The Root of the STEM Issue

When I look around at the engineers that I work with, I see a group of people with a wide array of skills, experience, interests, and personalities. However, there is something that the overwhelming majority of my coworkers and industry colleagues have in common – they are male. In the first two years of my career, I have worked with 19 professional engineers, only 1 of whom was female. I have never had a female boss or a female project manager. I can count on one hand the number of times that I have not been the only woman in a meeting. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professions have an undeniable gender divide. In Canada, only 12% of 280,000 professional engineers are women [1]. Canadian University professors in math, computer science, and engineering are made up of ~85% men [2].


Why does this huge imbalance exist? And more importantly –



There is nothing inherently wrong with engineering being a male-dominated profession, just as there is nothing inherently wrong with nursing being a female-dominated profession. Qualified and competent people are filling valuable roles in society. However, as the problems that our society is facing become more complex, and our future becomes more and more uncertain, we need as many different minds on the task as we can get. Balancing the workforce has wide reaching economic benefits as well – increasing the participation of women in STEM fields has been predicted to add $63 billion to Canada’s GDP by 2026 [3]. There are also benefits for individual women who enter “masculine” fields. The conversation about gender disparity in industry tends to focus on increasing the number of women in male dominated industries rather than the opposite because male-dominated occupations pay more and carry more social prestige [4] than those with higher proportions of women, even when keeping education and skill level constant [5]. 26 of the 30 highest-paying occupations are male-dominated, while 23 of the 30 lowest-paying occupations are female-dominated [6]. This is not due to “feminine” professions being objectively less valuable – substantial evidence shows that these professions are deemed less valuable simply because women do them [5,25]. A woman working in the STEM field can earn approximately 30% more than a woman working in an occupation where the majority of the employees are female [7]. Financial security, while valuable, is not the only important aspect of a career (personally, salary barely factored in to my decision to pursue engineering). The lack of balance in many industries – such as healthcare which is less than 20% male or natural resource production which is less than 10% female – may be symptomatic of underlying societal inequality between genders rather than being solely due to biological differences. If barriers exist that push men and women to follow traditional paths rather than exploring all career options, the workforce as a whole may be under-utilizing key skills [7] and individuals may find themselves either less successful or less fulfilled in their careers than they have the potential for.



There are several elements that have been shown to deter women from entering STEM fields. One is the lack of role models – while high school teachers are approximately 80% female, only 63% of high school math and science teachers are women [8]. Young women are more likely to enroll in STEM degrees the higher the proportion of female high school teachers in those subjects, and this influence is strongest for the highest achieving female students [9]. My chemistry and biology teachers were female while my math and physics teachers were male and all four were supportive of me pursuing engineering – but since I had one parent in the field, I was already exposed to the career option from an early age. In pop culture, only 8% of the popular and highly visible scientists are female [18]. Another related factor is “social belongingness” – teenagers believe they will fit in better in subjects with higher ratios of their own gender [10]. The male-dominated culture can make STEM fields unwelcoming to women. Women tend to be excluded from self-formed teams when the majority of students are male [11], which is a major obstacle in a subject where teamwork is vital to success. However, women acting in more traditionally masculine ways, for example being assertive in meetings, can cause backlash as well [1]. As the #MeToo movement and public awareness of hostility and harassment grows, the spotlight will be increasingly turned on how women are treated in the engineering field. In University, I was part of a close-knit group with 4 other female students. This wasn’t a conscious decision – we found each other during first semester based on our shared partiality to the front row and by spying on each other’s midterm marks. I will admit to initially feeling more comfortable working with other women due to the preconceptions that I had about engineering culture. Mostly, I worried that any mistake I made or dumb question I asked in front of male students would tarnish the reputation of women in engineering. As I continued through my degree and entered the workforce, I’ve realized that the vast majority of the men I’ve worked with are awesome study partners, great co-workers, and some of my best friends. At Scovan, I am very grateful to have colleagues that treat me with respect and fairness. The negative or uncomfortable experiences I have had in this industry have all been in situations with people that I haven’t worked with previously, which is not an excuse for their behaviour but rather an argument for increasing awareness of how to behave. During one of my labs in University, my two male lab group members chose to use crude terms for female anatomy as signals to record data. While out on site, most operators and construction workers are perfectly respectful but a few times per shift I will be called “little girl” or “pretty girl”. Having a professional colleague, a man older than my father, call me “babe” at a work function was extremely uncomfortable. In all of these scenarios, I’m forced to navigate a balance between my personal level of offense, my desire to teach them this is not acceptable behaviour, and my fear of escalating a situation beyond the level that it warrants, resulting in missing out on opportunities and being seen as too sensitive. Lastly, a big issue in hiring women in STEM professions is the unconscious bias of both male and female hiring managers. A 2014 study showed that with no information about the candidates’ qualifications, male candidates were twice as likely to be “hired” for a fictional math assignment than female candidates. When the pre-screening math test scores were available, men were still preferentially chosen over women who had identical or higher scores [32]. In a separate study, identical resumes were given out to hiring managers with either a man’s name or a woman’s name. The man was chosen for an interview 65% of the time, while the woman was only chosen 51% [33].



