Gender should not define your career path. But it is a reality that women historically had to face. Women have made strides in pursuing careers in fields historically male-dominated. Today, more women are pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

Women make up about 47% of the total workforce, but they remain statistically underrepresented in STEM. Women made up about 27% of STEM workers in 2019 in the United States, compared with just 8% in 1970, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This also means men still make up 73% of the workforce in the industry.

The numbers are similar in Canada. Women make up less than 25% of people employed in STEM careers. According to Statistics Canada, 34% of Canadians with a STEM degree are women and they make up only 23% of Canadians working in science and technology.

In other areas in the world, they are making greater strides for women to be represented in STEM. For example, as of 2019, there are over 6.3 million women scientists and engineers in the European Union, representing 43% of STEM employees.

Even though there is progress, women still face challenges in the male-dominated STEM industry.

Smiling women on her workplace
Smiling women on her workplace

steps are being taken to improve representation, but gender imbalance remains

The number of women in STEM is growing. More women are enrolling in STEM programs in university, and we are seeing more women in executive and board roles within STEM companies. Organizations are increasing their representation. The visibility of women in prominent roles in STEM is starting to impact future generations. It breaks down a barrier that should never have existed.

The increase in the number of women studying STEM in school and of women in the industry are great, but a significant gender imbalance remains. According to research conducted by the United Nations:

  • Less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.
  • Nearly 22,000 more women are working as science and engineering technicians than in 2016. However, women still only make up 27% of the total workforce.
  • Women make up 42% of the total number of science professionals.
  • Women in STEM publish less, are paid less for research, and do not progress as far in their careers as men.
  • Women only make up 15% of the total management roles in science, engineering and technology.

there is a lack of confidence in STEM careers among women

The perception of how women think they will do in STEM-related careers also needs to change. A Randstad study, "overcoming the barriers to STEM" found that 34% of women were more likely to say that STEM jobs are hard to understand compared to men. And, only 22% of young women name technology as a favourite subject in school.

When asked how good they would be at a STEM job, fewer women thought they would be good at the role compared to men:

  • Computer science: female – 23.8%, male - 43.1%
  • Scientist: female – 29.6%, male – 40.1%
  • Engineer: female – 21.%, male – 38.9%

The benefit of greater representation of women in STEM careers

The advantages of having more women in STEM are clear.

“Greater diversity in the STEM workforce would offer significant benefits to Canadians by addressing skills shortages, increasing innovation and capacity, and providing a greater return on human resources investments,” says the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission.

A study by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) found that closing the gender gap in STEM education would have a positive impact on economic growth. They found:

“Closing gender gaps in STEM education would have a positive impact on employment. Total EU employment would rise by 850,000 to 1,200,000 by 2050. These jobs are forecasted mostly in the long term as employment rates will rise only after more women studying STEM finish their education.”

How to bridge the gap in STEM for women 

Overcoming the existing barriers to STEM careers for women needs to be addressed. It starts at the top with leadership in STEM companies and trickles down to the education system. Here are ways to bridge the gap:

Transforming STEM Leadership Culture

STEM needs a rebrand. This requires buy-in from the leaders in the field. Those at the top need to serve as role models for the future generation.

The belief of what a STEM career is and who is best suited for these roles needs to change. There needs to be a better understanding of the practical use of STEM skills in real-world environments and all types of jobs.

Ellen Morris, president and founder of Sustainable Energy Solutions, says there is a need to better connect STEM skills to careers outside of just science and technology. People need to understand the need for STEM skills in business, arts, and other fields to broaden the appeal to young women.

The Government of Canada has several STEM initiatives that are aimed at improving the representation of women in STEM such as The Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering (CWSE) and ChooseScience.

Breaking Down Gender Bias

Negative stereotypes about girls' abilities and interest in math and science are still prevalent today. These stereotypes are hurting girls' interest in STEM from a young age.

The Randstad report found, “Stereotypes influence girls’ self-assessments in math, which influence their interest in pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Fortunately, research also shows that actively countering stereotypes can lead to improvements in girls’ performance and interest in math and science.”

Early STEM education matters

As part of our report examining the STEM field, we looked at the key motivations, beliefs, and perspectives of STEM-related topics among kids aged 11 to 17. We learned that exposure to STEM early in the education process is vital.

  • 78% of STEM college students say they decided to study it in high school.
  • 21% decided to pursue STEM in middle school or sooner.
  • Interest in STEM lessens with age – 11-to-14-year old’s are 18% more likely than students aged 15-17 to consider math as a favourite subject.
  • Students from 11 to 17 have a natural interest in STEM. 84% enjoy working on computers, 73% enjoy science class, 60% enjoy math most of the time, and 54% say science is one of their favourite subjects.

While we are on the right track, there is still work to be done. The solution to attracting more women into STEM is through awareness. It starts with leaders and teachers. It's about capturing young women's natural curiosity about STEM subjects and making them an integral part of their K-12 educational experience. This will lead to greater diversity in STEM in the future.