Most Canadians watched the 2016 Rio Olympics with swelling pride in the accomplishments of Canadian athletes. The number of medals won by our women athletes was particularly impressive. Penny Oleksiak’s four medals in the pool, Rosie MacLennan’s gold medal in trampoline, Erica Wiebe’s dominating gold medal performance in wrestling, Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee’s silver medals in rowing, the bronze medals won by the women’s 4×100 and 4×200 freestyle relay swim teams, the bronze medals won by our women’s sevens rugby team, Catharine Pendrel’s incredible bronze medal effort in the cross country mountain biking event, Meghan Benfeito’s two bronze medals earned in 10 meter diving events, Roseline Filion’s 10 meter synchronized diving bronze medal, the bronze medals won in the women’s team pursuit cycling event, Brianne Theisen-Eaton’s bronze in the heptathlon, Kylie Masse and Hilary Caldwell’s bronze medals won in the 100 meter and 200 meter backstroke events and the determined bronze medal performance of our women’s soccer team demonstrated the strength, determination, skill and courage of our Canadian women.
How did our women athletes reach this level of world-class performance? Of course, they’ve put in many, many hours honing their skills and developing strength and endurance; they’ve had excellent coaching and they have been able to train in the best facilities available. But, accomplished athletes from earlier days have also inspired them to achieve success. Through their accomplishments in Rio our women athletes will in turn be role models to younger girls showing them that with hard work and dedication they can also be successful.
If we can do this in sport why can’t we do it in science, technology, engineering and mathematics? Participation by women in these pursuits lags behind that of men. Without question Canada has some of the best schools and educators in the world so we have the ability to provide the training. What is lacking is the inspiration of young girls to make them believe this is something they can and should pursue. Sally Ride, the first female American Astronaut, said “I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Canada has already sent two women- Roberta Bondar and Julie Payette – into space, and many other extremely accomplished women work in the space industry, most of them in lower profile, but no less important, roles than astronauts. A recent BBC World Service documentary “Women with the Right Stuff” http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p041b3yg, pays tribute to the female pioneers of space travel and presents some of the women currently involved in space programs. It includes the stories of Russia’s Valentina Tereshkova, the first women to fly in space, Helen Sharman, the first British woman to work in space (aboard the Mir space station), Eileen Collins, the first female pilot and female commander of a Space Shuttle, mission control flight director Mary Lawrence and flight surgeon Shannon Moynihan. These very accomplished and inspirational women working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are excellent role models.
The closing date for Canada’s current astronaut recruitment campaign fell, coincidently, at the half-way mark of the Olympic Games. The Canadian Space Agency is looking to hire two people to train as astronauts. They will join Canada’s existing astronauts, David Saint-Jacques and Jeremy Hansen. Even though (or because) only 23% of the applicants were women let’s choose two accomplished women to be Canada’s next astronauts. Opportunities to create high-profile female role models in science, technology, engineering and mathematics for our young girls come around only once a decade or so. Let’s take full advantage of this opportunity. After all, it’s 2016.