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Blinding me with science

Study shows women are underrepresented in natural science and engineering professions


Women comprise 20% of the NSE workforce. Photo by Jack Dykinga via USDA ARS.
Women comprise 20% of the NSE workforce. Photo by Jack Dykinga via USDA ARS.

In today’s first grade classrooms, an impromptu survey of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” yields answers ranging from marine biologist, to hairdresser, to firefighter.  If you asked the students if they want to earn a PhD in science, you would likely receive a chorus of blank stares.

This is not surprising; after all, only one (or less) student in a given Canadian elementary school is likely to earn a PhD in natural science or engineering (NSE). That one will almost certainly be a boy.

The National Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) is Canada’s leading body for the funding and advancement of scientific research. Their recent report on the state of women in science reveals some troubling trends. Although the male/female ratio of Grade 12 and undergraduate students enrolled in NSE classes is roughly the same, only 37 per cent of Canada’s NSE undergrads and master’s students are women. Beyond this point, the drop is even sharper, with only a small percentage of female NSE doctoral or post-doctoral researchers.

Women are not underrepresented in university systems, but they are starkly absent in NSE professions and faculty positions. Women comprise only 20 per cent of the NSE labour force, although they earn 40 per cent of bachelor’s degrees in the field. Men heavily occupy management positions, whereas women tend to drift to other fields, such as social science and education.

This problem is even evident in universities, which often enforce liberal and equitable hiring policies. Of NSE faculty, only 19 per cent are women, and they are mostly in the lower professorial ranks. As the report summarizes, “gender equality remains a distant possibility.”

The new glass ceiling is not inequitable hiring. In fact, women are hired preferentially over men to improve demographic diversity in many departments. The trouble is the lack of female applicants. This new glass ceiling is something more insidious than traditional sexism. It is a force that makes women feel they do not want, or are not able, to pursue NSE professions.

Programs to advance the role of women in science have been in place for more than a decade, and are experiencing success given the dramatic increases in female participation in these fields since the 1970s. At present levels of growth, though, it will be a great many more decades before we reach parity. Research has shown that whatever is causing this difference, it isn’t innate, as girls’ and boys’ abilities are very similar.

Many theories have been tossed about to explain the lack of women in NSE: stereotypes and negative opinions of women in “masculine” positions, boys having a more positive attitude towards science, lack of female role models in NSE, and conflicts between career and family, just to name a few. The vast body of literature on the issue, which even has an entire academic journal dedicated to it, is inconclusive.

The paradigms of sexism are changing, at least in academia. It is no longer the boys trying to keep the girls out of their club, but the girls who have little desire to come in. Women who choose NSE careers report higher levels of stress and perfectionism, and feel greater pressure to outperform their male peers. Perhaps the gender inequality in NSE is not enforced by men with power, but a product of wider and systemic flawed thinking about gender roles.

To those who would imply that sexism is a thing of the past, given equitable hiring practices, these recent results show that this is not the case. In Canada, women are able to do almost anything they want. The problem lies in a social structure that conditions what men and women want to be, right from the first grade. It is also in the nature of these professions themselves, which clearly do not accommodate what women want.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, there are still strong gender-based drivers behind career paths. The low presence of men in non-traditional professions, like nursing or public administration, attests to this. We need to do more than have equitable hiring practices and instead look carefully and critically at a social system that forces us to divide our career aspirations by gender in the first place.



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