Close your eyes and imagine a mathematician. Or an engineer. Or a physicist. If your imagined figure is male, well, that’s no surprise. Many people believe math and the sciences are the domain of men, a place where women won’t be found or simply don’t belong.
But if you stop to think about that last sentence, you’ll recognize why it’s time to question this belief. Although women have made tremendous strides in fields such as law and medicine, women’s participation in natural and applied sciences has been limited. The result is that, today, women are dramatically under-represented in STEM careers. Across Alberta—and across Canada—universities, governments and a variety of other agencies are turning to girls as agents of change.
STEM refers to science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It encompasses both pure research and numerous applied fields. Employment in STEM is important because the STEM fields have been the source of innovation and economic growth for decades—think about your smart phone, your entertainment devices and your home’s environmental systems for examples. There’s a growing need for workers in these fields, and these jobs tend to be stable and well paid. In fact, in 2012, the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee identified a so-called STEM premium—a valuable economic incentive—“that is persistent and has grown over time,” despite sluggishness and even declines in other sectors of the economy. So STEM jobs are desirable jobs—literally the jobs of the future.
Women, however, don’t show up to work in these fields nearly as often as men do. According to a document published by Statistics Canada in March 2017, only “one-quarter of those employed in professional occupations in natural and applied sciences are women.” The document continues,
“It is clear that women are under-represented by a sizable margin,” particularly in engineering and computer and information systems.
This discrepancy in participation is often described as a “pipeline problem.” That means there aren’t enough girls taking the right courses in high school to lead them to the right programs in postsecondary study to place them in STEM careers after they graduate. But the pipeline metaphor misrepresents what’s happening. According to Statistics Canada, the majority of people graduating from university are women, yet only 23 percent of graduates from engineering,
and only 30 percent of graduates from math and computer sciences, are women. And this outcome has nothing to do with women’s academic ability. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 results, published in December 2016, Canadian girls and boys rank tenth in mathematics and fourth in science among the world’s OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries.
For women, the pipeline is allegedly “leaky,” meaning that many girls and young women leave the STEM path prematurely, before they arrive at careers—and far more often than men do. According to Mohamed El Daly, Acting Director, Member Services for the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta (APEGA), the reason for women’s leaving is deeply entrenched attitudes. He notes, “A change is coming; it will take time. We’re trying to change a culture.”
Cultural attitudes are the centre of the problem. Statistics Canada observes that
“the gender difference in the selection of a STEM program at university is due to other, unobserved, factors that go beyond academic achievement, parental interactions and influence, and immigration status.”
The reality is that girls and young women studying science and math encounter serious resistance, and not only from boys and young men. Parents, teachers and other significant figures in children’s lives often believe that boys are more capable than girls in math and science courses, and their communication and actions may consciously or unconsciously reflect that belief. Mohamed El Daly observes that girls start becoming self-conscious about their participation in science and math as early as Grade 3.
Girls and women studying these subjects frequently encounter strongly negative messages like “Girls aren’t smart enough for STEM” and “Women don’t belong in the lab/field/profession.” What many girls hear is “Keep out.” It’s not just the social perception that these fields are “men’s work” but the implication that girls and women who pursue them are unfeminine and unattractive—a message no one wants to receive. Facing such hostility, relatively few women stick with these careers.
The answer, however, isn’t that girls and women (and members of other under-represented groups) need to be tougher. The answer is changing the exclusionary practices that keep people out. Representation plays a big role in that change.
In addition to receiving negative messages about their place in STEM, girls may not see themselves represented in the field. In its “Strategy for a Sustainable Profession,” Engineers Canada explicitly calls for a larger commitment to diversity, which means including more women as well as more Indigenous Canadians and more internationally trained workers. According to data supplied by university engineering programs across Canada, women’s enrollment in computer engineering, software engineering and mechanical engineering hovers around 11 percent. This is not only a Canadian problem. American data from 2016 shows only 11.1 percent of physicists and astronomers, 10.7 percent of electrical or computer engineers and 7.99 percent of mechanical engineers were women. When women are so under-represented in these fields, it’s tough for girls to imagine a place for themselves there.
Thus, one of the most important steps women already working in STEM can take to encourage the generation following behind them is to be visible. Dr. Melissa Hills, a professor of Biological Sciences at MacEwan University, and Dr. Torah Kachur, an Edmonton-based self-proclaimed freelance scientist, provide excellent role models for girls and young women through their teaching, public communication and leadership. Similarly, as leaders in one of Alberta’s most economically important sectors, Jane Tink, P.Eng., the incoming president of APEGA, and Connie Parenteau, P.Eng., APEGA’s past president, signal that women can compete and succeed as engineers. In fact, APEGA intentionally balances its public presence to ensure its representatives reflect the realities of today’s Canada. This is not inconsequential.
