Gender inequality in the sciences? It’s still very present in Canada.

In the last few decades, very little has changed for Canadian women in science, technology, engineering and math

Prof. Zabrina Brumme works with Ryan Danroth and Chantel Watts in a lab

Prof. Zabrina Brumme works with Ryan Danroth and Chantel Watts in a lab

Last week, Nobel laureate Tim Hunt made some foolish remarks to a group of scientists and journalists: “Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry.” Unsurprisingly, the comments were not well received, and within a week he had resigned from a number of prominent positions in the U.K.

Related: Why there are too few women in STEM

The comments triggered an international discussion about the status, treatment and experience of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). While we like to think that gender inequality in STEM is old-fashioned and that as a society we’ve made great advances in equal opportunities, the numbers don’t always tell the same tale.

The truth is, in Canada at least, very little has changed.

Still underrepresented

Despite an increase in women with STEM degrees, the percentage of women working in the fields has barely changed in almost 30 years. In 1987, 20 per cent of the STEM workforce was women. Today, it is 22 per cent.


Still underpaid

In 1997, women in STEM were paid 15 per cent less than their male coworkers. Things have improved, but on average they are still paid
7.5 per cent less today. Here’s how they fare in the different fields:



Gender inequality in the sciences? It’s still very present in Canada.

  1. The “problem” is one of choice. Attempts to bully young women into STEM courses have failed. Clearly a majority of females choose the no-math-no-science route to a degree. They should be free to do so as should males be free to choose their lines of study, STEM or otherwise.

    • You’ve just said women can’t do math….which is not true…but that cultural belief is what keeps women out of STEM. It’s a vicious circle.

      • Emily,

        it is not that women can’t do math….it is just that more men do math well, than do women. There are some brilliant women mathmeticians, but the reality is that there are more men capable of doing math at that level than women. The stats prove it out……and the fact that women (at least in my university experience) prefer to do courses that have titles like “womyn’s studies” or “Gender equality”…blah..blah..blah…and other such useless degrees, is one of choice.

        I know a lot of men who also can’t do math very well….but they tend to take History or English, or business admin..etc. At least they look for a degree that is actually useful.

        As for the women making less than men, the questions should be one of numbers. It should be one of effort and environment. If a woman works just as hard, and just as long as a man in the SAME job…then of course they should make the same (and they do). But if women want to work 6 hours less every week than her male counterpart in the same job, then she SHOULD make less money than he does. You get paid for your output…and if the output for women on average is less than that of men, then it is only fair they should make less.

        The entire fallacy of the argument can be summed up pretty easily whenever you hear these silly arguments about women making less than men.

        As an employer, if women were to be paid less than men for the same amount of work or output…then why would you ever hire men?

        Many women get paid less simply because they don’t provide the same amount of benefits to their employers. This could be due to child care / schedules, or the fact that many women prefer to spend more time with their families, or otherwise enjoy their lives.

        As for the “cultural belief” that women can’t do math is the reason they don’t apply in the same numbers to STEM studies…that’s just bogus. Women don’t apply for STEM studies for the same reason I wouldn’t apply for a gender studies course….I’m simply not interested.

        Sometimes the best answer is the obvious one.

        • For something to be true, it has to be universally true.

          Women in the rest of the world do math just fine….it’s only here….in our culture….that we believe women can’t do so.

          I know you think your degree in commerce is hot stuff….but it’s bean counting, not math….and certainly not an education.

          Perhaps you should have taken women’s studies….you would have learned about all the women scientists and mathematicians

          Of course 5 seconds on Google would also have enlightened you…..but you are too busy trying to prove how superior men are to women to even make that much of an effort.

          Luckily no one listens to you.

          • Emily,

            One of my University Math Professors was a woman; and she was much better at math that I will ever be. My point was that the majority of high-level math folks are men, and there is a reason for that. Men on average, are better at math that are women, and extremely high-level math is almost exclusively a male domain. The fact that you don’t like that reality…..is not my problem.

            As for women’s studies…umm…no thanks. If I wanted a degree in victimhood…no thanks. I’d rather study something productive and based upon reality. Besides, I don’t see many ads in the employment section just begging for folks with degrees in gender/women’s studies. The majority of the high paying jobs I see are looking for folks who understand banking, econonomics, and budget/resource analysis.

            As for the superior sex…ummm…no. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, and that is due to evolutionary biology. Men are better at spacial perception / math (hunting throwback) and women are better at communication and the more “nurturing” trades/professions.

