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Examining the roots of the perennial gender gap in the STEM disciplines

Unconscious bias still plays a role in keeping women scientists from the top tier.

By HARRIET EISENKRAFT | OCT 09 2013

During her childhood, Emily Choy roamed the countryside around her grandparents’ Ontario cottage, searching out insects and small animals and creating a hospital for the injured ones. In primary and high school, she excelled at science and math, taught by a mix of male and female teachers. “Since I’ve been a little kid, I’ve wanted to be a scientist,” says Ms. Choy, now a PhD candidate in biological sciences at the University of Manitoba and a 2012 L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science fellow.

In her doctoral research (studying the effects of climate change on Arctic beluga whales by doing community-based research in hunting camps near Inuvik), and with a history of outreach to younger girls who are interested in science, the award-winning zoologist has faced few barriers because she is female. But when Ms. Choy considers the professoriate for a career, here is what she has noticed: “In grad school, most of the people in my program are women. But at the level of professors and researchers, the ratio flips, and the women seem to disappear.”

This situation came into stark relief in November 2012 with the appearance of a long-awaited, Industry Canada-commissioned study by the Council of Canadian Academies on the status of women researchers, particularly in under-represented spheres. The study, Strengthening Canada’s Research Capacity: The Gender Dimension (PDF), reported that women make up about one-fifth of full professors in Canada (23.4 percent for Ms. Choy’s area of life sciences). In physical and computer sciences, engineering and mathematics, the share of women shrinks to nine percent.

The report also outlined a myriad of problems that women in research face in Canada and other countries. It concluded that “time alone” may not balance the proportion of women and men at the highest levels of academia.

The CCA report came about partly in response to what happened in 2008, when the federally funded, multi-million-dollar Canada Excellence Research Chairs program, designed to help universities recruit top-notch researchers, did not field one qualified woman for the 19 internationally sourced positions to head teams across the country. The first woman CERC was just appointed at the end of September, in the second round of the competition, by McGill University: Luda Diatchenko was named to the CERC in human pain genetics.

The CERCs “are the crème de la crème,” says Valerie Davidson, university professor emerita from the school of engineering at the University of Guelph and one of 15 reviewers on the CCA panel. She says that she felt “irritation” with the 2008 outcome because the CERC holders “are the people who are going to be supervising the next generation of students and postdocs. They aren’t going to see any women as role models [to] encourage them to aspire.”

No nefarious motives were cited for the results. Instead, says Dr. Davidson, the very high-level networks, sometimes informal, are still made up of men choosing “people who look like themselves” for these positions.  And “there is not convincing evidence that they searched wide or hard enough to find women” for the CERC spots, she adds. Since that time, the program has issued a set of best practice guidelines, highlighting diversity as a “consideration” in recruiting for the next round, which are just starting to be announced.

Sadly, this was old news. In Despite the Odds: Essays on Canadian Women and Science (1990: Véhicule Press), story after story, going back more than a century, reflect the conclusions of a survey conducted by Anne Innis Dagg, zoologist at the University of Waterloo: “The low number of women science professors means that women students will not aspire to be university teachers, because the chance of succeeding is obviously so slim. Science will continue to be taught from a male perspective.” Dr. Innis Dagg’s survey is from 1981.

More than 20 years later, a group of female academics brought a complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Commission because of the low representation of women in another government-funded research program, the Canada Research Chairs (14 percent in 2002). It was settled in 2006.

Despite the best efforts of many well-meaning people, unconscious bias still plays a major factor. The latest research from Yale University, published last fall in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, showed how a group of male and female science professors assessed the application of a recent graduate student applying for a lab manager’s job: everyone who assessed the application received the same document, but half of them had a male name and the other half a female name. All the assessors, male and female, rated the woman’s application lower, were in favour of hiring or mentoring the male applicant and would have offered a higher salary to the man. Despite a high proportion of women among biology professors compared with physics professors, both biologists and physicists marked the candidate similarly.

Samantha Brennan, a philosophy professor and former chair of her department at Western University, who specializes in ethics and has studied gender bias, says, “There is no one point of bias against women, but rather it happens at every step along the way. Each one is small, and not each one makes the whole story.”

