Making STEM more inclusive

Feature image by Scott McLean.

When the Liberal government unveiled its 2018 budget, the focus was incredibly clear. Entitled “Equity and Growth,” the plan is largely designed to enhance opportunities for women in the workforce by allocating billions to narrowing the pay equity gap, ensuring more gender equality in boardrooms, easing access to capital for female entrepreneurs and opening up more funding opportunities for female scientific researchers, among other considerations.

According to Statistics Canada the participation of women in the workforce has stagnated in the past decade at slightly over 80 per cent while women earn on average $0.87 compared to their male counterparts. While the issues of pay equity and gender equality are top of mind, it’s the scientific component that may be the area where it takes longest to achieve parity.

Women represent the majority of young university graduates but they are still underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) fields. Between 1991 and 2011, the proportion of women in scientific occupations requiring a university education rose from 18 per cent to 23 per cent, and in the same period only accounted for 27 per cent of growth in the number of workers in university-level scientific occupations.

At Ryerson University, women comprise approximately 30 per cent of the combined cohort in engineering and architectural science and the sciences, but the volume of women in those programs has increased by 45 per cent since 2013.  Often the push to enter into the STEM fields comes at an early age, and fifth-year chemical engineering major Srinka Vlasic cites that encouragement as one mechanism that can assist in promoting more women to pursue advanced education in STEM.    

“My Grade 4 teacher just told me one day that I should be an engineer,” she says. “I was really good at science and math, but I had never considered (engineering) as an option, most kids don’t know what engineers are, and you don’t really see a woman as being an engineer. I just kept that idea all throughout high school, I always liked science and math, and found a way to turn it into a career.”

The male-dominated culture of STEM programs can be a deterrent for women looking to pursue a degree who don’t see enough of their peers in the industry. Third-year mechanical engineering major Ruth Arunachalam explains that while the male-to-female ratio didn’t dissuade her from entering the workspace, she has made adjustments in response to the culture.

“I’ve learned not to care about certain things, to be more easy-going, and to ask for help,” she says. “That can be scary at times. I don’t know if it’s my personality or the demographics, in that you don’t want to admit that you need help or that people like you need it. It can be intimidating, but I’ve learned that it’s OK to ask for help, you aren’t letting anyone down, you are really only letting them down if you don’t get help and get it right.”

Those differences can establish social norms that in a predominately male workspace can unfortunately give rise to many antiquated notions about how men and women should work together.

“One of my professors told me two weeks ago that when I speak to men I need to be more gentle and less aggressive, because I need to persuade men,” says Vlasic. “He’s like 80 years old and needs to retire. I just brushed it off and moved on, I know there is no way I could change his mind about what he was going to say, so you just nod your head and ignore it.”

In February, Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone (DMZ) launched a new four-month accelerator program for women-led tech companies as an effort to enhance gender parity in Canada’s startup ecosystem. While the project is relatively small in scale, featuring eight women-led startups, the program is designed to facilitate industry connections and access to capital. These types of projects targeting women specifically are becoming more common in the industry, but some are concerned that it won’t have the desired result.

“I’m pro marketing to certain groups to ensure representation. I just don’t want it to be isolating,” says Arunachalam. “I think our number one problem within the field, and within other fields as well, is the inclusivity of opinions and being open to different types of people. If you isolate, then you are limiting the flow of ideas and we need everybody.”