Closing the Gender Gap

From microscopes to hydraulics, bacteria to meteorites, WISEST shares the excitement of careers in science and technology with young people - regardless of their gender

Sarah Pratt - 12 January 2016

[Photo Credit: John Ulan]

Nicole Baker, Summer Research Program Alumna 2009
Employer partnerships co-ordinator, Aboriginal Relations, Government of Alberta; volunteer at WISEST conferences and campus tours.

"Being an Aboriginal in the WISEST program, I felt proud to have overcome negative circumstances and stereotypes. I was accepted by a very supportive group because of my accomplishments, and I wasn't judged because of my gender or my background."

By the time Nicole Baker was 12 years old, she had been shuffled back and forth between her mother and the child welfare system
nine times and was a permanent ward of the government. She was such a veteran of the system that, when she sat down to talk to potential foster families, she was the one who actually did much of the interviewing.

"I had been through it enough that I knew what I wanted and needed," she says. "As an independent teenager, I was looking for flexibility, stability and trust."

For Baker, thoughts of university and a career were far from her mind. More immediate was the need to survive and get through each day. But this resilient adolescent still defied the odds by being an honours student and participating in extracurricular activities.

"I had challenges, but I never wanted my past to haunt me," recalls Baker, who is now 25. "I felt like I could take two paths: one led to a bad place and one led to a better life. I chose the better life."

Baker started down that path to a better life when a high school chemistry teacher recommended a program at the University of

UAlberta introduced Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology, or WISEST, in 1982. The program's mandate was to figure out why so few young women were choosing science, technology, engineering and math fields, and to increase the number of women who pursue careers in these fields and in leadership roles. More than 30 years later, the mandate has broadened to encourage both young men and women to take up less-traditional fields of study. WISEST alumni challenge gender biases in the workforce and work to close the gender gap. WISEST has indeed changed the course of many lives, introducing nearly 19,000 young people to career paths they might not otherwise have considered. On the following pages you will see the faces of just a few of the many WISEST alumni who say the program had an impact on their lives. Program participants say they emerged with a deeper understanding of their strengths and interests, increased self- confidence and lifelong friendships.

Opportunities include conferences, classroom visits, mentoring and summer programs, and start as early as Grade 6 - a wonderful age for learning and inspiration, says outgoing WISEST chair Denise Hemmings. She can envision so many more ways the program could make a difference, such as opening the Summer Research Program, a six-week hands-on paid research work experience for youth advancing from Grade 11 to Grade 12, to more students. She would also love to amp up programs for girls in junior high, at an age where many girls decide to not pursue classes in science and so need extra encouragement, she says. The ability to expand its off-campus outreach programs, especially in northern Alberta and Aboriginal communities, is also on WISEST's wish list.

For Baker, her WISEST experience allowed her to imagine a future that included attending the University of Alberta.

"[Being on campus] was intense and scary for me, but once I dove in it was great to experience academia and have amazing networking opportunities with students and professors ... . I also started to think critically about my career path," says Baker, whose WISEST project involved land reclamation studies and testing soil from tailings ponds. "I felt a real connection with the project, especially as an Aboriginal. Looking to get the land back to the way it aligned with my cultural and spiritual beliefs. It was a big takeaway for me."

Baker now works for the provincial government in Aboriginal relations and volunteers as a guest speaker for WISEST - one of more than 600 program volunteers, many of whom are also alumni. She says it's not just about speaking, but also about listening to young people, taking part in activities alongside them and having honest conversations. The kind of conversations that had made a difference in her life.

"I started opening up about my past after the program, and working through the past has helped me," says Baker. "I'm in a place that I'm really happy about."

[Photo Credit: John Ulan]

Nancy Manchak, Summer Research Program Alumna 2008
Engineer-in-training, Enbridge Pipelines Inc.; member of the WISEST program committee and fundraising golf tournament committee

"I am an engineer today because of WISEST, and I want to ensure that young women are exposed to science and technology fields and are aware of the opportunities that are out there. I want to have them decide on their careers, and not society."

[Photo Credit: John Ulan]

William Chan, Summer Research Program Alumnus 1997
PhD in immunology and researcher at the Alberta Diabetes Institute; volunteer with WISEST's Tales from the Science Buffalo

"I learned so much about myself during the WISEST program. Experiences like this make you reflect on who you are and encourage you to pursue your passion, whether you are male or female."

[Photo Credit: John Ulan]

Leah Hackman, Summer Research Program Alumna 2003
PhD student in Computing Science and co-presenter of UAlberta's online course Understanding Video Games; WISEST event volunteer

"WISEST was such an immersive program and a whirlwind adventure. It got me excited about my education, and I realized that, yes, I could be a mathematician and I could be a computer scientist."