The late French author Jules Renard mused that people should be able to begin their education again with their 30-year-old intelligence. But is this really possible in the current Canadian system? Non-linear paths are, by definition, atypical, but they can be an asset in terms of diversity.
Unfortunately, the highly linear academic system does not see things this way: any deviation from the regular path is viewed as reflecting a lack of determination, commitment and enthusiasm, whereas, in reality, this diversity opens up different perspectives that can produce original approaches to problems. For example, mothers suffer from the bias that they do not have enough time to devote to research. However, it is not only a question of time; we also need to consider commitment and the quality of time dedicated – which is precisely the point!
The recently released Canadian Commission for UNESCO report on the non-linear careers of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) explores these issues. The report’s authors are Liette Vasseur, a professor in the department of biological sciences at Brock University, and Brock master’s student Heather VanVolkenburg.
According to the report, despite the difficulties involved, the success rate for mature women students obtaining an undergraduate degree is 50 percent higher than for their younger counterparts (the same figure at the college level is 29 percent). In 2015, 80 percent of mature women students obtained their undergraduate degrees, compared with only 25 percent of their younger counterparts. The biases against mature STEM students who are female are therefore unfounded – and it is time to change mindsets.
Why is this predominantly a female problem?
The reproductive years of humans are biologically limited, whereas it is possible to study at any age. Biological realities impose a heavier educational burden on women than on men. In this regard, paid paternity leave is one measure that could help redress the gender-equity imbalance. As the Canadian Commission for UNESCO report’s authors explain: “while mature men may also face such challenges, the current disparity of women in STEM fields creates a great urgency for understanding all of the barriers faced by women who want to pursue studies in these fields.”
Mature women students in STEM face many obstacles at the university level. First, the status of mature student varies greatly from one university to another, and admission eligibility criteria are wanting in terms of definition, information and clarity, with engineering and science faculties rarely accepting mature students of any gender. Second, mature women need special support, but very few universities offer this kind of support. Daycare systems, in particular, are few and far between, and are often reserved for graduate students. Mature women students in STEM could benefit greatly from financial support to cover their specific needs in terms of tuition, loss of wages and so on.
College entrance requirements are clearer and somewhat more inclusive than those for universities: only five percent of colleges require mature students to go through the regular registration process before taking a specific “mature student” program, as opposed to 52 percent of universities. Nevertheless, most colleges require that mature students, as a condition of admission, take certain tests, thereby fostering the feeling that skills acquired through experience are not recognized by increasing the number of registration steps for adult learners. Too few colleges are mature student-friendly in terms of daycare systems, financial counseling and the kind of networking they offer.
Although the student population is traditionally composed of young students on linear career paths, the demographics are changing. Colleges, universities and society in general must therefore adapt to this new reality. To support mature women in STEM, the education system should standardize admission criteria and develop the support services available such as daycares, financial assistance, online resources, networking, mentoring, support groups, flexible work arrangements, online teaching, etc. This accommodation should include reserving a certain number of places for mature women students.
To combat marginalization and discrimination against mature women in STEM, it is important to combat biases, including subconscious ones, by educating professors, admission offices and other support services in this area. Given the commitment and richness that women in non-linear career paths can contribute to STEM, society cannot afford to lose such potential for advancing research and contributing to society on the labour market. After all, doesn’t a life experience like motherhood involve learning many transferrable skills (such as prioritization, organization, etc.)?
It is therefore urgent that universities and colleges redefine the concept of excellence to include non-linear paths, especially those of women in STEM.
Tina Gruosso is president of the not-for-profit organization Science & Policy Exchange, where she is an advocate for evidence-based policymaking, science diplomacy, science communication and diversity. Dr. Gruosso also sits on the executive committee for the Greater Montreal chapter of WomenInBio.