Why there are still far too few women in STEM

Women are enrolling in science and engineering in record numbers, but rarely win awards and often leave the field. What’s happening?

Photograph by Jimmy Jeong

July Illes and Dr. Catherine Anderson resigned from the selection committee for the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame because all the finalists were men. (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

Women are being forced out of careers in science and engineering, not because they can’t juggle babies and Bunsen burners, but because they’re discouraged at every turn by thousands of small, sexist moments that make them feel unwelcome and unworthy. In other words, it’s “death by a thousand cuts,” which is how Reddit interim CEO Ellen Pao, who just lost a major sex-discrimination lawsuit against her former employer, described it in an interview with Katie Couric last week. “You’re just constantly trying to get this equal playing field, but being taken out of it step by step,” Pao explained.

Up until now, research on the dearth of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has mostly focused on the pipeline issue: namely, the more women you get into undergraduate classes, the more will come out the other end. That is underlined by recent press releases by both the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto bragging that their first-year engineering classes have record-high female enrolment of 30 per cent in the case of U of T and 29 per cent at UBC. But step back and examine the landscape through a wider lens and you will see national enrolment is only 19 per cent on average, and that just 12 per cent of the country’s 280,000 professional engineers are women. Even if they do get a job, the number of women in leadership roles is just as low. For example, at universities, only 12 per cent of full professors in STEM are female, according to 2009 data from Statistics Canada; they are more likely to be working as contract faculty or as assistant professors.

When it comes to recognizing a body of work with an award or a prize, the numbers are just as discouraging. Only 11 of 60 members of the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame are women (18 per cent); 22 out of 186 prizes worth more than $200,000 were given to women by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) between 2004-14 (12 per cent); and 23 out of 202 people named to the Royal Society of Canada’s Academy of Sciences in the past four years were female (11 per cent).

Many people still buy into the theory that most women forgo a career in STEM because they can’t, or won’t, juggle home and work. But unlike previous experimental studies done in labs, a recent U.S. survey of 557 female scientists in the workplace—60 of whom were interviewed in depth—confirms the existence of a career pipeline that steadily leaks qualified female candidates due to inherent and persistent biases.

“It’s harder to be a woman in science,” says Joan C. Williams, a distinguished professor of law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law and co-author of the January report called “Double jeopardy.” “That’s a pretty strong statement considering how hard it is to be a top woman in other fields.”

Of the women she and two colleagues surveyed, 34 per cent felt pressure to take on dead-end “feminine” roles like scheduling meetings and fetching coffee, and 53 per cent of women surveyed reported backlash for displaying “masculine” traits such as being assertive in meetings. twitter-birdtweet this

“Women walk a tightrope. Either they’re seen as the office mother or dutiful daughter who’s there to put men first, or they’re seen as a bitch with a personality problem with whom nobody wants to work,” says Williams, the director and founder of UC’s Center for WorkLife Law. The study also found 64 per cent of the women had to provide more evidence of their capabilities than male colleagues in order to receive the same recognition; 64 per cent had their commitment to work questioned and opportunities dry up after they had a baby; and 35 per cent reported being sexually harassed at work at least once.

The situation is even more dire for visible minorities. The Canadian Hall of Fame appears to have zero, and when asked if it could confirm whether any of its members were people of colour, spokesman Olivier Bouffard said: “Who is white? How far back does someone need to go to be considered not white?” Sixty per cent of Latinas in Williams’s survey reported a backlash for expressing anger compared with 50 per cent of white women, and 77 per cent of black women had to provide more evidence of their competence than male counterparts compared with 63 per cent of white women.

The women who do tough it out are consistently passed over for recognition, and a number of scientists are raising concerns about the lack of female winners of top awards and what it says about women in science in Canada. “Some try to justify this disparity by claiming there aren’t enough women to win major prizes. The truth is we have brilliant female scientists in Canada who are being passed over all the time,” says Alex Bond, an adjunct professor in the school of environment and sustainability at the University of Saskatchewan who did the research on the gender of NSERC award winners. He is particularly concerned about NSERC’s Hertzberg medal, which is given to Canada’s top scientist or engineer each year “for sustained excellence and overall influence of research work” and comes with a $1-million purse. “Since the award’s inception in 1991, there hasn’t been a woman who has won the Hertzberg medal, which is disgraceful,” says Bond.

Last week UBC neuroethicist Judy Illes and Dr. Catherine Anderson, a clinical instructor in the same school’s faculty of medicine, resigned from the selection committee for the Canadian Science and Engineering Hall of Fame because, for the second year in a row, all of the finalists were men. In the 24 years since the Hall of Fame was created, 11 out of its 60 inductees have been women. Individuals are nominated by others and, according to Anderson, women’s names are less likely to be put forward precisely because of these inherent biases. “Men are more likely to nominate men, so if we actually want to recognize the best of the best, we need to actively encourage women to apply,” she says.

