Being a Voice for Change for Women in STEM

FIRST Community Spotlight: Kim Cooper, Author & FIRST Canada VP of Partnerships

Mar 07, 2019 By Donald E. Bossi, FIRST President




Renowned scientist and EDI advocate Dr. Imogen Coe (far left), Marcia Moshé, and Kim Cooper (far right) at Ryerson University’s FIRST Robotics Competition 2018 Ontario District Event. (Photo credit: Eddy Gunawan)

Renowned scientist and EDI advocate Dr. Imogen Coe (far left), Marcia Moshé, and Kim Cooper (far right) at
Ryerson University’s FIRST Robotics Competition 2018 Ontario District Event. (Photo credit: Eddy Gunawan)

A few months ago, Kim Cooper, vice president of partnerships for FIRST Canada, sent me a copy of a book she was publishing called Girls in Science: Voices for Change, about creating a more welcoming, diverse and inclusive environment at school, in the workplace and at home. I was honored to be one of her early readers and to learn that proceeds are going towards FIRST Canada's Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) initiatives.

Girls in Science: Voices for Change takes a candid look at the realities of women in STEM. Through the voices of girls in youth-serving science and technology programs like FIRST, we can further understand some of the challenges they face today and how we can work together to create the kind of culture where everyone, no matter their circumstances, can thrive.

I wanted to learn more about Kim’s inspiration behind the book and her thoughts on how educators, parents, mentors, and business leader can help change the culture of STEM in their communities to be more inclusive. We also discussed STEM gender equity and how building a more gender-balanced world inspires innovation.

Don: What inspired you to write Girls in Science: Voices for Change?

Kim: Inspirations like John Abele (Argosy Foundation) and Dr. Imogen Coe (renowned scientist and equity, diversity and inclusion advocate) showed me the importance of giving a voice to those who may not be heard.

And it was girls in the FIRST program, and those involved in the Girls in STEM Student Advisory Council, who inspired me to do more—to constantly strive for inclusion strategies within STEM programs and beyond. These students are changemakers and our future leaders. We need to make sure we’re setting them up for success by providing them with creative resilience tools to approach future adversities, teaching them the foundations and practices for establishing accepting environments, and giving them collaborative team-building skills that lead to innovative mindsets.

Kim Cooper, VP, Partnerships at FIRST Canada

Kim Cooper, VP, Partnerships at FIRST Canada

I’m fortunate that FIRST Canada President Mark Breadner, Dorothy Byers (Chair of the Board of Directors), and the entire FIRST Canada team have been hugely supportive and engaged in generating discussions for inclusion and change in schools, workplaces, and communities.

Don: There are many factors that keep girls out of STEM or cause women to leave STEM fields. What barriers did you hear about the most from the young women you interviewed?

Kim: After listening to the experiences of many girls in the program, it became remarkably clear that microaggression is a serious problem for not only girls but other underrepresented individuals and groups. Microaggression can be seen in the everyday slights that undermine people and make them feel alienated; derogatory (yet often subtle) comments about someone’s race, ethnicity, gender, physical ability, and so on are not only inappropriate but can be life-changing for the victims and for people observing this behavior. Kids, youth and adults need to learn how to pinpoint and counteract microaggression with what we call “microsponsorship.”

Microsponsorship is advocacy in the moment—standing up for others and recognizing inequalities when they happen. The more we can catch these normalized slights, the more we can support healthy mindsets about ourselves and others.

Don: Closing the gender gap in STEM requires a collective effort from all of us – including men and women. A more gender-balanced world benefits us all, too. Why do you think it’s important that STEM fields in particular draw from all backgrounds and perspectives?

Kim: If we don’t embrace diversity of thought, we are truly missing out on opportunities like breakthroughs in innovation, communication strategies that determine critical outcomes, and overlooked skills and talent.

Girls in Science: Voices for Change by Kim Cooper

Girls in Science: Voices for Change by Kim Cooper

The only way we can solve local to global problems is to encourage everyone to take a seat at the STEM table. Without a diverse community at the table, we will not be truly reflective of the kids, youth, and adults that we serve. Students need to see role models who are like themselves to realize what is possible. Therefore, we as STEM ambassadors must ensure we’re sharing success stories of people from diverse backgrounds.

Don: Your book tackles the importance of changing the culture in STEM, and you offer tips for creating caring, inclusive communities that inspire innovation in all young people. What can the adults who mentor, coach or educate young people do to help create those communities?

Kim: Adults absolutely play a critical role in establishing safe environments that are nonjudgmental and that break free of traditional stereotypes. Students learn behavior by observing those around them so if we—as adults and mentors—are interrupting others when they talk, not letting all voices in the room be heard, and excluding people from certain tasks and sub-teams, this is the kind of behavior that has the dangerous risk of being mimicked by students in the future when they become leaders and members of the workforce.

We all can be positive role models for students by learning about unconscious bias, microaggression, and gender stereotyping that impacts inclusion. The good news is that EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion) training programs are becoming more prevalent. One example is FIRST’s collaboration with the National Alliance for Partnerships in Equity (NAPE) to develop training for coaches, mentors, volunteers, partners, and stakeholders who work with students to enable them to creative diverse, inclusive, and equitable teams. My book also includes a number of tips for inclusion in schools, workplaces, and communities.

Don: You work with business leaders who are invested in changing the culture for women in STEM. What’s working well? 

Kim: FIRST Canada is fortunate to work with business leaders who also believe in diversity and inclusion. We are seeing more companies embrace recruitment strategies that will target and attract both men and women, increased implementation of gender-balanced interview panels and decision-makers, and also heightened communication efforts to encourage equity, diversity and inclusion.

FIRST Canada’s Girls in STEM Student Advisory Council was created in 2017.

FIRST Canada’s Girls in STEM Student Advisory Council was created in 2017.

The most impactful initiatives that I’ve seen are those that involve women and male champions of diversity. It’s not only through strong and powerful women role models, but also through supportive and influential male leaders and allies that change can happen. FIRST Canada’s Executive Advisory Board (EAB) Chair Mark Hardy (SYNNEX Canada) and EAB member Paul Rietdyk (Enbridge Gas) have become particularly inspiring allies and champions for women in STEM, and also for me personally. We need more allies willing to embrace inclusion and to generate conversations for change within their networks.

Learn more about the book Girls in Science: Voices for Change.

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If you have an inspiring story or piece of wisdom that you’ve picked up through your experiences in the FIRST community, please reach out to us at and inquire about becoming a guest contributor for Inspire.

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