Calgary geologist advocates to help girls in sciences, from school to the boardroom

Podcast host, volunteer and professional geologist Alicia Bjarnason advocates for females in science, technology, engineering and math, and her efforts have been recognized with a Star of Alberta Volunteer Award.

Alicia Bjarnason has received the Stars of Alberta Volunteer Award

Calgary geologist Alicia Bjarnason has advocated for young girls to get into the science, technology, engineering and math fields, and to make workplaces more welcoming for the women who do. She has received a Stars of Alberta Volunteer Award. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Alicia Bjarnason is a geologist who runs her own consulting company. 

When Bjarnason began her career 20 years ago in geosciences, she was often the only woman in the room — or the company.

She's been working hard to change that statistic by advocating to keep female students in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, collectively known as STEM.

Her efforts have been recognized with a Star of Alberta Volunteer Award, which recognizes extraordinary Albertans whose volunteer efforts have contributed to the well-being of their community.

"I'm pretty honoured to be recognized," Bjarnason told the Calgary Homestretch. "I help with recruiting kids into STEM, especially focusing on underrepresented populations, and then also to help people stay in STEM, especially women in STEM, since we lose them along the way."

Bjarnason has given her time to several key groups that work to keep women in these male-dominated fields. She volunteers with the Alberta Women's Science Network, which works with Operation Minerva. That project supports Grade 8 girls with a one-day job shadowing with female STEM professionals, and also works with the University of Calgary, SAIT and Mount Royal University.

Bjarnason, who said she was drawn to geology in part because she loves to be outside, didn't feel outnumbered at the beginning of her career.

"I was pretty fortunate that my graduating class actually had quite a few graduates at the time that were women, and a lot of those people that I went to school with have actually gone on to do some pretty amazing things within the profession and outside of the profession," she said. "When it came to getting into the industry, I found that there were less and less of us as you went along, and more importantly there wasn't a lot of mentorship."

GeoWomen provided inspiration

Bjarnason was further inspired to get involved after attending an event with a Calgary organization called GeoWomen, which is focused on leadership, mentoring and career development for women.

"They had four women sitting at the front who all had over 30 years experience. I'd never really met one in my career," she said. "So the idea of having four of them at one time was a pretty powerful experience, to hear about their careers and in their paths."

Bjarnason is determined to make the science, technology, engineering and math fields more hospitable for women.

"So you start in your career and you think that 'the world is your oyster' kind of a thing. And there's somewhere along the way where, specifically, women in STEM become women in STEM — if that makes sense," she said.

Gender label can hinder

"I remember being in a conference once. I sat with an engineer and she said, 'I don't know when it happened, but somewhere along the way, I became a female engineer. I don't call myself a female engineer, but there is somewhere along the path where I wasn't an engineer anymore. I was a female engineer.' And that gender ring of our profession as we go can definitely hinder us."

Bjarnason says it doesn't have to be that way forever.

"I hope it's changing. But it does seem to be a pattern where you graduate as a geologist, or as an engineer, and then along the way you become gendered somehow, either by your company or by your co-workers."

Bjarnason said women should expand their idea of what these careers will actually look like. She says Grade 8 is a pivotal point where girls can turn away from these fields, and it's also a good point to show them the possibilities of STEM careers.

A mechanical engineer can very much go into medicine and design heart valves.- Alicia Bjarnason

"I also find that even what an engineer is or what a geologist is is very much changing the traditional component of civil, electrical, mechanical. We're finding there's many ways you can apply that, right? A mechanical engineer can very much go into medicine and design heart valves."

Bjarnason co-founded a group called the Women's Workplace Improvement Network, designed to change corporate culture.

"This gendering of workspaces, it really causes people to have to play a role … where, in order to fit in, you have to have certain expectations of your behaviour. And that's not just always detrimental to women, it can be detrimental to many people. And I don't think we get to bring our best selves to work if we can't be authentic in who we are."

Bjarnason applied for a funding grant to form the Women's Workplace Improvement Network. 

"We were looking at specifically for women, if they do get out of the industry, maybe it's due to caregiver responsibilities or something unexpected, or a choice, that if you've been out for a year or two, how do you get back in? 

'These are your mentors'

Not only did the network write a document to help women to prepare themselves to get back into the workforce, it also contacted STEM companies to see if this was something that they would add to their policies or recruitment strategies, to try to retain women.

"To not forget this group," she said. "Because these are your mentors, these women are coming with huge amounts of skills."

The network contacted 70 small to medium STEM companies in Alberta to analyze their workplace policies. It found that only 11 even had a relevant workplace policy.

"It really opened up our eyes to how far we need to come in order to better understand how to create a more diverse and inclusive work environment," she said. 

"By doing that, I feel that we can create a much more innovative thought process within our companies. It's starting to change but it's definitely an uphill battle to make sure that we bring our best selves to work, and that work allows us to be the most innovative that we can be."

Bjarnason also has a podcast with co-host Marcie Hawranik called (Ex)clusion.

"We wanted to actually bring some of the things that we had learned about equity, diversity and inclusion, and bring it to a broader audience," Bjarnason said. "And it really has allowed us to bring some voices to the table to see what has been happening. What are some best practices. What can we learn from each other."

With files from the Calgary Homestretch.