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Tanja Tajmel works with the UN to affirm STEM education as a human right

The Concordia researcher believes that promoting diversity requires a critical questioning of power relations
March 6, 2019
Tanja Tajmel: “This is not a women’s problem — this is a societal problem.”
Tanja Tajmel: “This is not a women’s problem — this is a societal problem.”

The participation rate of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and careers in North America remains one of the lowest across professional fields. That’s a primary concern of Tanja Tajmel, associate professor at Concordia’s Centre for Engineering in Society at the Gina Cody School of Engineering and Computer Science.

Through her work as an interdisciplinary scholar with a broad research and teaching portfolio that includes investigating and reducing discrimination in STEM, Tajmel promotes the idea that everybody has the human right to participate in and benefit from these fields. Her study of diversity in STEM focuses on how the fields must change to provide a more inclusive environment.

“This is not a women’s problem — this is a societal problem. And both men and women need to be part of the solution,” says Tajmel.

In her research, she explores how current identity narratives in STEM fields reinforce the low participation levels of girls and women and other underrepresented groups in science and technology fields. Tajmel also looks how the language around the lack of diversity hinders a thorough understanding of its root causes and potential solutions.

“The leaky pipeline metaphor is limited,” Tajmel says, referring to the oft-used attempt to explain the lack of women in STEM through the image of girls entering the STEM pipeline but leaking out along the way.

“It does not provide adequate structural similarities to highlight the social, cultural and historical dimensions of STEM that have resulted in this underrepresentation of women, LGBTQ, Black people and Indigenous groups.”

She adds, “In the last years, there has been a lot of focus on diversity in the fields of STEM, but it’s not enough to focus on the numbers and to recruit more women. Promoting diversity requires a critical questioning of power relations. By applying the human rights approach, we shift the focus from the individuals to the culture, practices and research of STEM. Science and technology are not neutral, they also contribute to maintaining social inequality.”

Implementing the human rights framework

After the United Nations declared the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, UNESCO renewed its Recommendation on Science and Scientific Researchers in 2017, which included a focus on science as a common good and the necessity of science education as a human right. The declaration asked, is access to all forms of STEM (still) limited or open to all? What barriers and social mechanisms are still limiting access to STEM? How can gender and diversity approaches be implemented in order to achieve inclusive and non-discriminatory scientific research and STEM education?

To address these questions critically and from different perspectives, Tajmel co-organized the International Symposium on Human Rights and Equality in STEM Education in October 2018.

Together with Klaus Starl from the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy and Susanne Spintig from the Professional School of Education at Humboldt University of Berlin, Tajmel gathered international scholars from across disciplines of STEM education, educational research, human rights and gender and diversity studies.

As part of the symposium and in collaboration with UNESCO, participants and collaborators adopted a declaration on the human right to science education and its implementation.

The document lays out how everybody in society should have the right to participate in a quality, up-to-date science education. And, most importantly, it asserts that STEM education must be accessible and acceptable for the learners in its content, representations and purposes.

Tajmel’s first year at Concordia has come at an exciting time: the faculty became the Gina Cody School ­— the first engineering school in Canada to be named after a woman. It also appointed Anjali Agarwal as its first associate dean of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion.

Tajmel’s expertise on the barriers limiting participation in STEM will be put to good use in creating a next-generation learning and teaching environment for anyone passionate about science and technology.

Find out more about Concordia’s Centre for Engineering in Society.



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