            I’m sure stating that will set you off…but again, I don’t care. it’s true…deal with it.

        • Still haven’t googled eh?

          Sorry Jimmy but men and women are equally good at math, also spatial perception and communication, It’s only doofus cultural beliefs that hold women here back.

          Your beliefs are from the 50s….something daddy told you no doubt….but not realistic

          You can’t even tell the difference between job training and education.

      • No Emily, he didn’t say that. But you just proved that you can’t read. Maybe that’s why you don’t have the high-paying job you seem to feel you’re entitled to.

        • Steve,

          It will be of no use pointing out Emily’s numerous errors of comprehension, as well as basic logic. She is so full of herself, she doesn’t allow facts get in the way of what she truly belives.

          she’s just a bitter spinster living in subsidized housing on Government assistance. She likes to pretend she is a world traveller, however, based upon her posts you can see she just sits at home sucking the government teat; resenting the rest of us for providing for her. Her envy is well known on these boards.

  2. Nassim Taleb said this on Facebook:

    U.K. universities’ largest donor is Saudi Arabia (where women can’t drive and bloggers are whipped and jailed). They gladly take the money –unconditionally. But the administration of UCL takes it out on a defenseless 72 year old scientist who made a stupid locker room joke, and doesn’t represent any danger or potential profit. This is a combination of hypocrisy, cowardice and prostitution.

    Can’t say I disagree with it. Certainly if that university has even a passing interest in women’s equality, they should have been refusing donations from Saudi Arabia all along. Wanna bet that won’t happen?

    • Now it’s the fault of the Saudis? LOL

  3. Women, please go into STEM, then leave Canada for fair wages, lower taxes and don’t look back. Goes for men too. Fact is Canada doesn’t PAY STEM enough and taxes too much. It goes far beyond gender inequality. As the only people who do well in STEM are union and politically connected.

  4. There is great irony in an article about women in STEM fields that completely ignores the science about women in STEM fields. I will cite my references.

    First, the pay gap is not a “for equal work” gap; it is the difference between the raw average of male and female yearly incomes. When you compare field-for-field, hour-for-hour, aggregate years of experience, there is no pay gap in Canada [1] or the U.S. [2], particularly when you account for the ratio of “overwork” of more than 50 h/week [3]. The result is entirely due to different choices that men and women make, not something about being underpaid, as this article claims.

    Second, when you survey men and women as to why they choose different fields, hours, work experiences, you find that “women express a stronger preference than men for occupations that are more valuable to society”, meaning they weigh the perceived social value of the job higher than men and the wage lower than men for deciding of field of occupation [4], including even choice of college and university majors [5].

    While the “Standard Social Science Model” (SSSM) simply assumes — without evidence — that men and women are psychologically identical in principle, and therefore differences in outcomes (like choices in occupational fields) must be due to social forces, the empirical science tends to disagree.

    Multinational studies find “women have higher levels of well-being than men, with a few exceptions in low income countries” and “We conclude that differences in well-being across genders are affected by the same empirical and methodological factors that drive the paradoxes underlying income and well-being debates.” [6] That is, women feel better about their different life choices than men do. The implication is that women’s innate desires to a job that satisfies them drive their choices moreso than men, who appear to make choices less for happiness in the job and more for the wages (as above references).

    This implication is further demonstrated in the fact that “sex differences in personality traits are larger in prosperous, healthy, and egalitarian cultures in which women have more opportunities equal with those of men” [7]. The freer men and women are to choose to do what their heart desires, the bigger the differences in their choices.

    Further, as to the attraction to STEM fields of men vs women, the evidence is strong that men prefer “things” and women prefer “people” and social value. Put more scientifically, “The tendency of men to predominate in fields imposing high quantitative demands, high physical risk, and low social demands, and the tendency of women to be drawn to less quantitatively demanding fields, safer jobs, and jobs with a higher social content are, at least in part, artifacts of an evolutionary history that has left the human species with a sexually dimorphic mind. These differences are proximately mediated by sex hormones.” [8]

    The genetically-driven hormonal basis of interest is quite scientifically solid as well. lines, Baron-Cohen et al. [9] found that prenatal exposure of the brain to testosterone shifts interests away from people toward inanimate objects. The authors proposed that an extreme interest in inanimate objects may underlie autism, a predominantly male disorder. They tested their hypothesis by studying the occupations of the fathers of autistic children and found unusually high proportions of engineers and physicists. Other studies have indicated that brain exposure to testosterone contributes to masculine types of occupational choices [10, 11]. Baron-Cohen et al. also found that prenatal testosterone highly predicted whether the baby, when 1 day old, would gaze more at people or inanimate objects. This has been replicated with testosterone and androgen to also predict future career choices regardless of gender [12, 13]. That is, females with unusually high androgen tend to end up acting more like stereotypical boys in toy choices and careers like STEMs. (This is tested with congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a genetic condition in which the body produces high levels of the (male hormone) androgen.

