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Op-ed: Dr. Paula Mendonça

From climate change to poverty to health: Women ‘vital’ to drive global research and enterprises

By Dr. Paula Mendonça

Innovation and innovation-driven enterprises are the keys to finding real solutions for the challenges facing humankind, from climate change to poverty and health.

The fact that women still have less economic, political and legal authority makes them particularly vulnerable to these challenges.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I’m drawn to think about the intersection between gender, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

If we’re going to solve some of these pressing issues facing humanity right now, it’s vital to have women driving innovative fields of research and leading innovative-driven enterprises.

The value of university education in getting women into these leadership roles cannot be underestimated. Data shows how university graduates earn more, experience less unemployment, and are more engaged in social and political activities. These graduates are our future leaders and innovators.

We are seeing progress in this area.

In 2016 29 per cent of adults in Canada aged 25-64 had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of that cohort, 41 per cent were women aged 25-34.

Just over half of doctorates were earned by women in the same age group – but only 25 per cent of those doctorates were in a STEM-related field.

Representation in entrepreneurship

Women are also underrepresented in the entrepreneurial field.

The number of women university graduates is increasing, but in 2014 only 16 per cent of Canadian small and medium enterprises (SMEs) were women-owned.

These SMEs were predominantly in service industries such as retail, accommodation and food services, and tourism, rather than STEM-related fields.

“The good news is that governments and universities are taking notice of these disparities – and taking action.”

Even at MIT, a university known worldwide for its focus on innovation, the number of women alumni involved in entrepreneurship within five years of graduation has held steady at around three per cent since the 1960s.

Over the same time period, men’s participation has risen by 16 per cent.

The good news is that governments and universities are taking notice of these disparities – and taking action.

In the past few years, new initiatives have emerged to engage, promote, and support women as innovators and entrepreneurs.

For example, the United Nations published the UN Women’s Innovation Strategy in 2017, and last year the Government of Canada announced the Women Entrepreneurship Strategy.

Strategic approach

At Memorial, we’re also making strides in creating programming to provide a strategic approach to entrepreneurship that supports students while they build their start-ups.

These programs are offered by our units, and groups such as the Centre for Social Enterprise, Entrepreneurship Training Program, Genesis, Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship and Navigate.

Recognizing the challenges for women in STEM and interested in pursuing tech companies,  Genesis hosts a Women in Tech Peer Group that has been widely successful.

Humanities and social sciences

Of course, we cannot forget non-STEM fields of study when thinking about innovation and innovation-driven enterprises. The humanities and social sciences are significant contributors to scientific and technological developments.

For example, linguistics is an important field for natural language processing, the technology behind voice-activated digital assistants. Psychology and sociology provide key insights into human behaviour that inform technological development in all fields.

“Support for women in innovative sectors needs to include all disciplines.”

The relationship works in reverse, too.

Geography and archeology students here at Memorial are using cutting-edge technologies like aerial mapping and carbon dating to study climate change and globalization.

Support for women in innovative sectors needs to include all disciplines.

‘Identify as innovators’

Change is coming!

Women are steadily taking leadership positions in research labs and senior administrative positions at academic institutions.

They are inspiring a new era of women that identify as innovators and have the confidence and skill to lead innovation-driven enterprises.

As we cultivate this ecosystem, we are building the foundation for women to contribute ground-breaking solutions for critical problems and providing the tools for them to create the world-changing enterprises needed to deliver those solutions.

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