Creating space for women in STEM fields

Despite having an incredibly diverse student population, Ryerson still faces a common issue when it comes to subjects like computer science and engineering — the number of female students is consistently much lower than the number of male students.

Lynsey Kissane, the manager of strategic planning and special projects in the faculty of engineering, said that the average representation of women in engineering at Ryerson is about 20 per cent. Broken down, it can be as high as 50 per cent in biomedical, while in other areas of, such as mechanical and computer, it can be as low as five per cent. “If your population is 50/50 but your profession isn’t, you’re missing out on a lot of amazing ideas,” Kissane said.

Kissane is one of the people working to change the low representation of females in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering, and math — on campus. She helped create the We Made It program, which was launched to investigate why less than a quarter of engineering students are female, and to talk about it in a way that interests teenagers.

Kissane said that the low number of female students in engineering is largely a pipeline problem, so the We Made It program focuses on informing high school students who will be applying to university soon about the sciences.

However, disenchantment with STEM subjects can start at a very young age — Kissane references a study that surveyed girls in elementary school. They found that girls in Grade 3 were excited and interested in math and science, but when surveyed again in Grade 5, many of the same girls said they no longer liked those subjects. Some said it was because they weren’t good at math and science; others said those subjects were for boys.

Many groups have tried to address the low number of females in STEM disciplines with a variety of tactics and varying levels of success. Kissane references a campaign in which women in STEM are advertised to look like Britney Spears or Kim Kardashian. She said that this shows how desperate people are to make it work. “Hopefully the long term strategy is to break down some of these harmful stereotypes that don’t serve anybody’s interests and create more positive, holistic, non-gendered identities, identified with STEM.”

She says the We Made It initiative has focused more on the difference in boomers and millennials — both demographics approach the issue of low female representation very differently, and efforts should be tailored to address the difference in mentality.  

It may be that engineering has a bit of a branding and image problem, said Kissane. And they’re trying to address it. For example, many people may picture hard hats and dirty work when they think of mechanical engineering — but that won’t necessarily fit with what they’d like to do in the future.

“If a young girl is thinking to herself, ‘I want to apply my amazing skills and talents to a career where I feel like I’ll be making a positive social impact,’ engineering probably doesn’t scratch that edge,” Kissane said. She suggests that if these girls saw how engineers have an incredible social impact, there would be a greater interest.

As for females who are studying STEM subjects, they have their own challenges being in male-dominated classrooms.

Vera Parilova is in her fifth year of computer science at Ryerson and is a member of the campus group, Women in Computer Science. The main goal of the group is to provide a resource that will not only attract more women to the program, but keep them graduating as well. Computer science is a difficult program and many students, both male and female, drop out.

“At first it’s pretty difficult, because even I was not really sure that I’m able to do it, that I’m good enough, [or] that I’m smart enough,” said Parilova. She was able to develop the confidence over time, and though being the only female in a group of guys can be challenging at first, she now knows she’s just as capable of solving problems and explaining concepts.  

For her, she said the hardest part was having to take upper liberal classes and writing essays. When it comes to computer science, it’s clear Parilova is in her element.

“The best thing about computer science is that you get a problem and you have to solve it and you struggle and once you get a solution and it works, it’s such a victory every time,” she said. “Every time you solve it, you just feel so great, you just feel so smart, you just feel so happy. I guess this is one thing I like about computer science most of all, is that you always achieve something.”

The WICS group is working on a mentorship program to connect women in their early years of study with upper-year female students in computer science to receive extra guidance and hopefully, keep them interested in the program. “Yes, it’s male dominated — but there’s still plenty of space for women,” Parilova said.  

Another member of WICS, Elizabeth Chan, is in her fourth year of computer science at Ryerson. Her first exposure to web design was around the age of 10, teaching herself HTML and web design on the website Neopets. Though she had some interest and experience in it, computer science wasn’t something she considered as a degree. She initially studied engineering at the University of Waterloo, but found the school and the program weren’t right for her. When she took a computer science course through the Chang School and enjoyed it, she decided to pursue it.

Chan said that it’s hard to keep females in the program, and adds that even those females who graduate don’t necessarily continue to work in the field.

“I think it’s a really big problem; I don’t know how to fix it,” she said. Chan agrees that there is a perception problem when it comes to some of these subjects. “Of course, you can change the word through mechanical engineering or computer science, but I guess you don’t see the direct connection,” she said. “You might think, ‘Oh, you’re just sitting at your computer all day, isolated and talking to no one,’ but it’s not like that.”

Though there’s more to be done, Chan is glad that more people are talking about the imbalance and trying to make these subjects seem less daunting. “Technology is getting really, really big, and it’s really important that women have a role in [it].”