    The discrimination explanation for lack of women in STEM fields just doesn’t play out in any statistic or cause you look at. Even within STEM, it’s not uniform. In 2010, women earned 23% of the doctorates in engineering, 53% in biological sciences, and 73% in psychology.

    When you look deeper, it gets even clearer. “Women were scarce among Ph.D. recipients in mining/mineral (0%), metallurgical (8%), and mechanical engineering (12%), but more heavily represented in bioengineering (39%), environmental health (46%), and textiles science and engineering (56%). In biology, women earned 44% of the PhDs in biochemistry but 81 percent of those in nutritional sciences. In psychology, women earned 43% of the degrees in physiological psychology and psychobiology but 78% of those in
    developmental and child psychology and 84% in school psychology.
    In the social sciences, women were “under-represented” in political science
    (41%) but “over-represented” in anthropology (59%) and sociology (62%). In the humanities, women earned only 28% of philosophy PhDs but
    80% of the PhDs in French language and literature” [14].

    How do you explain that in terms of “struggle” against discrimination. Do women enter colleges and universities knowing to this level of precision which sub-majors have future job prospects that are hostile to women and which aren’t? Where is this knowledge and how does it reach these women, and why can’t anybody find it, or women report on how it drives their decisions for sub-majors? Is there a secret conspiracy to tell this information to young women but keep it hidden to everybody, and erase it from their memories later? Is it simultaneously coincidental that these different sub-majors just happen to vary along the lines of the exact things that genetically-driven hormones predict that men and women will tend to chose, right down to the fuzziness between people and things in sub-categories of psychology?

    Could it be that these differences are actually innate and, like the science suggests, women are quite happy in those choices? What exactly is your “first principle” here? On what basis have you concluded that we don’t have equal opportunities? It appears you’ve only concluded that we don’t have equal outcomes. That’s parity, not equal opportunity. These aren’t the same things.

    [1] Carole Vincent, “Why Do Women Earn Less Than Men? A Synthesis of Findings from Canadian Microdata”, Canadian Research Data Network Synthesis Series, 2013.

    [2] U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2012”, October 2013.

    [3] Youngjoo Cha and Kim A. Weeden, “Overwork and the Slow Convergence in the Gender Gap in Wages”, American Sociological Review, June 2014, vol. 79, no. 3, 457-484.

    [4] Kristin J. Kleinjans, Karl Fritjof Krassel, and Anthony Dukes, “Occupational Prestige and the Gender Wage Gap”, 2011.

    [5] Maria Knoth Humlum et al., “An Economic Analysis of Identity and
    Career Choice”, Economic Inquiry, 2012, 50(1), 39-61.

    [6] Carol Graham and Soumya Chattopadhyay, “Gender and Well-Being Around the World”, The Brookings Institution, August 20, 2012.

    [7] Schmitt DP, Realo A, Voracek M, Allik J., “Why can’t a man be more like a woman? Sex differences in Big Five personality traits across 55 cultures.”, J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008 Jan;94(1):168-82

    [8] Browne, K. R. (2006), “Evolved sex differences and occupational segregation.” J. Organiz. Behav., 27: 143–162

    [9] Baron-Cohen, S. (2003) The essential difference: The truth
    about the male and female brain. New York: Basic Books

    [10] Dabbs, J.M., Jr., de La Rue, D. & Williams, P.M. (1990) Testosterone and occupational choice: actors, ministers, and other men. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 389: 1261-1265

    [11] White, R.E., Thornhill, S. & Hampson, E. (2006) Entrepreneurs and evolutionary biology: the relationship between testosterone and new venture creation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 100: 21-34.

    [12] Berenbaum, S. A., & Resnick, S. M. (2007). The seeds of career choices: Prenatal sex hormone effects on psychological sex differences. In S. J. Ceci & W. M. Williams (Eds.), Why Aren’t More Women in Science?(pp. 147-157). Washington DC: APA Books.