Illes is one of 461 women out of 1,650 (28 per cent) who hold prestigious Canada Research Chairs, which come with $500,000 to $1.4 million dollars in research funding. In 2010, the federal government named 19 men to the highest tier, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs, which come with a $10-million prize. Following a public outcry over the lack of women, then-federal industry minister Tony Clement commissioned a report by the Canadian Council of Academics. It found female academics at all levels earned less than men, and that many promotion and tenure processes lacked exit and re-entry procedures that allow women who take time off to raise children to be considered.

Like so many reports and studies on the issue of gender inequality, it’s unclear what, if any, impact the report had. There are now 22 Canada Excellence Research Chairs: 21 men and one woman. While reports on how to tackle systemic biases pile up, female scientists continue to experience subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, discrimination. “I literally said I am not going to have children in one of my postdoc interviews. I wasn’t married and involved with anyone, but as soon as I said it, everyone relaxed,” says Anderson.

Illes, Anderson and engineer Jeanette Southwood, the third woman on the committee of seven, have asked the museum to reopen nominations so they can be advertised more widely in an effort to attract more females. Although Alex Benay, CEO of the Canada Science and Technology Museum, which houses the Hall of Fame, said Illes’s concerns were “previously stated and valid,” the Hall of Fame will not reopen nominations.

There are some signs of institutional changes. In October 2014 the Canada Research Chair program published new guidelines for reference letters that provided tips on how to ensure unconscious biases don’t undermine female candidates. Referees are encouraged to keep feedback specific to the position, and avoid adjectives that characterize women as maternal or agreeable. But that doesn’t change the fact that women are paid less to do the same work, asked to do clerical work even if they are qualified professionally, seen as disagreeable if they speak up at meetings, and talked over when they do speak up.

Aerin Jacob, a postdoctoral fellow in geography at the University of Victoria who has been a leading voice on the issue of gender bias in academia for years, is frustrated by the lack of progress in Canada: “We’ve known basically what to do about it for decades: diversify hiring practices, increase mentorship, identify and reduce explicit and implicit biases, address harassment, have daycares on campus for students and faculty.”

Maybe we should try tying compliance with money, like they do with the Athena SWAN Charter in the U.K., a voluntary system where universities are given ratings of bronze, silver, or gold based on their efforts to promote gender equality and racial diversity. In 2011, the U.K.’s chief medical officer announced that the National Institute for Health Research would reserve major funding for schools with a silver or gold rank. Universities got on board pretty quickly, and the program has been so successful in the sciences that this month they’re rolling it out to arts, humanities, business and law faculties.

Unfortunately, even when national governments support systemic change, bias is nearly impossible to eradicate. Maintaining an Athena SWAN award requires a significant amount of paperwork. In 80 per cent of cases, that burden fell on female scientists, and in 49 per cent of cases they described it as excessive.

“The expectation that women take on social and administrative tasks, away from their core work, is another structural barrier and any institutional initiatives need to be very careful not to actually make that worse,” says Marie-Claire Shanahan, the research chair in science education at the University of Calgary. “Bullying, aggression and everyday experiences that erode confidence are extremely powerful.”

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Why there are still far too few women in STEM

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  2. Women’s Lib only began in the 60’s, although there were certainly Suffragettes before that.

    Western male culture has been around for thousands of years so it takes awhile to change it…..but we are moving forward.

    STEM is the last wall….and bit by bit we are kicking it down.

  3. One way they said, and I still think 35% or so of the 100-1000 most powerful people should be women, is that women are picky about chosing a man that gives them good sex. And for a man, at the end of it all, any woman’s will do the trick…maybe the women are waiting for the microbes to ask them to study them?
    …was reading “Optical magnetic imaging of living cells”. For the sensor aspects. Taking a break from biosensor network brainstorming after they pointed out my blunder. They said (I assume in the context of a future modern biolab) it is easy enough to prevent bioterror. But though biosecurity is now primitive, biosafety is even more so primitive. If you study vaccines you also get pandemics.
    I think they are saying bioresearchers should have internal biosensors in their bodies (in concert with effective quarantine).
    For STEM, at least right-handed women have a visuo-spatial disadvantage. Probably throwing spears at animals helped more than did counting the numbers of tubers and seeds and stuff.

  4. Great article on an important topic. And refreshing to see a Canadian focus – too often we read this sort of thing about American academics and smugly assume things are better in Canada.

    For readers wanting to find out more about the rates of women receiving top science awards in Canada, here are some links backing up the facts in this story:

    Rate of women elected as fellows in the academy of science for The Royal Society of Canada (compiled by me): https://storify.com/jayfitzsimmons/the-royal-society-of-men-in-canada-rate-of-women-e

    Rate of top NSERC prizes going to Canadian women in science (compiled by Dr. Alex Bond): https://labandfield.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/2014-major-nserc-prizes-continue-to-under-represent-women/

    Personally, I got out of academia and life is wonderful on the other side. Even though I’m a man, I have little patience for the stereotypical male attitudes that pervade academia: bullying, competition instead of cooperation, and uppity arrogance. Change must come, but not without resistance from those who benefit from the current system (i.e., the old white dudes on top).

