.  

“If [companies] want to hire diverse, once they hire that woman or that person of a different ethnicity, they actually have to help them once they’re in the company, because you can get the job, but you can still face racism, homophobia [and] sexism while you’re working there,” she said.

Sarah Chattha, a second-year chemical engineering student, says education in equity and language should be institutionalized. She gave an example of students in her program who, even after an equity session in an introductory engineering course, still use slurs.

“The fact that you know that these words are offensive and you’re not supposed to just throw them out there, and the fact that you still do is just — it blows my mind,” Chattha said.

Rebecca Dias, a fourth-year biology student, says that the lack of diversity, especially disparity between genders, in STEM is a systemic problem that begins before students reach university.

Dias says she has experienced sexism as a woman in STEM.

“I’ve been told that I should go work in a kitchen and I think it’s like in a sense it’s more like they think it’s a joke. But there’s deep-rooted truth behind every joke, so those jokes shouldn’t exist,” she said.

Dias says that gender and racial stereotypes should be challenged early on.

“I think starting from a young age is the best thing,” Dias said. “I think … promoting STEM of everyone in the classroom and building that self-confidence is going to be the most beneficial, versus targeting university students, who might as well have already picked their career path and are just starting the conversation.”

For now, Kelly and Chattha are looking forward to the Conference on Diversity in Engineering, which will take place at Ryerson next year.

“I think it’s really fantastic that this is happening but at the same time, people who apply to go to conferences like this already have that mindset, so it’s kind of preaching to the choir in that sense,” said Kelly. “It’s maybe not reaching the people who need the training.”

Chattha says she hopes that the resulting increase in positive messaging around diversity in STEM will still reach a wider audience.

“There’s going to be more resources available and more posters around to allow people to become more aware of what’s going on and why we’re even having a workshop on diversity on such a big level,” Chattha said.

The Faculty of Science’s report highlighted 12 “key findings” that focus on the need to embrace EDI in educational and professional settings. It remains for the university to follow up with an action plan to strengthen EDI values.

Toronto-based journalist Iris Robin writes about local news, activism, and popular culture. Originally from the UK, Robin moved to Canada in 2012 to pursue their post-secondary education. A full-time nerd, Robin contributes to Big Shiny Robot. In their spare time, Robin is a model, a recreational fencer, and an avid Star Wars fan. You can follow them on Twitter and on Instagram.

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