By Kassandra Burd
Many negative trends have been prominent concerning women in STEM fields, but it is also important to highlight the positive trends that we are witnessing. While it is true that many women are struggling in their respective fields due to systemic inequities, and that many women are deterred from pursuing STEM in the first place, there are positives that we can aspire to, which can further help motivate and encourage girls and women to persevere.
In a 2019 poll funded by Microsoft, 52% of girls aged 12 to 17 reported that they would consider a job in a technology or science-related field (Clarke, 2019). Moreover, in 2010, 44% of first-year women STEM students aged 19 and under were in undergraduate degree programs in Canada (Wall, 2019). This illustrates the need to push these girls in the direction of STEM and make more of an effort to eliminate any obstacles that might hinder their progress. It also points to the fact that the deficiency of women in STEM might not actually be due to lack of interest, but rather societal and institutional barriers. The reason many of these girls might not go on to pursue STEM fields, despite their interest, is likely due to lack of women mentors, gender pay inequities, low self-assurance, etc.
In the past ten years, the number of women who are awarded STEM degrees has increased by over 50,000 – while in 2009, over 140,000 women graduated with STEM degrees, over 200,000 graduated with STEM degrees in 2016 (Silva, 2019). According to Stats Canada, 27% of women and 16% of men who started out in computer and information sciences completed a STEM degree within four years, demonstrating that women graduated faster than men from STEM programs, regardless of the discipline (Silva, 2019). Specifically, women in engineering were found to persevere more than men, which is interesting because engineering is the STEM field that is least representative of women (Wall, 2019).
Despite male domination in STEM fields, women can still persist; the goal, then, is to encourage women in all STEM fields to stay the course. Overall, these findings indicate that women are more than capable of succeeding in STEM programs, and that the problem is not actually due to the erroneous notion that men are more adept at STEM-related skills.
Due to awareness concerning the lack of women in STEM, many organizations are now feeling the pressure to devise programs that are aimed towards motivating women to pursue STEM fields in order to make their workplaces more nuanced and equitable (Ranstad, 2019). These organizations are beginning to realize the importance of gaining multiple perspectives and the innovative approaches that women can promote, which helps to stimulate and advance these fields. For example, many primary and secondary schools are developing summer coding programs that are aimed towards girls in the hopes that it will attract them to math and science-based degrees. Girls Who Code is a program that teaches girls how to build websites, virtual games, programming, etc. (Houghton, 2019). It also promotes skills related to analytical reasoning, critical thinking, problem-solving, and team collaboration.
Furthermore, women role models in STEM are more often being propelled into the spotlight. Both academic institutions and job organizations are calling for more women leaders in order to promote advancement (Potts, 2017). As a result, more girls and women can be positively influenced to pursue careers in STEM. A study conducted by Nilanjana Dasgupta at the University of Massachusetts showed that there were no women students who dropped out of their studies when they were being mentored by a woman (Potts, 2017). However, for those who didn’t have a mentor or had solely male mentors, dropout rates were 11% and 18%, respectively (Potts, 2017). The main advantages of having a woman mentor include more self-confidence and motivation, less academic anxiety, career support, and helpful advice and ideas (Potts, 2017).
Ultimately, these findings show that while there is still much work to be done, STEM fields are moving in a positive direction, as trends tend to show that women are slowly but surely starting to gain more recognition and acknowledgement. We are seeing an increase of girls and women interested in pursuing STEM, an abundance of women-centred STEM programs, and a greater number of women mentors who promote and encourage women to persist and develop the skills required to succeed. Eradicating the numerous systemic barriers put into place will further help advance women in their studies and careers, which will inevitably create a more innovative and equitable future in every area of STEM.