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Women in STEM: How Universities Can Fill The Gender Gap

By Laura Bridgestock

Updated February 21, 2021 Updated February 21, 2021

Sponsored by Concordia University

Despite widespread concerns about the number of women working in STEM fields, recruiting women to STEM programs at university isn’t as much of a struggle as you might assume. In Canada, for instance, the number of women enrolling to STEM courses is growing, with press releases published by the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto last year revealing record-high numbers of up to 30 percent.

While there are more and more women studying STEM subjects at university, very few of them end up working in STEM-related careers. Indeed, even though the number of women filling in university-level posts has risen to 65 percent since 1991, the proportion of women in scientific jobs requiring a college degree is still at 23 percent, according to official 2016 data. Only 12 percent of Canada’s engineers are women.

In light of these facts, what are the challenges women face when they decide to pursue a STEM education? And what can universities do to encourage more women to remain and thrive in STEM fields? 

We asked PhD student Bettina Forget and assistant professor Layial El-Hadi to weigh in on these questions.

The STEM gender brain drain

Gender bias is pervasive in STEM fields. Women who embark on careers in science often feel isolated, that they need to constantly prove themselves, and are required to fill traditionally female roles in labs and offices. Studies consistently show that these prejudices exist and are even more common for women of color.  

For instance, in a 2014 study endorsed by the University of California, Columbia University and Emory University, all of the sixty female scientists of color they interviewed reported encountering one or more pattern of gender bias at work, including “having to provide more evidence of competence than men in order to be seen as equally competent”, “walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent—or too masculine to be likable” and “gender bias triggered by motherhood”.

Layial El-Hadi, an assistant professor at the Centre for Engineering in Society at Concordia University and Program Director of the Graduate Certificate in Innovation Technology and Society, recognizes the issue. She notes that even if there are more women pursuing STEM degrees, they often leave their fields after graduation.

“There seems to be a disconnect. Women students might often be first of their class, but they remain hard to find when we look at the workforce.”

One recent survey found only 12 percent of full professors in STEM in Canada are female, providing students with few female mentors.

Forget, who just started her PhD in art education at Concordia University in Montreal, echoes the experience. She developed an interest in astronomy around 15 years ago, while she was working abroad. “I was struck at how male-dominated the amateur astronomy clubs were,” she recalls. “Parents would often push their daughters my way to talk to me.”

This underrepresentation is quite common in the scientific community. The doctoral student sees this as a fundamental problem. “It’s hard to become interested in a subject when you don’t have any role models to associate with.”

Are women being blocked from careers in STEM?

So, what’s turning women away? One issue is the unconscious bias recruiters often show in female applicants. One study found that science faculty members who were given student applications which were randomly assigned a male or female name felt the application made under a male name was stronger. Another study found that men and women were twice as likely to recruit a man for a role involving math, even if a female candidate possessed identical math skills. It’s no surprise some women would prefer to avoid battling this discrimination and seek employment elsewhere.

El-Hadi believes that globally, we are not moving as fast as we could, mainly because of one thing: mindset.

While her personal approach has been to “bulldoze through the barriers”, she also believes that women need to be more aware of their own power. “We have to learn accountability and ownership of our own success early on as we tackle prejudices against us”.

“The real solution only comes if we start building awareness from a young age – in boys and in girls – on the issues women face professionally and personally,” she adds.

What universities need to do to help 

To tackle these issues, many institutions are taking steps to hire more female STEM faculty members, something both Forget and El-Hadi agree is a step in the right direction- and on that front, intersectionality is key.

In 2016, the proportion of women in full-time engineering faculty posts in Canada was 14.9 percent, a 1.5 percent rise since 2012.

Although this is good news, there’s a long way to go before equality is reached. “There needs to be a serious conversation about the hiring process,” says El-Hadi. “Universities can lead the way by being more inclusive not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of diversity.”

Creating new interdisciplinary playing fields

Other than hiring more women, universities can combat gender-biased practices by creating new research playing fields. This can be achieved, notably, through innovative interdisciplinary approaches.

“Universities are great test beds,” says Forget. “Postgraduate studies encourage you to create projects where categories are dismantled. Labels become irrelevant, whether you are a physicist or a painter, the focus shifts to research and experimentation.”

Now, Forget has returned to her early interest in science and is using her doctoral project to look at how we can disrupt the stereotypes that stop women from entering the STEM fields by fusing art and science. She focuses on the use of collaborative spaces, such as makerspaces, to dissolve those categories.

She is also involved with the Convergence Initiative, which connects Concordia fine arts students with neuroscientists from McGill’s Brain Repair and Integrative Neuroscience Program in order to spark more exchanges between artists and scientists.

“There is still work to be done,” she concludes, “but institutions can facilitate it by helping us break down boundaries, be they rooted in gender or disciplinary stereotypes.”

Concordia University is a comprehensive university located in downtown Montreal, voted 2017 World’s Best Student City.

Image credit © Concordia University

This article was originally published in January 2018 . It was last updated in February 2021

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