Feb. 9, 2024Print | PDF
As we approach United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science on Feb. 11, we look forward to celebrating the many contributions women bring to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
It’s also a time to talk about the persistent gender gaps in the STEM fields and what we can do to address them.
We have made progress in the numbers of women enrolled in university STEM programs, but there is still a significant dropoff from high school to graduation to workforce, particularly in Canada. Today, 34% of Canadians with a STEM degree are women, but women make up only 23% of the STEM workforce in Canada. By contrast, in the European Union, women represent 43% of STEM employees.
It's no coincidence that in fields like engineering, artificial intelligence and computer science, which chronically experience workforce shortages, women are significantly underrepresented. This is hurting Canada’s innovation and scientific capacity.
A study in 2022 found that gender diverse science teams produce more novel research results that are more highly cited. Without women and underrepresented genders in STEM, we are missing valuable perspectives to shape these fields and their approaches to innovation and problem solving.
Achieving gender equity in STEM benefits us all.
How do we achieve this?
One way is through identifying and addressing systemic barriers for women in STEM, which starts at the university level. We are proud co-founders of the Centre for Women in Science (WinS) at Wilfrid Laurier University, which aims to build a diverse, equitable, and inclusive STEM community through research, action, and communication. WinS supports research and advocacy, facilitates collaboration and actions for change, and provides education on equity in STEM.
In the more than 10 years WinS has been operating, our leaders have regularly been invited to speak at international conferences and have hosted international conferences of their own. The centre also provides annual scholarships and grants to support research by women students in STEM, and social sciences research about gender parity in STEM.
While student mentoring is an effective way to increase the participation of women and underrepresented genders in STEM, this alone cannot address structural and systemic inequities in the fields. Through research, we also work to understand why the gender gap persists and how to change these cultures and systems using effective evidence-based strategies.
When surveyed, women leaving STEM fields consistently cite a few reasons for their exit: discrimination; pay gaps; work cultures not conducive to family obligations; and weak professional networks and mentorship.
Building more inclusive work environments is one way we can ensure more women and underrepresented genders stay working in the STEM fields. At Laurier, we have engaged in critical self-assessment and reflection and developed and implemented an action plan as a pilot member of the federal Dimensions Program.
Through this program, we have set goals to increase support systems, tools and education, and improve data collection and analysis to make data-informed decisions on the implementation of policies and programs that promote equity, diversity and inclusion in research.
The number of women in STEM is slowly rising, but not fast enough. At our current pace, we won’t reach gender parity in engineering, math or physics for more than 100 years.
We are buoyed to see many institutions and companies across Canada engage in efforts like the ones we are undertaking at Laurier. Together, we can speed up the timeline to achieving equity in STEM.
Working toward equity and inclusion in STEM breaks down barriers, challenges biases, and ensures a more equitable and sustainable future for all. And just imagine the discoveries and breakthroughs we can achieve in the next century if we fully engage and include half the world’s population.
Deborah MacLatchy is President and Vice-Chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University and a Professor of Biology.
Shohini Ghose is the NSERC Chair of Women in Science and Engineering (Ontario) and Professor of Physics and Computer Science at Wilfrid Laurier University.