By Dr. Charlotte Yates, president of the University of Guelph and a leading scholar in the Canadian automotive industry, labour markets and employment of women

February 11 is the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a reminder that both science and gender equality are critical for achieving internationally agreed development goals.

This is a day for assessing our progress and determining how we might further improve lives and prospects for women and girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) as well as other fields.

The same day also marks the second anniversary of the World Health Organization’s naming of a novel coronavirus disease as COVID-19. The devastating pandemic, according to a UN policy brief, has only worsened prospects for gender equity. Its impact has been more significant for women and girls in numerous ways, from health and security to the economy and social protection.

As we look to ensure well-being and prosperity beyond the pandemic, we need to renew our commitment to ensuring gender equality in STEM education and research and beyond.

We know that gender balance in science, technology, engineering, math and computer science (STEM) is crucial. A 2018 research study underlined three of the main reasons:

  • First, studies show that considering gender differences in research studies is vital for our health. Heart and brain function differ between men and women, for instance, so we need to consider gender variations to properly assess and treat heart ailments and mental health disorders.
  • Second, women bring unique perspectives and ideas to STEM research. As an aspect of diversity, gender equality means considering the full spectrum of expertise and viewpoints available to us.
  • Third, we simply require more STEM researchers to meet our societal and economic needs. Hobbling prospects for women and girls – half of our population – effectively narrows prospects for all of us.

Gender equality matters for accurate and impactful scientific research – yet roughly two years into the global pandemic, the prospects for women and girls are decidedly mixed.

As with many aspects of our lives, progress toward equality goals has been disrupted by the pandemic. In many cases, COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated existing gender disparities in science and society.

I need not look far for examples. Three STEM women researchers from my own university have shared such experiences.

One PhD student in epidemiology tracked the early spread of the virus while working from home and supporting her children’s learning. Her research has helped public health leaders and decision makers. Yet she has felt guilt over having to divide her time and attention between work and her kids – a common source of tension for many mothers during the pandemic.

An environmental science professor has analyzed strategies for reopening schools and businesses during the pandemic. She is glad that her modelling has helped to manage COVID-19. But she worries about her female colleagues – especially early-career scientists – because studies show a sharp decline in journal submissions of papers by women in the pandemic.

Another professor has developed math models to assess COVID-19 testing in schools and other scenarios. She says we have come a long way in nurturing female participation in science over the last two decades. However, she rightly points out that women remain underrepresented in many STEM fields – and believes there is still an unspoken bias against women in science fields, especially those of reproductive age.

Their experiences resonate with me. Long before the pandemic, as a researcher in the automotive sector, I stood out as much for who I was (a woman in a male-dominated field) as I did for my study results. Being the only woman at the table can be a lonely prospect.

Today as a university president and advocate for gender equity, I have an opportunity and a responsibility to use my position to bring about change. Those opportunities and responsibilities extend to the entire post-secondary sector.

As we train, nurture and mentor the next generation of STEM leaders – students, instructors, researchers – universities are critical in helping to level the playing field. Universities also excel in using our intellectual and research expertise and collaboration to address real-world problems and social issues.

But collectively we need to do more to identify and dismantle systemic barriers to participation in our institutions and in wider society. Until we address and correct systemic societal disparities, the playing field for girls and women in STEM education and careers will never level itself.

COVID-19 has threatened progress toward our global development goals and toward improving lives for women and girls. As we mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we need to recommit to correcting gender imbalances in society. Ensuring gender equality and encouraging more women to pursue science careers can help all of us to face our common challenges, pandemics and otherwise.

A version of this opinion piece was published on Feb. 11 in The Hamilton Spectator.