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The faces of the COVID-19 fight across Canada are female. Here’s why that matters

The faces of the COVID-19 fight across Canada are female. Here’s why that matters
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At a time when Canadians are thirsty for credible information about all things COVID-19, a group of female chief medical officers has been thrust into the national spotlight.

With their unflappable demeanours and personal style, some experts say their new-found notoriety will inspire a new wave of female students to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and medicine.

In just a few weeks, the public health chiefs have become celebrities, garnering widespread public praise for their reassuring, fact-based delivery of COVID-19 information.

“They’re all over the media and we’re stuck in our homes, tuned into television, and we’re seeing these women in these high-profile roles executing brilliantly under pressure,” said Christine Allen, scientist and professor at the University of Toronto’s Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. “It would be wonderful if more females decide to choose a career in science because they see these women.”

The public admiration has inspired songs , T-shirts bearing their images and quirky social media fan accounts, including one celebrating the chic scarves worn by Toronto’s chief medical officer, Dr. Eileen de Villa.

De Villa isn’t the only one lighting up social media with fashion trends. Sales skyrocketed for Smoking Lily, a Canadian handcrafted goods brand, after Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer, donned one of its periodic-table dresses during a COVID-19 news conference.

“This woman has worked her way up in the medical field to become the CMO of Alberta,” said Smoking Lily founder Trish Tacoma. “It’s pretty awesome.”

When Allen isn’t glued to de Villa’s reassuring guidance via television broadcasts she’s following her frequent Twitter updates.

“It instills confidence and gives me peace of mind,” she said.

The scientists are pushing aside athletes and other entertainers for the public’s attention as citizens try to navigate these unprecedented times.

Toronto family physician Dr. Iris Gorfinkel says women, including the chief medical officers we’re now idolizing, have knocked down tremendous barriers to sit at the top of their fields.

“In my class, about one out of five were women,” said Gorfinkel, who graduated medical school in 1989. “We were a huge minority. A few years ago over 50 per cent (of medical students) became women.”

Gorfinkel said it’s statistically proven that countries and corporations that embrace the advancement of women tend to be more productive and successful economically.

It’s about time powerful women in STEM and medicine get the praise they deserve, added Imogen Coe, the founding dean of Ryerson University’s faculty of science.

“I hope we’re moving to a kind of society where we recognize that we have scientists and clinicians who are celebrities,” said the professor of chemistry and biology. “We worship a lot of athletes and television personalities, but some of our biggest stars are scientists and medical doctors, and we’re seeing them in action right now.”

Coe, who has been a staunch advocate of equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM, said she hopes the concept of female leadership becomes normalized for boys and men as much as it does for girls: “that women are doing this work, are really good at it and we need to see more women in these leadership positions.”
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