If Linda Hasenfratz could eliminate one stereotype about women in science and tech, it is that there are no women in science and tech.
As the CEO of Linamar, the world’s second-largest automotive-parts manufacturer, Hasenfratz is proof not only that women can make strong careers in science and technology, but that they already are. She is recognized as one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country, is the current Chair of the Business Council of Canada, and was a prominent attendee when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Trump held a roundtable discussion about women in the workforce.
When Hasenfratz spoke to 200 high-school students at the annual Inspiring Future Women in Science event, held at Perimeter Institute on Thursday, she was clear: not only is there great potential in studying STEM, there’s room for everyone.
“The numbers are really changing. I think the momentum is building in terms of women in science and technology. There’s probably 20 times the women studying science than 25 years ago, when I started,” she said.
“Science and tech are great choices for anyone who’s naturally curious about the world around you, and about how the world works. And the earnings potential is great.”
Many of the students came from high schools across southern Ontario hoping to find out what they should pursue after high school. Instead, they were advised to stop looking for answers: indecision is their ideal state right now.
“It’s great to have lots of things you’re interested in at this point,” said forensic anthropologist Tracy Rogers. “Once you’re [at university], that’s when you’re going to see what else exists.”
Quantum physicist Shohini Ghose likened it to living out Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. “You don’t have to be one thing or another,” she said. “Explore what you know and what you don’t know. Be a shapeshifter and adapt. That will make you much more able to explore and experience the world.”
For Jenna Brown, a Grade 12 student École Secondaire Catholique Notre-Dame in Woodstock, Ontario, the overwhelming message from the speakers, panellists, and mentors was that there are no wrong choices when carving out your own life path.
“Right now, a lot of us are under pressure to choose an undergrad. [The speakers] kind of stressed that, whatever you pick, it’s not going to be a mistake because you’re still learning something, and you can always change your mind after. I think that just makes everybody feel a bit better,” she said. “Grade 12 is stressful, but it doesn’t really need to be. It’s not like this is the only decision that’s going to shape the rest of your life.”
One after another, the speakers also tore apart the common stereotype that STEM is unwelcoming to women.
Hasenfratz said that doesn’t have to be the case: how you respond to the world can be more powerful than how it responds to you: “Don’t look for negatives. If you’re looking for someone to be critical of you because you’re a woman or you’re young, you’re going to find them. Don’t dial into that frequency.”
At Linamar, around 20 percent of the workforce is female. The difference from many other organizations, though, is that the company strives for similar representation at all levels – if 20 percent of machinists are women, then 20 percent of managers and executives should be, too.
Yes, sometimes the numbers of women are low. It can be strange to be the only woman in a class, or at a meeting, but that doesn’t mean your work won’t be respected, said Dawn Tattle, an engineer and president of Anchor Shoring and Caissons.
“When I was in university, I found it was a very warm environment. There was a real team spirit. As a woman in business and in construction, I found a lot of support,” Tattle said.
“There are some people who test you a little more. When you’re starting a career, people are always going to test you, whether you’re male or female. Don’t take that as because you’re in a non-traditional field.”
And there’s a bonus: “There’s never a line-up for the women’s washroom.”
As the daughter of a Perimeter Institute physicist, 17-year-old Ninon Freidel already has a better idean than many of what a science career can look like, but she was surprised by the vast range of job opportunities in STEM.
“I knew you could go into physics, math, or engineering, but I didn’t know the specifics,” said the Grade 11 international baccalaureate student at Cameron Heights Collegiate. “I found out all these jobs I didn’t even know existed. It was eye-opening. It put in perspective the opportunities that are out there.”
The main benefit of pursuing STEM is that it can change with you as your career progresses, or as unexpected opportunities arise. Melissa Sariffodeen got into programming on her home computer as a teen, but pursued a varied career through accounting, sales, and business development before launching Ladies Learning Code.
It was a winding path, she said, but what she learned on the way has proved invaluable in her current projects.
“STEM is every career,” she said. “It’s going to be invaluable to everything you do. Having that skillset, regardless of what you do, is so critical and so invaluable.”
As the students filed out of the auditorium and began a “speed mentoring” session featuring 10 women working in different STEM fields, some stopped to remark on what messages struck them deepest.
Farida Ghali, in Grade 11 at École secondaire Père-René-de-Galinée in Cambridge, was reassured. “I don’t know what I’m planning to do yet, but I learned it’s okay not to know everything.”
Mirza Nahiyan, a Grade 11 student at Toronto’s Cedarbrae Collegiate Institute, said she was particularly inspired by an exercise Sariffodeen had the audience do.
“She said we should think about one thing that makes us happy. I thought about a time in computer science class when we were coding a game.”
Nahiyan’s teacher taught the class the basics, but she taught herself more advanced coding to improve the game. “It felt so good,” she said. “Now I think I might go into computer science, because it’s what I love.”
Quotes of the day:
“If you’re looking for someone to be critical of you because you’re a woman or you’re young, you’re going to find them. Don’t dial into that frequency.” – Linda Hasenfratz, CEO Linamar
“I’ve had speed bumps. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve made some wrong choices along the way, but none of them was enough to stop me. Be an object in motion. You need to move, you need to get yourself going, then you will continue to be enthusiastic.” – Sherry Shannon-Vanstone, Trustpoint founder
“It’s important to have an open mind, and accept you don’t always know everything. If you’re in that mindset, you can learn so much more. People are often afraid to ask questions. Asking questions is the way to push boundaries.” – Maya Burhanpurkar, 18-year-old research assistant at Perimeter Institute.
“For me, a scientist is nature’s detective. You collect clues and ask questions and we try to figure out how the universe works. What do we know? What do we not know?” – Shohini Ghose, quantum physicist, Wilfrid Laurier University
“People may underestimate you, and your career and your choices, but never underestimate yourself.” – Melissa Sariffodeen, CEO Ladies Learning Code
For quantum gravity specialist and author Lee Smolin, Albert Einstein’s greatest strength didn’t lie in numbers.
Get your fill of pi (videos) to celebrate Pi Day, including great short videos from Hank Green, James Grime, Veritasium and Physics Girl, Matt Parker, and (of course) Perimeter Institute.