The Future of Women in STEM: A Multifaceted Approach
Katie Bieber is an IT Recruitment Consultant in Roevin’s Edmonton branch. She brings over three years of professional experience to her role and in Edmonton’s tech sector. Katie focuses on clients in the IT realm and has developed exceptional connections and a network of candidates in the STEM field. She works with many passionate and pioneering candidates who overcome impressive hurdles as the only women applying for a role or being the only women on a team. Their perseverance and success have inspired her own passion for promoting women in the tech arena.
With March being National Engineering Month – coupled with International Women’s Day falling on March 8th — Adecco is continuing our look at the underrepresentation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.
The topic has become an increasingly important point of discussion. Various government bodies, reports, studies, organizations, mission statements and think tanks have explored it in recent years. The problem has almost unanimous support — both from diversity advocates and the STEM sector itself. In 2010, Natural Sciences and Engineer Research Council of Canada (NSERC) released an 84-page report on Women in Science and Engineering in Canada which explored the “under-representation of women in the various fields of science and engineering” and noted that this long-recognized problem was “of concern to the…NSERC”.
Are women really underrepresented in STEM?
According to the 2011 National Household Survey, women accounted for only 39% of university graduates aged 25-34 with a STEM degree, compared with 66% of university graduates in non-STEM programs. Moreover, the percentage of women working in the fields has barely changed in 30 years. In 1987, 20% of the STEM workforce were women. Today, it is still only 22%.
And as NSERC pointed out in their report, “Virtually all countries in the world, to varying levels, have fewer women than men studying in the NSE” (natural sciences and engineering).
Why do women avoid STEM?
NSERC notes that the academic literature looking at the reasons is somewhat inconclusive and varied, but I believe the issue comes down to:
- Women’s self-perceptions shaped by explicit and implicit sexism
- Too few female role models in these fields that women can identify with and receive mentorship from
As NSERC points out, the “barriers to women’s progress…are systemic…To diversify the STEM fields we must take a hard look at the stereotypes and biases that still pervade our culture.”
So what can be done?
With these factors being recognized, unpacking systemic and societal bias must come from all facets. No one can eradicate it alone. Changes must come from governments, corporations, organizations, institutions, parents and educators in order to improve the perception that women have towards STEM and their relationships to it.
Parents, Teachers & Media
Perceptions and attitudes towards math and science get formed long before Grade 1, so we must ensure that our children become interested in these important fields from infancy.
Socialization plays a key role, and we must encourage girls to engage in spatial and mathematical reasoning early. In our recent blog, Réjeanne Aimey recounts how her brother’s toys were mechanical and had pre-determined motion while hers required imagination. NSERC suggested a similar shift in their report. “If girls grow up in an environment that enhances their success in science and math with spatial skills training, they are more likely to develop their skills as well as their confidence and consider a future in a STEM field.”
We also have to combat the misconceptions that young girls develop surrounding their own abilities and fellow women in the field. The stereotypes that women are not born analytical or are unable to develop and fine tune their mathematical skills have long been proven untrue. The best way to combat this stigma is to recognize women for their achievements — past and present. Women such as Marie Curie, Dr. Mary Lowe Good, Dr. Margaret Oakley Dayhoff and Ada Lovelace (to name a few), have paved the way for women to achieve important scientific feats and should become equally recognizable household names as their male counterparts. We must also recognize and admit more outstanding women to the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. As NSERC recommends, “Spread the word about girls’ and women’s achievements in math and science…Teach girls that intellectual skills, including spatial skills, are acquired,” not ingrained.
I believe that making it the norm for women to consider STEM studies at an early age, and not make the conversation about traditionally feminine occupations or expectations, is a step in the right direction to ending the stigma.
While Canada is taking a step forward in getting women into STEM programs — with the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto announcing a record-high female enrollment in engineering programs (30% at UofT and 29% at UBC) — this “progression” is unfortunately not as significant as it seems. According to Macleans, female enrollment in STEM fields is only 19% nationally. Further, only 12% of the country’s 280,000 professional engineers are women. “Even if they do get a job,” cautions Macleans, “the number of women in leadership roles is just as low. For example, at universities, only 12 percent of full professors in STEM are female.” Moreover, according to the 2012 study from the Council of Canadian Academies, women earn less than men across all levels of academia — even full professors — and have to combat a lack of flexible exit and re-entry points for promotions and tenure when they take time off to have children.
It is also incredibly frustrating for women to realize that many of the honours and awards within the STEM fields consistently overlook fully qualified and talented women. Women are passed over for these accolades because men in leadership roles are more likely to nominate other men. The same Macleans articles profiles neuroethicist Judy Illes and clinical instructor Dr. Catherine Anderson — both from UBC — who resigned from the selection committee for the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame because, “for the second year in a row, all of the finalists were men.” Better and fairer access to these programs, resources and sources of recognition has been identified as critical to having women consider entering and staying in STEM pursuits.
Another systemic problem boils down to women becoming discouraged once they have graduated and acquired a job within their field of study. In addition to earning less than men in STEM, barriers pop up in the workplace in the form of “small, sexist moments that make them feel unwelcome and unworthy” which are doubly insulting for these highly qualified women who have clearly worked so hard to get there and earned their spot.
Fortunately, more and more employers are recognizing discriminatory hiring practices and workplace atmospheres, and are looking at ways to encourage greater female participation in STEM.
For example, Microsoft has launched a new movement called #MakeWhatsNext, which focusses on bringing awareness to the issues and causes of women dropping out of or losing interest in STEM. They have also identified that access to computer science education is an important barrier that girls are facing, so have started the YouthSpark program to provide free computer science learning opportunities and resources.
Other organizations have also taken on the baton. L’Oréal Canada, for example, offers fellowships to women in Life Sciences to promote research and mentorship. Pratt & Whitney sponsors the NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering with the goal of advancing women and girls in science and engineering.
These large corporations have the ability to lead the change in attitude towards this persisting issue, help move society away from gender bias, and take very important steps towards equality in STEM industries.
What is Adecco doing?
We recognize our responsibility as being one of the world’s largest employers and were proud to learn that the Great Place to Work Institute selected Adecco Canada as the 27th Best Workplace for Women in 2016.
We provide thousands and thousands of women across Canada with employment opportunities in medical, scientific, engineering, technology and IT fields. The various opportunities are listed on our Roevin.ca and Adecco.com websites.
Further, our Way to Work program provides young leaders with paid internship and mentorship opportunities with our recruiters, leaders and clients – many of them within STEM industries. Our “Women in Leadership” edition of Lead Magazine addressed these poignant issues with employment lawyers, economists and business leaders.
For Adecco and Roevin, promoting diverse talent is not just a “best practice”; it is our standard practice and commitment. Our Canadian Diversity Committee is dedicated to building affiliations to better serve the communities we work in while driving employment equity and diversity — including for women, parents, and those re-entering the workplace.
I hope that every talented woman and girl in STEM had a meaningful and inspiring International Women’s Day and will continue to celebrate National Engineering Month all month long!