The most widely cited cause of the gender divide in the workforce is systemic, entrenched gender bias [3,5,7,8,9,10,11,12,15,16] that affects both sexes throughout our lives. It starts before we are even born – studies of Canadian birth announcements show that parents anticipate the birth of female children with primarily happiness while male children are anticipated preferentially with pride [19]. These differences show that girls are pre-emptively valued for attachment, while boys are valued as higher-status [19]. During their children’s infancy, parents have different expectations about the cognitive, social, language, and motor skill development of male and female children [30]. Parental beliefs about the relatively higher ability of their sons vs. daughters, specifically in mathematics, inform the self competency beliefs that children hold about themselves [21]. As children grow up, they have formed rigid ideas about gender roles and behaviours by the age of five – with both sexes identifying cooking and cleaning as tasks for women and working as a task for men [31]. Even if our parents raised us without promoting any messages about gender stereotypes, there are a myriad of other ways that we can be influenced. Toys offered to children reinforce traditional stereotypes – with “girl toys” often including dolls or miniature kitchen items and “boy toys” including building blocks, sports equipment, and vehicles. These types of toys preferentially encourage the development of nurturing and social behaviour in girls and spatial and active behaviour in boys. Teachers of both genders hold biased beliefs about the relative ability of male vs. female students – including perceiving average achieving girls as less talented than equally achieving boys, and attributing failure to lack of ability for girls vs. lack of effort with boys [23]. These beliefs manifest in the classroom, where boys receive more attention, praise, feedback, and assistance than girls [23]. Another subtle but pervasive way that the education system promotes stereotypes is the learning materials themselves – illustrations and scenario descriptions in textbooks portray female characters in passive, dependent, and nurturing roles while the male characters are active, physical, and in leadership roles [26,29]. Media targeted at children and young adults (books, television, movies, and commercials) is heavily skewed in the same way, with the vast majority of characters being male and aligning strongly with traditional gender norms [29]. Peer groups have a major impact on human development. Elementary aged children form same gender groups ten times as often as mixed gender groups – these groups provide strong positive reinforcement for acting in gender appropriate ways and punishment for any children that don’t match traditional behaviours [29]. Boys in particular suffer harsher social judgement for displaying non-masculine behaviours or traits, while being a “tomboy” is relatively more tolerated among girl groups, seeming to indicate that masculine traits are seen to hold more value [29]. Second grade children perceive girls to be inferior to boys, and by sixth grade the belief is even stronger [29]. Sports is another key area where boys’ and girls’ experiences differ – at every level and role in sport, men have vastly higher participation rates. This extends from young adults, where there are nearly twice as many males in sport as females [36], to professional sports and the Olympic/Commonwealth games. Head coaches, referees, and umpires are overwhelmingly male [35]. Lack of opportunities, role models, and positive media coverage along with social stigma cause girls to drop out of sports at twice the rate of boys [37], depriving them of the tremendous benefits of participating in athletics. There is no possible way to list every single bias that is present in our society. Almost every aspect of our lives is touched by it – next time you buy lunch, listen to the difference in the way the server greets you and someone of the opposite gender. Next time you’re in a bar, look at the TV screens and see if any are showing women’s sports. Reflecting on your own life, have you been influenced by biased messaging about gender, whether overt or subliminal?



