Fall 2021

Women and STEM

It’s a story that women the world over are tired of telling: 

The gender gap continues to favour men at the expense of women—and careers in STEM (science, engineering, technology, and math) are no exception to this unfortunate rule. 

And, with the projected need for STEM workers moving into the future, it’s time for Canada to encourage women and people of diverse backgrounds to enter the field. 

Two cautionary tales

Despite ongoing efforts to draw people’s attention to the disparity between men in STEM versus women (men: 75%; women: 25%), headway to bridge the gap has been painfully slow. Perhaps these cautionary tales will help shed some light on why the gap exists: 

The Farah Alibay Story

After young Farah Alibay watched the movie Apollo 13, she knew she wanted to work for NASA someday. She was just eight years old when she made up her mind. The daughter of immigrant parents who settled in a small town in Quebec, Alibay had her work cut out for her. Despite an excellent work ethic and exceptional grades, her guidance counsellor encouraged her to pursue a path other than engineering because the profession was male dominated and, according to the counsellor, Alibay would get lost in the shuffle. 

Farah Alibay ignored this advice and doubled down on her NASA bet, eventually working her way into the space program, and landing a job with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. In 2021, Alibay was on a team of systems engineers who operated the Perseverance Rover after the Mars 2020 mission landed on the red planet. While Alibay is to be lauded for her success, one must wonder, what would have happened had she taken the advice to give up on her dreams while she was in high school? 

A study from Yale

In 2012, Yale University conducted a study examining gender bias in university hiring practices. They created a situation where male and female science professors were asked to assess a job application for a lab manager job for recent graduate student candidates and make their recommendations. Half the professors were given an application with a male name on it and the other half were given an application with the name of a female. Other than the names, the applications were identical. Both the male and female professors consistently ranked the male candidate higher than the female candidate even though their qualifications were identical. They also showed a willingness to pay the male applicant more money and to step forward to mentor the male candidate. 

Bias working against women

Both stories reveal the role of institutional and societal bias in leading women away from STEM. In the case of Farah Alibay, the counsellor nearly pushed one of Canada’s leading engineers away from a stellar career with NASA. Alibay, in an act of determination and will, rejected the advice and overcame the obstacles in her path to be part of the team that allowed the Perseverance Rover to tour Mars, providing valuable data to the scientific community back here on Earth. The Yale study not only speaks to the bias that exists in hiring practices, but it also suggests a reason why women do not apply for STEM positions—particularly in leadership. Why apply for certain jobs when you know the system is stacked against you? How do you control the unconscious bias of those doing the hiring? How do you overcome your own unconscious bias that, ingrained from a young age, tells you that women are not suited for STEM?

The times are changing

The good news is that change is on the horizon. In an address to the Gender Summit in Montreal, Dr. Mona Nemer, Canada’s Chief Science Advisor, spoke of the hurdles she has dealt with in her career, both as a woman and an immigrant from Lebanon, and put forward a three-point plan for change. According to Dr. Nemer, if Canada hopes to address the STEM gap for women, these steps should be taken: 

  • We need to change the way we think. Decisions on who gets into STEM programs cannot follow the same metrics we used when the male-dominated model was built generations ago. For example, some STEM candidates might not be able to get into certain programs because their CV lacks volunteer and leadership experience—often missing because the applicant has had to work to earn money to fund their education. A change that acknowledges the diverse backgrounds of applicants—both culturally and economically—would help women and racialized people enter the STEM field.* 
  • Change needs to be intentional. Dr. Nemer says, “Increasing the number and impact of women and other members of underrepresented groups in STEM requires concerted efforts of our entire society—including governments, scientific organizations, research granting agencies and educational institutions.” In other words, intentional systemic change needs to be initiated across the board.
  • Mentorship and role models matter. There is no shortage of evidence that demonstrates that, when women and girls have role models and mentorship from fellow women, STEM inclusion rates go up dramatically. Therefore, the engineering sector is promoting the goal of 30 by 30, with women representing 30% of engineers in Canada by 2030. Experts believe having 30% of women engineers will represent a tipping point that will cause the numbers to surge upward once the goal is achieved. 

*In her address to the Gender Summit, Dr. Nemer makes the following point regarding a changing mindset when it comes to addressing the view of women in society: “What we project matters. And we must make sure that our policies, procedures and approaches support the development and promotion of role models in all areas of STEM. By the way—lumping maternity and family leave with sick leave in our policies may not be ideal: After all, maternity is not a disease.”

Meanwhile the American Association of University Women (aauw.org) believes this five-step plan could get the job done: 

  1. Instill a mindset of confidence. Parents, teachers and guidance counsellors are encouraged to dispense with the myth that female students are not suited for STEM. There is simply no data to support this. Instead, stakeholders need to actively promote and encourage female students to pursue STEM. 
  2. Prioritize STEM for female students from pre-school through high school. A plan needs to be set in place for female students from when they are very young to when they graduate from high school. These students need to be specifically targeted to pursue STEM studies with programming that helps them reach their potential. 
  3. Encourage women to study STEM in post-secondary. In Canada, 34% of STEM students are women even though women make up 50% of the population. This number will improve if female students are afforded more encouragement and opportunities to pursue STEM.
  4. Focus on retaining women in STEM studies. While 34% of women make up enrolment in STEM programs, less than 25% pursue a STEM career. Colleges and universities should examine whether their programs are contributing to this drop or if they can find ways to encourage women to stay in STEM.
  5. Urge STEM companies to recruit, hire and promote women. This is a big one: a primary reason for women ending their pursuit of a STEM career is the lack of female role models in the field, and the view that their careers will be limited because of their gender. 

How can high school counsellors help?

With public discourse ramping up when it comes to women in STEM, different organizations are making sure the plans promoted by people like Dr. Mona Nemer and organizations like the American Association of University Women are put into action. For example, the Society of Canadian Women in Science and Technology1 and Innovating Canada.2

have been passionately advocating for women in STEM. The government of Canada is also actively promoting the role of women in STEM (see Canadian STEM Femmes3). Meanwhile various colleges and universities have been promoting programs to get female students involved in STEM. Standouts include STEM for Girls at the University of Waterloo4 and Women in Science and Engineering at the University of Calgary.5 Guidance counsellors who simple query women in STEM Canada in a search engine will be able to access a plethora of programs that direct their students to programs of study and a career in STEM.

It appears that the change that has been so long coming is gradually taking shape. As Canadian society moves from a call to inclusion and diversity to action on that front, the workforce will change shape and reflect who we are as a collective. Women will no doubt be at the forefront of this change. 

By: Sean Dolan

1 https://scwist.ca/
2 https://www.innovatingcanada.ca/campaigns/women-in-stem-2020/#
3 https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/063.nsf/eng/h_97413.html
4 https://uwaterloo.ca/stem-opportunities-girls/
5 https://www.uofcwise.com/