From hiring to performance evaluations to getting published, there are better frameworks for decision-making, including blind refereeing at the publication process (see “Blind hiring works” at the bottom of the article), research grant applications identified only by initials, and rethinking the application timelines in awards such as the CERCs, says Dr. Brennan. “If you have to act quickly, that’s when biases are most likely to occur, as the name that comes most readily to mind may not be female.”

Barbara Orser, professor and vice-dean, career development, in the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa, proposes more documentation. She says we would see changes “if every dean had to report back in terms of the composition of their [government-supported] labs and on the profile for postdocs.” University administrators and government leaders need to be watching the numbers, looking at hiring policies and asking tough questions, especially at the postdoctoral level when the numbers of science and technology specialists start to diminish, says Dr. Orser, who was consulted by the CCA panel for its study.

Lack of good data

Unfortunately, as the CCA panel pointed out, numbers are not easy to find in Canada. “The kinds of questions where you’re going to take a life-course perspective are ones that require longitudinal data,” says Michael Wolfson, a CCA panel member. A former assistant chief statistician, analysis and development, at Statistics Canada, he now holds the Canada Research Chair in Population Health Modelling/Populomics at the University of Ottawa’s faculty of medicine. Dr. Wolfson says that longitudinal data can look at a myriad of questions, including why women are under-represented in certain areas.

With the premise that a multi-billion-dollar investment in research must have objectives about outcome, he assumed that a small percentage of overall university and government budgets would be spent on gathering data. But after “drilling down,” says Dr. Wolfson, the panel could not find good figures on most factors, including on the critical postdoctoral stage – not from government, not from the granting agencies and not from the universities, or at least they couldn’t produce them during the panel’s investigation time. And, as the council noted, Statistics Canada’s University and College Academic Staff System, on which the report depended for some good information, has been discontinued by the federal government. Ottawa has recently altered (some say diluted) the federal contractors program’s equity compliance which, the report noted, lacked transparency even in its present state.

Although women make up a much larger proportion in science, technology, engineering and medicine – or STEM fields – at the undergraduate and graduate level, the figures decline as women move along the “leaky pipeline” into academe: the higher the rank, the lower the numbers of women. Biased hiring and promotion practices are only part of the problem. Another aspect has to do with the unique challenges for women researchers in balancing family life with paid work. Women need to be at their most productive in research during childbearing years, and on average they are more actively involved in child rearing than men, even with spousal help. While family-friendly accommodation prevails in universities across Canada, it doesn’t help most postdocs and often is ineffective for STEM professors.

“There are still women in engineering who, when they go to [talk to] their chair [about maternity leave], it may be the first time that the chair has had to deal with it,” notes Dr. Davidson, the retired U of Guelph engineering professor on the CCA panel. There are stories about women who were asked to shorten their time off by waiting until the last minute to stop working and then asked to mark exams or supervise labs right after giving birth. “That’s not an appropriate way to deal with it,” she says.

Dr. Orser, the management professor, agrees: “This should not be a do-it-yourself issue in Canada. We’re training them, funding the PhDs and then, at their prime point of productivity, we say, ‘Sorry, you got pregnant, cut bait and off you go.’” To make matters worse, science mandates that postdoctoral fellows must do poorly remunerated lab work following graduation (“Good luck paying for day care,” she says).
Moreover, science and technology fields, with their reliance on labs and field work, have relentless demands. Cells keep growing and must be monitored. Teams of graduate students need direction. Victoria Kaspi, professor of physics and Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics at McGill University, cites the proprietary one-year period in her field for data from NASA telescopes, after which, if you don’t publish, “your data becomes publicly available to anyone on the web.” Scientists cannot easily drop out for a year and expect to pick it back up.

Dr. Kaspi, a mother of three, recipient of multiple academic honours and member of the U.S. National Academy of Science, says she is grateful to the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for its allowance for reasonable childcare fees that permits academics to travel to conferences with an infant. But, she’d like to see a culture where the default provisions include delaying the tenure clock, childcare accommodation and parental leave. This would help to even the playing field and allow everyone to live up to their potential, she says. “I haven’t seen evidence that women are not as capable, on average, in hard sciences as men.”