    [13] Paola Sapienza, Luigi Zingales and Dario Maestripier, “Gender differences in financial risk aversion and career choices are affected by testosterone”, PNAS, vol. 106 no. 36, 15268–15273, 2009.

    [14] Browne, Kingsley R., Biological Sex Differences in the Workplace: Reports of the End of Men are Greatly Exaggerated (As Are Claims of Women’s Continued Inequality) (2013). Boston University Law Review, Vol. 93:769, 2013; Wayne State University Law School Research Paper No. 2013-04

  5. Sources used in this article:
    I got most of my information from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey and from here: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-006-x/2013001/article/11874-eng.pdf

    I also read through this: http://www.nserc-crsng.gc.ca/_doc/Reports-Rapports/Women_Science_Engineering_e.pdf

    Out of interest: On June 11th the Standing Committee on the Status of Women tabled this report, “Women in skilled trades and science, technology, engineering and mathematics occupations”

    • Obviously, Journalism is not a STEM field.

      Ad Nausica, you need to shop that comment around to various websites and magazines- it’s a great piece.

    • Amanda,

      These are all great sources for statistics. I’ve only skimmed them but I don’t see any sections on causes, i.e., why women and men make the different choices they do. I don’t see anything that justifies claiming women are underpaid, or the main thesis of this article stating, “While we like to think that gender inequality in STEM is old-fashioned and that as a society we’ve made great advances in equal opportunities, the numbers don’t always tell the same tale.”

      Nothing in the statistics presented indicates that men and women do not have equal opportunity in STEM fields. It only shows different outcomes. Opportunities mean its there if you want to do it, not that people will chose to do it. If women want to be in STEM fields, what is stopping them? The science is pretty clear it’s innate preferences, but none of that shows up in any of these analyses or articles. There seems to be a presumption that any difference from parity means some sort of inequality of opportunity without looking at other explanations that are far more plausible and backed by science.

      In fact, the data does seem to suggest that STEM fields are not equal opportunity because women have an advantage over men. Women appear to have a 2-to-1 preference for hiring into tenure track academic jobs [1]. There are many scholarships exclusively for women, but none exclusively for men [2,3].

      Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge booster of women in STEM fields, and anybody for that matter. To step away from the science and data for a second, I think science and engineering is the coolest thing ever. I’ve worked in robotics, I’ve worked in Mission Control in Houston, I’ve been on two space shuttles (unfortunately on the ground), I work with unmanned aerial vehicles, I’ve worked with 3D imaging, machine vision systems, and intelligent algorithms. I’ve had astronauts call me at home, worked with DARPA in the U.S., worked on international standards, and supported shuttle missions with a laptop and cell phone from my living room at 2 AM in my underwear while my girlfriend (now wife) was sleeping upstairs. Earlier in my career my tech colleagues and I worked hard (>75h/week sometimes) and played hard (rock climbing, skiing, glider piloting, skydiving in a wind-tunnel). Damn cool. If people don’t think it’s damn cool then they don’t know what they’re talking about. If anybody feels pushed out of STEM because of perceived biases against them, I’m the first one there to help. I’ve advised women thinking of leaving the field; I’ve worked with great women engineers. Three of my six bosses have been women engineers.

      But not everybody agrees it’s for them. My wife hates engineering and tech talk. Not because she’s incapable. She’s an ER nurse. She and her colleagues do more “nerd” technical jargon than any engineer I’ve heard. It’s not that she wants an unexciting job. At one shift change she was triaging a man the police brought in who resisted and they pinned him face down on the floor in the ER entryway. As my wife laid on the floor beside him taking his vital signs, the next shift strolled by with their lunch bags and said “Good morning” as they stepped by. In my work we’d have evacuated the building; in her’s it’s just typical shift change. They say if you save one life then they call you a hero; if you save 1000 lives they call you a nurse. She’s jumped on patients to pump away doing manual CPR, and climbed onto a stretcher to sit with a dying man in his last minutes so that he wouldn’t be alone and afraid because his family couldn’t be there. She’s heroically tried to save a drowned 2 year old, just like our toddlers at home, only to lose him and then turn around and look his hysterical parents in the eye while consoling them for their tragic loss.

      I might sit in front of a computer most of the day with emails, reports, documents, or writing analysis code, and occasionally in labs or at tech demonstrations, and these days lots of program discussions and business cases. I take my work home with me. I might send emails in the middle of the night, and worry about tasks tomorrow. My wife leaves her job at work because she can’t do it at home and doesn’t know what tomorrow might bring.

