Where are the Women in STEM?

Ever wondered what it is like to be a female science student?

Millie Close—the first female president of the Carleton Science Student Society—would say one of the first things you notice is the gender disparity.

“In math classes or in chemistry classes—those sort of harder sciences—which make up a lot of my courses, there’s quite a few more male students than female students,” she said. 

Close has been involved with the Carleton Science Student Society as since starting at Carleton University in 2016. She was elected as president in 2019, before starting her fourth year of study.

“As part of my role as president, I attend the chairs and directors meetings for the dean’s office, and at those meetings there’s usually only three or four women compared to eight to 10 men.”

Carleton Science Student Society president Millie Close stands next to the entrance to her office. The society is responsible for hosting events for Carleton science students while overseeing the distribution of lab equipment. Photo by Pascale Malenfant on Nov. 18, 2019.

Women represent only a fraction of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries. Only 39 per cent of graduates from STEM-related programs are women, according to the Canada Museum of Science and Technology.

 

Canadian Women in STEM: Meaning in Numbers

Graphic by Jack Baines.

While the reason women seem to be pushed out of science remains up for debate, one female researcher suggests the implicit biases about women’s STEM-related capabilities—and how to counter it.

“Our brains take shortcuts when trying to understand the information they receive, and in order to take these shortcuts, they feed off of attitudes or stereotypes that have been embedded in us by society—so we’re not even really aware of this kind of bias,”  said Catherine Hill, former vice-president of research at the American Association of University Women. 

According to Hill’s study “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics”, stereotypes revolving around women’s STEM capabilities affect their ability to enter these fields.

“People think women are competent, but they tend not to think that they’re geniuses,” she said. “In a field that’s so genius-obsessed, [women are] less likely to be offered jobs, less likely to be encouraged to go into the harder sciences—physics, computing, that sort of thing—and are less likely to even want to try, starting as early as high school, since they often have implicit bias against themselves.”

 

Science Faculty Members’ Perceptions of Ability: John Vs. Jennifer

One of the most prominent studies highlighting how implicit bias affects women in STEM, dubbed the “John Versus Jennifer Report” by Yale University, had 100 science faculty members at universities across North America evaluate one of two students’ resumes—John’s or Jennifer’s—with identical qualifications. The above graph demonstrates the faculty members’ perceptions regarding each individual’s capabilities in the workplace. Data courtesy of Yale University.

This bias against women’s abilities—something Julie Lefebvre, director general of the National Research Council, said she has experienced her entire life—can result in unfair pressure placed on women to excel in the workplace.

 

As director general of the National Research Council, Lefebvre is responsible for overseeing all operations at the council’s headquarters, located at 100 Sussex Drive. She is one of the 20 per cent of women who make up the council’s executive staff. Photo by Pascale Malenfant on Nov. 24, 2019.

“I’ve worked in labs doing theoretical physics research, and steered into science management—and because of the area of science I’ve chosen, I’ve always been in the gender minority,” she said. “I’ve been lucky enough not to allow [implicit bias] to distract me or hold me back, but I know that statistically, those perceptions about women exist, and there are times where I have had to do way more work to demonstrate that I am capable to my male colleagues.”

 

Lefebvre sits in her office at the National Research Council headquarters. Listen to Lefebvre recount her personal experience with both explicit and implicit gender bias in the sciences, and how it could have detrimental effects on girls’ confidence. Photo by Pascale Malenfant on Nov. 13, 2019.

According to Hill, overcoming the consequences of implicit bias begins through awareness of one’s own prejudices, both at the individual and corporate levels.

“It’s very important to have people aware of implicit biases, particularly the fact that they start at such a young age,” she said. “Beginning with providing introductory courses in STEM in middle and high schools, and encouraging girls to pursue these fields of study—that’s where it starts, and that’s what will make the difference.”

 

Valérie Drolet, science interpreter at the Canada Museum of Science and Technology (left), demonstrates the behaviour of molecules to a group of young girls (right). Though girls and boys both exhibit equal interests in science, it is girls who continue to be pushed—or push themselves—away from the field. Photo by Pascale Malenfant on Nov. 10, 2019.

Lefebvre said representation in STEM workplaces, particularly through employment equity programs, is something the National Research Council has adopted in order to “level the playing field.”

“Often people label [these programs] as, ‘Well, now you’re discriminating against men,’ but that’s the wrong [idea],” she said. “What we’re doing is doing a little bit of right in order to undo the bias that has been placed against women.”

For Close, providing support systems and role models to younger female students at Carleton has been a crucial part of her attempts to overcome any stigma they may face.

“I feel like the reason implicit bias hasn’t had as big of an impact on me is because of the support system I’ve had, which is kind of what made me want to take on a role as a mentor both as president and with the Science Student Success Centre,” she said.

“I’ve noticed that it’s generally young female science students who approach me wanting to learn about how they can get involved, or how they can do well in school, so it’s important to have that extra support available.”

The Canada Museum of Science and Technology’s new temporary exhibit, Iron Willed: Women in STEM, addresses implicit bias head-on while also bringing attention to women’s contributions to Canadian science, said Sandra Corbeil, Ingenium’s director of strategic partnerships and networks.

Listen to Sandra Corbeil expand on Iron Willed’s focus on implicit bias as an explanation for why women’s contributions to STEM are often overlooked in Canada. Photo by Pascale Malenfant on Nov. 22, 2019.

“We wanted to tell their stories, both through our exhibit as well as through our fellowship with the University of Ottawa,” Corbeil said.

“[The fellows] come to us for about three months, identify a research project they want to do based on something we have in our digital collection that might have been overlooked, then publish their research to hopefully advance the storytelling we do to represent women’s true contributions to STEM."

Close said she hopes recognizing women’s work will change how those within STEM perceive them.

“I’d like to see people paying attention to the research women are doing just as much as any other piece of research that’s being done, and that’s not just about having men pay more attention,” she said.

“As women in science, we have a responsibility to stand up for other women in science, and for me, that means being the best president—and the best Millie—that I can be.”