One of the most pervasive and strongly held beliefs is that there are inherent differences between men’s and women’s brains due to biology – that the sex we are born dictates both our skills and our interests in adulthood (when considering STEM careers, there is negligible need for manual labor, so the typical physical differences between men and women are not relevant). The biology theory states that women are less suited to STEM professions due to a lack of innate analytical skill and interest in the field. There is a glaring flaw in the logic of this argument, which can be explored with a simple example. Prior to Elsie MacGill in 1927, there were no female engineers in Canada. Current female undergraduate enrollment in engineering is at 20%. If women were inherently, biologically, unsuited for engineering, then no amount of increased social freedom over only a few generations would have made a difference in participation. There is also variation between different countries – 40% of computer science degrees in Mexico are earned by women, while in Switzerland the number is only 10% [12]. In Turkey, boys outperform girls in math by 22.6%, but in Iceland girls outperform boys by 14.5% [12]. If biology ruled, the proportion of women in STEM degrees would not change with time or across borders. For every study that shows there are biological differences between men’s and women’s brains, there are studies that come to the opposite conclusion. Being exposed to stereotypical messaging about gender differences increases the likelihood of an individual to believe that gender differences are inherent and biologically determined [22]. The lesson we can learn from this is not that biology has zero influence on our skills and interests – it is that socialization has a significant and insidious impact on them. When we are immersed in a society that bombards us with biased messages from before we are even born, it is impossible to draw accurate conclusions about inherent differences between men and women. It is akin to comparing hockey participation to cricket participation in Canada and concluding that the stark difference must be because Canadians are biologically suited to and interested in hockey. No one can grow up free from societal influences, so it is impossible to know how much of the gender divide is caused by nature or by nurture. What we can do is try to understand how our thinking is prejudiced by the messages with which we were raised.



These ideas about men and women didn’t just appear out of nothing. For most of human history, manual labor was required in the majority of jobs and families typically had more than three children [13]. Since the average man tends to be bigger and physically stronger than the average woman, it made sense for men to be the primary breadwinners while women handled childcare. In 1915, 85% of men worked and only 25% of women worked [13]. Now, women make up just under half of the workforce [14]. Since the division of roles was entrenched in our society for so long, it impacted other aspects of human culture. In Western society, men are perceived as more independent, powerful, and logical while women are perceived as interdependent, caring, and emotional. Our society shows a systematic trend of “greater pressure toward nurturance, obedience, and responsibility in girls, and toward self-reliance and achievement striving in boys” [20]. Personality traits that are associated with men carry more social value than those associated with women [15], and there is negative stigma attached to demonstrating traits that don’t align with tradition. In the same vein as being taught to respect our elders or to show sportsmanship after competition, traditional gender norms give us frameworks for our behaviour and identities. They encourage women to form deep connections and freely express emotions, and encourage men to be brave and to be leaders. I’m sure I’m not the only one to occasionally use conventions as excuses for behaviour…for example, I’ve been guilty of waiting to be asked out on a date rather than taking the risk of being the one to ask. Although it would be more complicated than dividing people into two neat boxes and two defined scripts to follow, opening the doors to a greater range of acceptable personalities and behaviours will allow us to shape our own identities. I spend more time playing sports and less time styling my hair than some of my male coworkers, but I also wear more dresses and am less interested in cars than some of my male coworkers. I am proud to know kind, caring men and fierce, ambitious women and everything in between. Every one of us has a unique combination of traits and interests that blur the strict gender divide that we have been taught exists. Surely we can aspire to a culture where the qualities of each individual are more noteworthy than the ways in which they conform to their arbitrary groups.



