According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, employment within STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is expected to grow by 17.0% from 2008 to 2018, compared to the 9.8% growth rate of non-STEM related jobs[i]. STEM-related careers have become synonymous with innovation, technological advances, start-up ventures and careers of the future. Additionally, with the advent of STEM type careers, there has been the introduction of developing efficient products and user-friendly apps, cost-effective therapeutic options, STEM has been associated with developing solutions to problems that the greater public faces. However, within this developing field, there remains a troubling statistic: gender disparity within STEM-related jobs and the lack of opportunity for women to advance within their careers.
Based on “Women in Science[ii]” the interactive report from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, women remain underrepresented in research-based careers in every region of the world; only 30% of researchers are women. The interactive report further points out that 1 in 5 countries have “achieved gender parity” in science-related careers where 45-55% of researchers are women. The report also indicates that more women are entering STEM-related undergraduate programs in Canadian universities however few are progressing into the workforce be it academically or industry wise. Statistics point out that while more women are registering in undergraduate education, few pursue careers within their chosen field of education, particularly STEM-related careers. This reality has been observed within Canadian universities, this past year record-high female enrollment was seen in first-year engineering programs at both the University of Toronto (30%) and University of British Columbia (29%), and yet only 12% of Canada’s 280,000 professional engineers are women[iii].
The questions begin here; if record high numbers of women are enrolling into STEM-related programs why is it not translating into the professional workforce? What are the obstacles and barriers to seeing higher numbers of females in STEM? This occurrence, losing women at different stages of the STEM career pathway, has been dubbed the “leaky pipeline effect” the reasoning as to why this effect occurs has to be fully determined. One particular explanation described by Dasgupta and Stout’s paper “Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences” notes that woman face various barriers at different stages of their lives (i.e. professional, societal and structural) that prevent them from further pursuing a STEM-related career[iv].
Unsurprisingly this occurrence has also been witnessed within academic settings which include principal investigator and senior researcher roles. With regards to professorship at Canadian universities, less than 25% of professorship positions, in STEM-related programs, were filled by women[v]. Recently, neuroethicist Judy Illes and clinical instructor Dr. Catherine Anderson, both from the University of British Columbia, resigned from the selection committee for the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame. Their resignations were due to the fact that, for the second year in a row, all the finalists selected were male. So why do we not see more women celebrated for their continuous efforts in the sciences and engineering fields? Why are we will still seeing gender disparity when high numbers of females are enrolling into STEM related programs? And what exactly are the reasons that keep women from progressing into more senior roles? What are these barriers and how can they be addressed?
As it appears, countless biases persist within the realm of the professional sphere; for example, a report published by Joan C Williams titled “Double Jeopardy? An empirical study with implications for the debates over implicit bias and intersectionality[vi]” indicates that 43% of women surveyed within STEM related fields felt pressure to take up “feminine roles,” and 53% of women experienced a negative reaction when displaying assertive, dominant, or “masculine” traits. The issue goes even deeper when considering visible female minorities; statistics show female minorities feeling the need to provide further evidence of competency.
This is not an issue unique to STEM-related careers; gender disparity within the workforce can be seen across all fields. The issue stems from the fact that women are not able to progress within their respective fields due to perceived female roles within society (i.e. raising a family); as such, women may find it difficult to manage both a work and a family life. It could also be that women are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of progression and lack of opportunity with STEM-related fields. It could be possible that opportunities for women are narrow and difficult to expand upon as such many decide to leave. If we are interested in seeing gender equality within the workforce, we need to review the underlying societal barriers that have kept women from moving forward. Research needs to be done to identify the underlying causes of the shortage of female professionals within STEM-related careers, which may, in turn, increase diversity within the workforce and close the gender gap. If women are interested and are enrolling in STEM-related degree programs, then removing barriers and retaining them within the field is a necessary objective.
[i] D. Langdon, G. McKittrick, D. Beede, B. Khan and M. Doms. “STEM: Good Jobs Now and for the Future” US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration. 2011
[ii] UNESCO Institute for Statistics “Women in Science”.
[iii] Z. Schwartz. “Why there are still far too few women in STEM?” Maclean’s. 2015
[iv] N. Dasgupta and J. Stout. “Girls and Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics- STEMing the tide and broadening participation in STEM careers.” Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2014
[v] S. Sivajothy. “Feeling like a outlier”. The McGill Daily. 2015
[vi] JC. Williams. “Double Jeopardy? An empirical study with implications for the debates over implicit bias and intersectionality” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender. 2014