What is working

When it comes to accommodating paid work and family, flexibility makes a difference, says Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary and the former dean of the university’s Schulich School of Engineering. “I’ve seen women have a senior postdoc fellow to keep things going [during a leave]. Some take a year off but stay in touch or have students temporarily supervised by another colleague,” she says. “It’s a case by case thing, but the academics must feel supported in their day-to-day work.”

A more fluid approach to maternity and other family leave, including for those involved in elder care, may solve some of the issues of balancing paid work with family, says Allison Sekuler, associate vice-president and dean of graduate studies at McMaster University. In some U.S. schools, “you can opt out part time, which may make more sense in the sciences,” she says. “We recently rewrote some policies for our faculty members. Before, you were either here or not at all.”

Hiring practices are also under the microscope, with senior administrators taking a role. In Canada, a number of women engineers and scientists now occupy the higher echelons of administration, including Dr. Sekuler, Dr. Cannon and University of Saskatchewan President and Vice-chancellor Ilene Busch-Vishniac. Over the years, Dr. Busch-Vishniac, an engineer, has initiated or supported equity processes for women and racialized faculty members while at the University of Texas (Austin), Johns Hopkins and McMaster, where she served as provost. She met some resistance at first. At USask, as “a strong advocate of equity” she can make her priorities clear: “We will always hire the best person for the job, but I am convinced that if we bring a diverse pool of candidates to campus, we will find the best candidates reflect the diversity of our culture.”

USask was awarded a CERC in infectious diseases, and the search is under way. Dr. Busch-Vishniac says she is certain there is a woman out there who is qualified, but she cannot promise that there is a woman who will be available to fill the position.

U of Calgary received a CERC award in the latest round, in materials engineering applied to the energy sector. President Cannon is chairing the process because, she says, energy “is a very strategic area for us” and she wants to ensure that “gender diversity is strongly considered when we look for and evaluate candidates.”

In changing the culture around women in science, exposure to a female teacher in the classroom can have a profound influence, says Dr. Cannon. On her first day teaching as an assistant professor in engineering more than 20 years ago, three male students got up to leave. They assumed they were in the wrong room. It was then that she realized that female role models were as important for male students as for female students.

Dr. Sekuler says that when she and her scientist husband alternated teaching a class, she had about 90 percent female students in her first year teaching it, while her husband had had 10 percent the year before. “It was obvious they were waiting for me to teach it, because they were so desperate for a woman.” It was her “click” moment, she says. “I never thought of myself as a woman in science, I thought of myself as a scientist, until then.”

Dr. Sekuler’s work at McMaster and beyond includes co-curating a science page on Google Plus with hundreds of thousands of followers. She says the advent of social media is a great help in reaching out to people “like the 14-year-old girl in Alabama who may have interest but not know there is anyone else like her out there.”

Informal gatherings for female STEM professors serve as an antidote to the isolation they may feel as one of the few female members in a department. Informal mentoring programs are particularly helpful in letting women students ask questions “that you might feel uncomfortable about in more formal situations,” says Dr. Sekuler.

Research shows that good mentors, male or female, make a difference in the lives of women researchers. Almost all the women interviewed for this article cited one or more supportive male colleagues or supervisors during their own careers. Formal mentoring and networking programs in STEM fields also have impact, and there are many offered by granting agencies and by grassroots groups (see the list at the bottom).

Recently, a group of women scientists started Pueblo Science to introduce science literacy to low-resourced schools using an inexpensive kit. Ms. Choy, whose L’Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science fellowship supported her mentoring of girls aged six to 17 in Winnipeg, says the nature of her work among Arctic communities is collaborative, and most of the academic colleagues on her team there are female.

Women have invented or helped discover important life-saving drugs, a computer language, a baby carrier and Kevlar, but without a more robust approach to diversity recruitment, Canada could lose the intellectual capital that created those products or made important discoveries, says Dr. Orser of U of Ottawa. Ultimately, the world will change when women’s equity is no longer exclusively the provenance of women, says Dr. Busch-Vishniac.

No doubt she would be pleased to hear that male students are taking part in Wilfrid Laurier’s new Centre for Women in Science. Many of them attended last year’s opening of the centre, some staffing display booths, including the one on diaper solubility. Shohini Ghose, the centre’s director, says these young men are seized both by the “social justice” of the issues that underlie the centre and their own desire to have an impact: “They get it. This gives them a chance to do something for their friends. And they understand that supporting women in science is supporting people like themselves.”