So – what can we do about this? Well, the easiest course of action would be to simply wait. The slow, halting march of social progress continues to be guided by the idea that all humans are equal and therefore deserve the same opportunities. We are currently enjoying the period of the greatest social equality in human history. 100 years ago, women weren’t allowed to vote or inherit property. 50 years ago, women weren’t allowed to have credit cards. Now that the sexes are essentially equal on paper, we can begin to tackle the issues that are less clear-cut. I have a few options for ways to mitigate the systemic gender disparity in engineering. Research has shown that preferentially targeting women for education or job opportunities is the wrong way to address the issue [16] because it doesn’t tackle the systemic issues that lead to the low ratio of women in the selection pool to begin with. Personally, I believe that this will actually cause further devaluation of women in STEM and build resentment between colleagues. If a company makes it known that they are hiring specifically to increase diversity, any woman that joins the company will have a hard time shaking the lingering doubts, both internal and external, about her ability even if she was the most qualified candidate. Nearly 5 times as many post-secondary scholarships are offered for women than for men [17] which may have the same impact, especially since there seem to be no scholarships targeted towards attracting men into traditionally female dominated fields. Instead, I believe that a better solution is to make selection procedures as objective as possible. For companies, this could simply mean blanking out the names and any gender identifying references in applicants’ resumes and cover letters, allowing the reviewers to remain unbiased and compare qualifications on an even plane. Another situation to apply this technique could be the yearly APEGA council election – remove the names, photos, and personal descriptions of the candidates and present only their platforms for consideration. Once your team has been assembled, encourage open communication and collaboration. Offer the same opportunities to both men and women – I am extremely thankful for the chances that I have had to gain site experience, which likely would not have been offered if Scovan subscribed to traditional gender stereotypes. Ensure that the workplace or campus has policies in place to prevent, report, and deal with harassment. There is only so much that employers can do, since the female to male ratio of the hiring pool is dictated by university enrollment. This is in turn influenced by the program choices of high school students, and the pattern can be traced all the way back to early childhood. Research shows that intervening in the education system before the gender profiling becomes irreversible could have the greatest impact on the STEM gender gap [16]. As friends, coworkers, parents, and family members we can all strive to overcome our biases and treat each other with the respect and understanding that we deserve.

This may seem like an impossibly complex problem, an infinite system with infinite unknowns. The solutions are not obvious or easily applied, and we will make mistakes along the way – after all, we are all human. But the sword that can begin to cut through this Gordian knot is a very simple idea – be brave enough to be whoever you want to be, and open-minded enough to encourage others to do the same.


Written by Olivia McMurray, E.I.T

Originally posted in Linkedin




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[9] Working Paper No. 103 Growing the Roots of STEM Majors: Female Math and Science High School Faculty and the Participation of Students in STEM Martha Cecilia Bottia et al.






[15] Men as Cultural Ideals: How Culture Shapes Gender Stereotypes, Amy J. C. Cuddy Harvard Business School Working Paper




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[23] Teachers’ Gender Stereotypes as Determinants of Teacher Perceptions in Elementary school mathematics. Joachim Tiedemann

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Nancy K. Schlossberg  Jane Goodman

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Emily R. Mondschein, Karen E. Adolph, and Catherine S. Tamis-LeMonda Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 77, 304–316 (2000)

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[34] The Influence of Peers on Children’s Socialization to Gender Roles

Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.

[35] House of Commons WOMEN AND GIRLS IN SPORT Report of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage Hon. Hedy Fry Chair SEPTEMBER 2017