Diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math – which together make up the fields of STEM – has been a constant struggle for decades. Historically dominated by white men, women and people of colour who enter these fields must often grapple with society’s perception that they do not belong, and can be subject to discrimination in their workplaces.
There is a lack of information when it comes to diversity in STEM fields. There are only a few, limited statistics available for women in STEM fields, and there is almost no information for women of colour. However, the information that does exist is enough to highlight the huge gap in equity between women, especially women of colour, and their male counterparts in STEM fields.
In a recent study conducted by the Canada-centric datablog The 10 and 3, statisticians Michael Kuzmin, Arik Motskin, and Zack Gallinger published a disconcerting diversity report concerning the number of women in STEM fields that hold professorship positions at major Canadian universities. The report was inspired by a similar diversity report released by Google and other tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the statistics gathered showed that women are vastly underrepresented in tech fields, and many tech companies refused to share information. Motskin pointed out in an email to The Daily that perhaps the gender disparity is more well-known within the tech industry and Silicon Valley; however, data regarding gender imbalance in universities is more hidden and inaccessible. Estimates by The 10 and 3 suggest that about 25 per cent of tech positions in Canada are held by women.
“We felt that there was a similar information vacuum in the math, computer science, and engineering departments at Canadian universities,” said Motskin. “While everyone knows there is a gender imbalance […] it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation about the depth of the problem without concrete figures, looking both at particular institutions and at the variation between institutions.”
“It’s as if universities are happy to have very well-qualified women teaching the students, but are not happy enough to grant them the most secure academic jobs.”
Regarding professorship ranks held by women at Canadian universities, the results were far lower than that of the tech companies. When looking at computer science, math, and engineering departments, most universities didn’t reach the 25 per cent mark, and many failed to even have 10 per cent. One specific department that was highlighted in the study was McGill’s Math department, which, out of its forty-member academic staff, has only two women. Motskin also noted that departments don’t always publicly make a clear distinction between tenured and tenure-track faculty (who do both teaching and research), and teaching-intensive faculty (like instructors and lecturers). They found that a disproportionate number of the non-tenure, and so less prestigious teaching positions are taken by women. “It’s as if universities are happy to have very well-qualified women teaching the students, but are not happy enough to grant them the most secure academic jobs,” said Motskin.
The sources of barriers to diversity in STEM
From tokenization to feeling out of place, there are several factors that can deter women from STEM fields, according to Simrin Desai, the Engineering Undergraduate Society (EUS) equity commissioner. She noted that, while some departments try to fix the problem through compensatory action such as hiring quotas, which do provide women and people of colour with opportunities to hold STEM jobs. “It can often re-perpetuate the idea that the minority group is not actually fit for the position, and their incorporation into the company is a forced act which does more harm to the person of the minority group than giving them the hiring opportunity may do,” she explained.
Desai said that sometimes as a result of being the only or one of the few women at their workplace, women in STEM face more pressure than their male counterparts.
“For instance, at McGill, there are some faculty events that require a female faculty member’s presence. This is great in increasing overall diversity in voices present at said event; however, on a personal level it tends to add another layer of work to female faculty,” explained Desai.
Female professors are tokenized and are expected to be the voice of diversity. However, this essentially results in added work, such as having to attend meetings or events to maintain an artificial image of diversity. If they cannot handle this it will make them seem ‘incapable’ for their profession — even though the extra workload is a result of their gender. She also cited the fact that women sometimes feel that their success in STEM is an irregularity, as media and other outlets in society “suggest that they should not be present in this field.”
“Women end up feeling like imposters in a male-dominated field.”
Data shows that when searching for funding, women are less likely to receive funding (such as grants) than their male counterparts, and if they do receive funding, they tend to receive smaller amounts.
Shawana Habib, VP Communication of Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE) – told The Daily that there have been some women in POWE who expressed frustration with facing discrimination in their workplaces and the classroom.
“During our general meetings, some members have expressed that they face discrimination from their male peers in the classroom, and we are always open to discussing such matters,” Habib said. She also noted that in the past, some people featured at the networking events POWE holds for female engineers have said that they felt they had “not been given importance or their opinions had not been taken into account,” generally by older male employers or coworkers.
Adding to the challenges women face in the workplace, Motskin pointed out that women also face a “pipeline problem,” meaning it can sometimes be hard to retain women at important steps that lead to STEM careers, spanning from when girls are studying science in schools up to graduate school, employment, and tenure. “The challenge is to avoid having too many qualified women drop out at any given stage, for one reason or another,” he wrote, noting that there is room for universities to get involved at some of these steps to help keep women on track to STEM careers.
Ingrid Birker, McGill’s Science Outreach Administrator, recently spoke at a lecture entitled “Women in Science.” She outlined some of the reasons for the pipeline problem and why qualified women may feel pressured to leave STEM careers. One of the problems she identified was funding. Data shows that when searching for funding, women are less likely to receive funding (such as grants) than their male counterparts, and if they do receive funding, they tend to receive smaller amounts.
To effectively encourage and support women in STEM fields, early and comprehensive intervention is needed to address the challenges and discrimination many encounter throughout their careers.
Birker also noted some problems are present from the very the beginning with societal deterrents, such as the encouragement of girls when they are young to enter typically ‘female’ professions. This, along with many other types of school- and work-based discrimination, brings up certain obstacles that aren’t present for men. This also results in women being less self-assured on average than men in the workplace where confidence is valued just as much as competence.
Habib noted that POWE has created programs aimed at combatting these problems, such as networking events for female engineers, an annual conference, and discussions on how to increase the number of women in engineering.
While limited, the information from the studies portray the ongoing struggle against discrimination in STEM fields, and states that the problem of equality is as relevant today as it it was twenty years ago. The statistics from these studies highlight the lack of women and women of colour working in STEM fields. Ultimately, they indicate that current attempts to amend this through compensatory action only, such as hiring quotas, is inadequate. To effectively encourage and support women in STEM fields, early and comprehensive intervention is needed to address the challenges and discrimination many encounter throughout their careers.