Harriet Eisenkraft is an award-winning journalist who writes often about equality issues in higher education.

“Blind” hiring works

The story of how major American symphony orchestras increased the number of women musicians in their ranks by holding “blind auditions” to overcome historical discriminatory practices has become almost canonical in equity circles. In the 1970s, musicians began to audition behind screens so that they were heard but not seen. As a result, the number of female orchestra players increased substantially in the decades that followed. (Another legend has it that rugs were rolled out from the entrance to the audition chair, so that the click-clack of high heels would be muffled.)

In Canada, this tale re-emerged when the Council of Canadian Academies panel discussed the challenges faced by women in academic research, says Michael Wolfson, Canada Research Chair in Population Health Modeling at the University of Ottawa, and one of two men on the 15-member panel.

Samantha Brennan of the University of Waterloo’s philosophy department, who researches gender bias, likes the “blind” approach, especially for judging submissions to peer-reviewed journals. “There’s this sense that we [academics] are … all really good at assessing the excellence of others, and that gets us into trouble,” she says. Instead, why not work more objectively, with a score sheet, “asking what do we mean by excellence, how does that person compare to other candidates” and by redefining excellence more broadly. “You get a more diverse applicant pool the broader you cast the net,” she says.

A sampling of organizations that support equity for women in STEM fields


  • The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
    offers its postgraduate and faculty grant recipients a host of accommodations and funding for family and work-life balance. Its Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering program gives research grants to highly qualified women in scientific fields, with matching funds from industry. Past chair holders include Elizabeth Cannon, president of the University of Calgary, and Maria Klawe when she was at UBC; she later became Princeton’s first female dean of engineering and is now president of Harvey Mudd College in California.

  • Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology
    provides inspiration for girls and career support for women in the sciences; it now includes a branch for immigrating women in science and technology.
  • Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) is a pan-Canadian co-ed student organization with branches at many Canadian universities, some of them in existence for about 25 years. WISE arose as a forum for peers to share their experiences.

  • Future Ingenieure
    offers workshops and support for young women in Quebec who aspire to becoming an engineer.

  • Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology
    is a national organization promoting women in STEM fields and celebrating their accomplishments.
  • Many scholars point to ADVANCE, a program of the U.S. National Science Foundation (with funding to date of $130 million US) to support programs that increase the representation of women in science and engineering careers. Its present goal for postsecondary institutions is “institutional transformation.”
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  1. Dr. RTFM / October 10, 2013 at 11:18

    Any chance of ever seeing an article about the under-representation of males in universities overall today, or will you continue to focus exclusively on any area where women are under-represented and ignore all male issues?

  2. Lorne Carmichael / March 4, 2015 at 14:14

    It’s astonishing, really, that we would continue to push a social policy that has been in effect for decades and shows no sign of achieving its goals. We have scholarships for women in science, special classes for women in science, awards for women in science, research grants for women in science, and more. Yet we still can’t seem to attract women into science.

    Any explanation for the lack of women in STEM fields should also account for the fact that since the 1960’s women have entered other prestigious fields such as Law and Medicine in droves. I doubt anyone would argue that the discrimination faced by female scientists today is anything like the discrimination experienced by the women who chose Law and Medicine in the 1960’s and 70’s. Yet that discrimination was overcome, and the much milder form faced by female scientists today is somehow impregnable? I don’t think so.

    Much is made of the fact that girls do just as well as boys in tests of mathematical ability. They do. But math ability alone is not what guides the choice to be an engineer or a scientist. This choice is influenced by what David Ricardo in the early 1800’s called “comparative advantage”. It’s not just how good you are at Math. It’s how good you are at math relative to all the other things you could be doing.

    Girls score as well as boys at math, but much better in every other subject. Consider a high school boy getting 90% in Math and 70% in English, and a girl getting 90% in both subjects. Which one is more likely to take science in College?

    The question is not “Why are there so few women in Science?” The question is “What else are boys going to do?”

    Let’s start putting some of these resources into teaching boys to read – to do better in subjects like English.. This will help correct the serious under-representation of males at University, and it will also encourage relatively more women to enter science by giving men some alternatives. It doesn’t have to be all about one gender.

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