      I couldn’t do her job. I don’t mean I couldn’t pass the courses or learn the terms. I mean it’s not in my nature to do any of that. Her daily job is dealing with people, with pain, with tragedy, and joy; to empathize and sympathize, and not let it stop you from doing your job. I can’t do that. It sounds like a traumatic, horrible job. But she loves it as much as I love my cool work. We’re different.

      We’re not different because she’s turned off by sexism in STEM fields, or because my true goal is to be a male nurse but I’m afraid I’ll be teased. Our interests, motivations, and dislikes are fundamentally different to the core of our beings, right down to our hobbies, TV shows we watch, and books we read. We’re equal, but different.

      If this same pattern is statistically representative across the sexes, where is the problem? While I think the science is clear it is innate, even if it isn’t then where is the problem. If men and women are truly happy in their choices, then what basis doesn’t anybody have to call it a problem?

      Related to this, I would say that articles like this, and particularly the reaction to Tim Hunt, do a lot more harm than good for women in STEM. It reminds me of Naomi Wolf’s book, The Beauty Myth, where she started off describing the women’s liberation movement and how some men would claim that women were too fragile, frail, emotional, and confused to survive in the work force, and she correctly described that as sexist. Wolf then spent the rest of the book providing examples of how women were too fragile, frail, emotional, and confused in the work force. For example, she described how a police woman couldn’t understand how looking “too pretty” instead of authoritative was an issue, and how a receptionist couldn’t understand how looking “too sloppy” instead of professional was an issue. “Should women look authoritative or pretty”, she’d ask, as if women can’t understand the different needs of appearance in different jobs.

      The same applies with Tim Hunt. The media, including social media, portray this sort of statement as driving women out of science, as if women are so fragile that some guy they never heard of said something in Korea and now they’re going to change their life interests. Seriously? What a poor opinion of women. I think any woman interested in STEM fields won’t give a damn what Tim Hunt has to say, bad joke or not.

      Moreover, what’s with the active effort to ensure people don’t understand it was a self-deprecating joke, albeit a very poorly thought out one? Wouldn’t the clarification of the full statement he made, in context, and even the reference to how he met his wife (in a lab), and his follow-on after “but seriously …” where he described the importance of women in STEM, … wouldn’t that serve to tell women things aren’t as bad as they appeared a few days ago, that it’s ok to go into STEM fields now, that they can come out from their “safe spaces” that these critics seem to think women need. Instead they seem to want women to be afraid of STEM by maximizing the apparent sexism of Dr. Hunt. Why?

      Then there’s the chilling effect. If a Nobel Laureate like Dr. Hunt can be forced to resign over a misinterpreted statement, despite his honest intent and apology for his bad judgment, then it can happen to any of us. So now everybody in STEM will just keep their mouth shuts, walk on eggshells, and definitely keep the hell away from women just in case they say something that might be misinterpreted, resulting in them losing their job. It makes the sexes suspicious of each other, untrusting, and exclusionary.

      This sort of high risk environment for talking is exactly what drives people away from fields. It’s exactly why I never want to be in politics. If a poorly chosen or easily misinterpreted phrase can get you fired, it’s best to say nothing.

      This is all madness to me. Women can choose what they want. Around the world there is a well-being gap where women are happier than men, particularly with their careers and life choices. Yet some people seem to feel then need, for unexplained reasons, to push for women to make different choices. If that’s to be a topic for social change, I think we need to step back to first principles and ask just what the goals of society should be. Is a society that forces women to choose careers that make them less happy (but greater income) a better society than one that gives them the opportunity to choose whatever they want, regardless of what the statistics come out as? If so, what is the basis for claiming it is better?

      [1] Wendy M. Williams and Stephen J. Ceci, (2015) “National hiring experiments reveal 2:1 faculty preference for women on STEM tenure track”, PNAS, vol. 112, no. 17, 5360–5365.

      [2] Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology (SCWST), list of scholarships: http://www.scwist.ca/programs-and-events/scholarships/

      [3] List of Scholarships and Bursaries in Canada (External), University of Western Ontario: https://www.edu.uwo.ca/graduate-education/documents/List%20of%20Qualifying%20Scholarships%20and%20Bursaries%20in%20Canada-EXTERNAL-JULY%202013.pdf

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