Another big factor in changing cultural attitudes around STEM involves inoculating girls against toxic social messages. Girls need specific encouragement so they don’t lose their early interest in science and math as they grow into adolescence and young adulthood. In Alberta, some excellent work is happening, much of it featuring women in STEM as role models and mentors.
One of the most influential programs is WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology), a collaboration between the University of Alberta and various industries and government departments. The overarching goal of WISEST is to “increase the diversity of voices represented in science, engineering and technology.” WISEST’s programming ranges from events for students in Grade 6 to support for women early in their STEM careers, with a particular emphasis on students in high school.
Through the Faculty of Engineering, the University of Alberta is also host to the GEM Club (Girls, Engineering and Mentorship), which gives girls access to fun and inclusive engineering and science experiences. The Faculty of Engineering also hosts the Girls Coding Club, in which girls learn specific computer concepts as well as coding; the Club won a Google RISE award in 2014. Both programs are offered to girls in grades 3 through 5 and grades 6 through 9, and bursaries are available so that a girl’s access to these opportunities is not limited by her ability to afford them. These programs are extremely popular. Similar clubs and programs, affiliated with university
engineering programs, operate across Canada.
Although much of the attention in STEM conversations is directed at university-bound students, institutions like NAIT and SAIT, with their technological, applied focus, also offer STEM career paths and career stepping-stones and offer female-friendly programming. For instance, NAIT’s Women in Technology and Trades (WITT) initiative reaches out to girls and women through a variety of events, including the Gender Inclusivity in the Workplace Conference held in March 2017, monthly Lunch and Learn sessions on topics relevant to female students and the annual GETT (Girls Exploring Trades and Technology) Conference for high school girls. Such activities connect girls to accomplished, groundbreaking women for networking and mentorship.
More broadly, awareness-raising activities—such as the Government of Canada’s launch of a website aimed at building girls’ interest in STEM careers and the United Nations’ declaration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, 2017—open up the conversation to a wider public. We need this awareness. As a society, we’re not talking about this issue, despite that it affects our daughters, our sisters, our nieces, our neighbours.
Women’s more equal participation in STEM fields produces not only individual benefits but also a resounding social good, and it starts with girls. This good emerges from women’s standpoint: women’s unique perspective on the way things are because of their specific location in the world. According to standpoint theory, having a different perspective on how the world operates is a strength, not a weakness. If humans are going to tackle the immense scientific and technological challenges we face in the coming century—protecting the quality of our air and our water, responding to global climate change, feeding billions more people—we will need all the good thinking we can find. As UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said in her official message commemorating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, “Humanity cannot afford to ignore half of its creative genius.”
More representative workplaces—workplaces that include more women, Indigenous Canadians and people of colour—will help bring about a fairer, more equitable society. Through our everyday actions we can help create this change.
In October 2016 the Pew Research Center, an American social-science research organization, identified factors that led scientists to their fields. The encouragement of mentors, teachers and professors was one key factor; the other was a love of and curiosity about science or nature that was kindled in childhood and persisted into adulthood. These findings suggest how important it is for women already working in STEM fields—including women academics—to encourage girls and young women.
Tools for Change, an initiative to improve the retention of women in STEM fields, reports that several specific factors, including an obligation that women achieve much more to prove themselves and severe complications associated with becoming a mother, make STEM employment hostile to women (these factors are amplified for Indigenous women and women of colour). So while we must encourage girls to move into STEM careers, we must also improve conditions so that women stay in these careers.
APEGA’s Mohamed El Daly notes that many STEM outreach activities emphasize individualism and competition, which tend to motivate boys. Girls tend to be more engaged when science and engineering problems are posed as matters of community well-being. There’s nothing wrong with connecting STEM fields to fashion, cosmetics, food and other topics popular with girls—provided we respect that these topics are only part of a whole, complex person.
Girls’ and women’s under-participation in STEM is not due to a lack of interest, and certainly not due to a lack of ability. It is a reflection of stubborn attitudes and obstacles (something you may have run across on social media described as “institutional sexism”). If we acknowledge and talk about the barriers women face in STEM, we can change them. But if we ignore this reality, girls and woman may actually lose ground. t8n
Many agencies encourage girls to pursue STEM careers. Here are a few websites to start your exploration.
STEM-Themed Books for Girls & Young Women