During a recent studying session in Trottier, my friend—a female engineering student—overheard two male students heatedly critiquing the call for women in engineering. The two students asserted that female engineers are “taking jobs away from the men who need to provide for families.”
While most students today would agree that this mindset is archaic, gender disparity sadly persists across science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, and contributes to an unwelcoming atmosphere toward women pursuing STEM careers. In Canada, women represent only 33 per cent of STEM university graduates, a statistic that is still lower in engineering and mathematics-based degrees. At McGill, less than one third of engineering students are female. Bringing women into male-dominated STEM fields is crucial for rectifying the gender wage gap. However, methods for addressing the lack of women in STEM need to go beyond meeting short-term quotas. Institutions must also aim to reform the fields in the long-run, by tackling gender bias and dismantling patriarchal norms so that women are valued and respected both today, and in the future.
A report published on March 8 by the Canada-U.S. Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders details methods for boosting the proportion of women in STEM careers. Its recommendations include developing outreach programs for high school students and increasing female role models—such as female professors—in STEM faculties to make women feel more welcome. The council also advises universities to increase support within STEM faculties by developing networks for women that boost the chances of retaining female students. McGill’s Scientista is an example of this kind of group: The campus organization supports and empowers women in STEM by connecting them with fellow female students pursuing degrees in similar fields.
The council’s prescriptions appear to be effective. The University of Toronto, for example, attributes its unusual 40 per cent female engineering class ratio to its new pre-university outreach program. The program supports incoming female students using strategies including targeted personal follow-ups with female applicants and incentivizing scholarships. The council’s recommendations are tangible, evidently effective ways to boost female representation in STEM. Given the persisting gender gap in fields like engineering and computer science at McGill, the university administration should consider implementing strategies from the report—such as high school outreach—as interim solutions for boosting female representation.
However, the report’s recommendations fail to provide long-term plans for tackling the underlying gender bias in STEM that repeatedly deters women from these areas of study. Professional fulfillment comes partly from feeling valued in one’s place of work, and if women are repeatedly underestimated or unwelcome in STEM, those fields will not be as attractive to them. Changing this will require reworking fundamental gender perceptions; pouring women into STEM careers to fill a gender quota is not a sustainable way to solve the issue. If women are going to thrive in these fields, the fields themselves must change from the inside out.
Gender bias in STEM arises from socialization processes that promote the notion that men and women have distinct roles they’re supposed to fill. These traditional norms present STEM fields as male domains, thereby discouraging women from participating. While there are plenty of successful women in STEM, internal biases remain prevalent and continue to hamper female participation.
Ismael Mourifié, associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto, recognizes this issue and recommends that governments disrupt gendered career perceptions by investing in childhood education intervention. He points out that when girls are repeatedly shown that STEM roles are primarily for men, they may feel inadequate or deterred from those fields. Moreover, gender bias influences how men think of and treat women—including underestimating or resenting them in what they see as male fields (think: Trottier guys). If people are taught from a young age to see STEM as gender-neutral, females are less likely to be deterred from pursuing those professions, and males in STEM are more likely to respect their female colleagues.
While Mourifié’s suggestions don’t necessarily offer a quick fix for institutions that want to solve the lack of women in their STEM faculties, he raises an important point. Gender bias remains the root of the gender gap in STEM fields. To eliminate the gap, perceptions of women in STEM need to be disrupted. In addition to short-term methods for meeting gender quotas, institutions must also consider how to change the perception of women in STEM over time. Only then will they fully resolve the deeper issues contributing to this gender disparity.