Understanding and addressing the STEM gender imbalance

Women are largely underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields, according to the latest National Household Survey results released by Statistics Canada.

Despite making up the majority of university graduates in 2011, women composed just 39 percent of STEM graduates between the ages of 25 to 34. The dearth of women was particularly prominent in the areas of engineering, mathematics and computer science. Fewer than one-quarter (23 percent) of engineering graduates aged 25 to 34 were female, as were three in 10 mathematics and computer science graduates.

Data presented in a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Chairs for Women in Science paper painted a similar picture. According to NSERC, fewer than 22 percent of people employed in STEM fields are female, despite the fact that women make up nearly half (48 percent) of the Canadian workforce.

Understanding the underlying disparity
The reasons behind women’s underrepresentation in the STEM fields are manifold. Popular opinion states that STEM skills are simply more prevalent among men, but the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an internationally recognized measure of academic performance, suggests otherwise. Stats Canada found that female high school students with high PISA scores (defined as those that reached the fourth proficiency level or above) were less likely to choose a program in the STEM fields at university than their male counterparts.

“This suggests that the gender gap in STEM-related programs is due to other factors,” wrote Darcy Hango, a researcher in Stats Canada’s Centre for Education Statistics.

So, what else is deterring women from working toward careers in STEM professions? Hango suggested that these may include a lack of interest in STEM fields, as well as concerns about balancing personal and professional responsibilities.

“We need a societal shift,” said Dr. Tamara Franz-Odendaal, Chair for Women in Science and Engineering at Mount Saint Vincent University, as quoted in the NSERC paper. “We need parents, grandparents, teachers and peers to be more supportive of women choosing careers in science, engineering and technology, as well as trades. These are excellent careers that will enable women to become economically independent in their futures.”

Professional barriers
Fostering enthusiasm for STEM careers among women is only half the battle. When women emerge from university with their newly minted STEM degrees, they face further challenges – this time in the professional world. For instance, Dr. Annemieke Farenhorst of the University of Manitoba cited a 2012 study that exposed gender discrimination within the hiring process among scientists at academic institutions.

Female STEM graduates then come up against more barriers in the workplace. Franz-Odendaal called for the professional environment to be more supportive of women, as mentorship initiatives and other programs that focus on moving female workers into leadership positions are typically few and far between.

“The work environment for these women is often so male-dominated and entrenched (due to historical reasons) that the very definition of desirable attributes is a perception issue that is hard to change,” said Dr. Catherine Mavriplis, Pratt & Whitney Canada Chair for Women in Science and Engineering at the University of Ottawa, according to NSERC.

Mavriplis went on to note that companies tend to overlook the soft skills exhibited by many women, both in terms of ground-level engineering staffing and management recruitment, despite the fact that these attributes can have an extremely positive professional impact. After a few years, women may feel frustrated or disillusioned by these circumstances, which can cause them to abandon the STEM field altogether.

Supporting women in STEM
When asked to consider working practices and opportunities for women in STEM across the country’s provinces, Farenhorst, Franz-Odendaal and Mavriplis said they did not think there was a geographical disparity between areas.

“I believe women in different regions in Canada are experiencing the same challenges,” Farenhorst suggested.

To unite current and aspiring female professionals, women’s leadership advocate TechGirls Canada launched its Strength in Numbers campaign in December of last year. Using crowd​ sourced online submissions, the project maps Canadian organizations that support women.

“The sheer number of organizations working to make a positive change in women’s representation in STEM fields is astounding, but they’re not always easy to find,” noted TGC co-founder Saadia Muzaffar in a statement.

By curating the list, TGC aims to raise the visibility of female professionals in STEM fields. Initiatives like Strength in Numbers can connect these women not only with resources that can bolster their careers.

Ultimately, boosting the recruitment and retention of women in STEM starts with encouragement at the youth level and runs all the way through to workplace policies and approaches.