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I studied psychology during my undergrad (in the arts stream—you can major in it as a science, too), a field which, along with many other non-science, math and tech degrees, is female-dominated. This was noticeable when I looked at my psych classes, where female students often outnumbered male ones. My observation aligns with the stats: women make up almost 64 percent of first-year university students enrolled in non-STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and computer science programs) programs in Canada. (This ratio is visible in countries such as Sri Lanka and Argentina, too.)
In STEM fields, however, the opposite is true. Of first-year post-secondary STEM students in Canada, only 44 percent are women. Although we’ve seen improvement in this percentage over the past 20 years or so, the underrepresentation of women in STEM remains evident and has been well-documented in Canada in recent years. In 2016, just 23 percent of science and technology workers were women. This dismal number exacerbates the gender pay gap because, in Canada, careers in these fields are among the highest-paying.
So what’s with the discrepancy? To find out, I examined a recently released Statistics Canada study, which longitudinally evaluates the graduation rates of the country’s STEM students from 2010 to 2015, and talked to a few female STEM students myself.
According to Statistics Canada, 44 percent of first-year STEM students in undergraduate programs in Canada in 2010 were women, and of them, 66 percent persisted as either students or graduates in STEM in 2015. The study found that women were equally or more likely than men to persist in their initial field of study, and, overall, they completed undergraduate STEM degrees more quickly than men. (Forty-seven percent of women, as opposed to 32 percent of men, graduated within four years of STEM study.)
From 2010 to 2015, women constituted the majority of university student bodies in biological sciences and general/integrated sciences, making up 60 percent of the group in each. In addition, the report found that women who began their studies in STEM were less likely than men to leave their undergraduate studies altogether. (However, it does not provide any reasons as to why this may be.)
Although, according to Statistics Canada, the majority of STEM-studying women stick with their post-secondary programs, they are less likely than men to work in a STEM field after graduation. (Only 54 percent of women with a bachelor’s degree in computer science went on to work in the field, for instance, compared to 74 percent of men.) In addition, women’s representation is alarmingly low in both engineering (19 percent) and computer sciences (16 percent) in first year.
The report compares women’s representation in STEM to a pipeline with leaks: women are being lost in various points on the road or pipeline to a career in STEM, whether that be during high school or sometime before entering the workforce. Most notably, more men than women are enrolling in post-secondary STEM programs after high school. The study lists the following other reasons for “leaks”: loss of interest in the curriculum, feelings of isolation due to being outnumbered by male peers or unequal treatment from professors, or not seeing a career in STEM as a way to improve the lives of themselves or others.
Stella Oh, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student at UBC, notices that she is often the only woman in her classes. “There are times when I wish there were more women, so I could share things that I would normally not share with my guy friends,” she says.
Oh decided to go into engineering after joining a robotics club in high school and speaking to a mechanical engineer—the parent of another student—who became a mentor. She says that she enjoys the building, designing and troubleshooting that comes along with engineering.
Asked about how it feels to be within the minority in her program, she shrugs it off. At school, she says, it’s not a big deal. At her mechanical engineering co-op, however, she is the only woman on the design team. “On my first day, the ladies from other teams were actually surprised that a woman was hired in my role because, apparently, it’s very rare,” Oh explains.
Sabrina Ge is also studying at UBC, and will soon be entering her last year of a combined major in psychology and microbiology.
Although she can’t recall any explicit moments of discrimination she has faced as a woman in STEM, Ge believes that such issues may be worse in work settings than they are in school ones. “I think discrimination against women is usually not direct. It’s this automatic assumption that you are not technically inclined, that you wouldn’t understand,” she says. “And, sometimes, you’re not brought into the conversation and there’s this very slight condescension.”
I think discrimination against women is usually not direct. It’s this automatic assumption that you are not technically inclined, that you wouldn’t understand,” she says. “And sometimes you’re not brought into the conversation, and there’s this very slight condescension.
Rachel Mazac recently completed a master’s in integrated studies in land and food systems. She worries that patriarchal structures pose an additional challenge to women in STEM.
“In general, my faculty was really great,” she says. “But I have heard of friends in other faculties that have male supervisors who don’t respect family time or the time they’re taking off for their children. Things like that make up a toxic academic culture that’s led by a masculine, patriarchal mindset.”
Despite these realities, Oh, Ge and Mazac say that, for the most part, they’ve had extremely positive experiences during their studies, and could think of few moments when they’ve been subject to prejudice. Both Oh and Ge say that improvements in women’s representation in STEM could be due to increasing women’s empowerment, which is helping women better recognize when they are being discriminated against and how this can be combated.
However, all three students believe that there is a long road ahead if we want to increase the percentage of women working in STEM. They all agreed that there needs to be more opportunities for women to work or study in STEM fields, so that they can motivate and inspire young girls.
“Long story short, we need more women in STEM connecting with students in the classroom, and showing them all the career opportunities in the world that are available to them,” says Mazac.