Commentary, Opinion

To close the gender gap, STEM fields need to change from the inside out

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.

While there are plenty of successful women in STEM, internal biases remain prevalent and continue to hamper female participation.

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.

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  1. PeacePromoter

    Re: “taking jobs away from the men who need to provide for families.”

    I haven’t heard this in many years. I hate to say it but I think they writer fabricated this. In any case, two male students do not make policy.

    Women enter STEM slowly for the same reasons men enter child-caring jobs slowly.

    But there are many reasons women don’t earn as much as men.

    Many of America’s most sophisticated women choose to earn less than their male counterparts:

    “Female physicians worked about 5 hours fewer per week than their male counterparts through age 54….”

    “In 2011, 22% of male physicians and 44% of female physicians worked less than full time, up from 7% of men and 29% of women from Cejka’s 2005 survey.”

    “Hanson noted that 34 percent of women pursuing graduate degrees are in an education field, where the median salary is less than $70,000, while that field attracts only 13 percent of men in grad school. By contrast, men are over-represented in fields like internet technology and business, where median earnings are over $100,000.”

    “…[O]nly 35 percent of women who have earned MBAs after getting a bachelor’s degree from a top school are working full time.” It “is not surprising that women are not showing up more often in corporations’ top ranks.”

    “In general, across all college majors, women are four times more likely than men to become social workers and 35 times more likely to become preschool or kindergarten teachers. And though women make up almost 60 percent of undergraduate students on campuses nationwide, they are also 30 percent likelier not to be working after graduation.”

    “Compared to men, women view professional advancement as equally attainable, but less desirable”

    “Women Dominate College Majors That Lead to Lower-Paying Work” -Harvard Business Review, April 19, 2017

    “A study of students graduating from Carnegie Mellon found that 57% of males negotiated for a higher starting salary than had been offered, compared to just 7% of females. As a result, starting salaries of men were 7.6% (almost $4,000) higher than those of women.”–in-assessing-the-gender-wage-gap-in-medicine_b_6566762.html

    Men help create the gender wage gap by choosing jobs that pay enough to support themselves, a wife, and children — something women rarely do.

    See other reasons the wage gap hasn’t closed after thousands of measures over many decades:

    “Salary Secrecy — Discrimination Against Women?”

    • Saint Emerance

      I’m not sure what you think those links show, but they don’t show two populations that are equally affected by existing incentives and impediments, let alone grapple with what those incentives and impediments might be. Presented like this, they seem to be predicated on the premise that the system developed by and for men is an ideal determinant of good and bad outsomes. That’s an enormous question to have left begging.

      • PeacePromoter

        The systems of education and employment that were NOT developed by and for men.

        Thinking otherwise seems to have led you to making a very vague point. Can you clarify by being more direct and concrete?

        • Saint Emerance

          Not if you’re going to start by denying history. Universities were developed for men. The professions were by-and-large de facto or de jure reserved for men. The vast bulk of the modern economy was predicated on men being the bread-earners. There is precisely zero chance you don’t know that already, so I am now operating on the assumption you are not arguing in good faith. The active barriers that kept women out have by and large been removed, but that doesn’t mean that any of the underlying premises of what are desirable and non-desirable workplace incentives and outcomes have.
          And I was very direct, though I regret that you did not understand. I will try to put it in more simple terms: Your case is premised on the unsupported assumptions that the “system” (whether educational or labor market) that we have now is a neutral standard. That is something that needs to be demonstrated for any of your links to be meaningful. As I said: begging the question.

          • Show me proof “the system” now is NOT a neutral standard, and I’ll show you what you’re denying.

            BTW, the same forces that kept women out of the world of work are the same forces that still keep men out of the world of children–daycare, etc.

          • Not my case to make.

      • PeacePromoter

        I have to accept the fact that you are a liberal who will perpetuate the oppressed-female/privileged male notion no matter what.

        Do you support that view? If so, please list American women’s oppressions and men’s privileges. I will shred them.

        • Saint Emerance

          “Make an argument on the terms I decide, and I will hypothetically beat you.” Sure you will, friend. Sure you will. How about this: I will abide by my policy of not defending positions other people choose for me, and you can use the time we both save to start planning a parade in honour of your hypothetical victory?
          I will note that is odd to claim something about me to be a fact, and then ask if it’s true. It’s the sort of choice that is entirely consistent with a disregard for the need to argue from established premises, as I flagged above.

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