  5. I’m the good cop. They said: “It should be closer to 20…” and I ignored. They called Roddenberry their friend. I think I heard a hidden human msg that he could reply but not ask any questions that (mattered). When I asked what humans were better than me they said Jesus and I could guess the other. Without knowing the context, and with their warning to be careful what I post, I waited. Yesterday they said they thought I could figure it out that compassion is even more important than reason, and that reason without compassion is worse than no reason. I assume that lack of Greek influence and the marauding 750AD central Asia culture (the opposite of North America’s centre over recent history) is why Mohammed didn’t make the cut. They told me a Scottish man stuck his dick in a genius’s daughter in my family tree. Aww, there was no love.
    It would’ve been easy to misinterpret their last help, and they said it is hard to prevent (non-biolab) threats without enacting tyranny.
    I’m annoyed the Catholic church edited Marlowe’s humour. They like English as they can improvise. I heard them on a rap/rhythm-n-blues station and in the Italian instruments of a car commercial. When Ovid was translated their were already 9 times more words than Latin. While I read it a bird complained I hadn’t changed yet. Later I hyperventilated a bit after a sodium diet and tight clothes over my dirty clothes. I was fine and warm wearing loose clean clothes.
    “Here is here. There, is there. There is here. Here is there. Here. There: everywhere!”
    I’d love to have a non-resisting smart mature middle class wife but she’d get bored of my studying and probably think I’m ugly…

    • Their 23% quota might mean something different or 3 things: also the age I apparently became prejudiced in my personal life, and the % of women who aren’t mothers by some definition…they like Hillary or they want me to endorse her. I’m leaning towards the precedent setting cdn…
      (Insert pronoun) said Revelations was written by a human who thought Jesus wanted to destroy Earth in the name of God. In their (or his) opinion, the worst Book is it as legitimizes anarchy with the words of a man who had no contact with them (I think Jeremiah is worst as preaches bad gvmt and bad farming).
      Animal bigger than Blue Whale: classified.
      Their Marine ecosystems were more resistant.
      (2x-4x) more arable land than ours if irrigated under (their) pre-industrial conditions (helped with question phraseology). He said Obama also wants a better world but isn’t smart enough (I assume to use lots of tachyons). An event like nuke winter in the aftermath is all they will say for now (I may have assumed it).
      He finds a lake view way more beautiful than a good song. Name is nearly unpronounceable. Has skipped something like a stone (is classified but answered).
      Been mountain climbing? Classified.
      He loves archaeology of other worlds (I assume other than our two). Is personally not a sports fan. He likes tragedy the best of the 3. Comedy came last. He likes Greek mythology over Celtic (I like Celtic probably for the forests). He likes Buddhism over N.American Indian Mythologies.
      He said the American time machine isn’t as good as the cdn one. And AI jumbled the time-lines. But, if it is us in the future it introduces more and harder paradoxes. It was all a metaphor.
      8 years ago they told me they were the American Organization for/of the Global Mitigation of Existential Risks. What they really meant is Americans will embrace my (best?) beliefs.

  6. …I guess the little things add up. MB would have a woman Premier but she barely lost a coup attempt after not running for leadership to spend more time with her family.
    “The Best of Both Worlds” is a warning that it could be a trap. IDK if women want to be dealt into this game….WARNING: nuclear war details:
    I wonder if they are ripping off Hollywood. I could be wrong about Gene being able to reply; his friends would know and one of them knows everything. They told me yesterday I could ask (some?) classified questions but I’m busy trying to get to my thesii papers so I can dyve into some EEG papers. I’m happy they volunteered: their cities are advanced enough (they don’t look like ours).
    They had parallels with our Neanderthals. They liked killing eachother I wouldn’t understand. They attacked the other species with a few nukes. The other species assassinated their leadership. They tried to make immediate peace but…the other species was using missiles tipped with WMDs. The other species’s pilot were everywhere. So I assume they nuked everywhere. Then it got cold….
    They admitted they didn’t know what a nuclear winter was at the time. They said (about?) 100 years later when they launched a Sputnik-like rocket, they started thinking maybe it was a good thing the war happened. It sounds like a Predator 3 copyright violation and someone should consider phoning the Sept 8 1977 phone number so Interpol can bring them to justice.
    They had parallels to our Neaderthals.

  7. “What’s happening?”

    I can tell you what is happening. Women may be able to go through engineering or science, but they don’t excel because they don’t have the same interest in mechanics or electronics or structures or physics. They do it for a job. But how many young women do you know who built model airplanes, go carts, radios or computers when they were young, and who really want to know how they work? It is something you have to have in your blood.

    • Well, as an engineer, the mother of two daughters, and an aunt to a niece, I would suggest that you don’t know girls if you think that we are a rare breed who grew up interested in how things worked, building things, and exploring science.

  8. Here’s food for thought by this very liberal bias news outlet.
    Out of your eleven writers listed only two are woman. Well that’s not looking so equal is it?
    Perhaps it’s always easier to point the finger than set the example.

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