Becoming Better Mentors to Eliminate the Gender Gap in STEM

Despite extensive efforts to eliminate the gender gap, women are still vastly underrepresented in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) fields. Hence, what is missing for gender equality in STEM? Understanding the roots of the gender gap in STEM is preponderant to overcome these issues and to develop strategies aimed to eliminate gender gaps for good.

The STEM “pipeline” continues to leak women. We lose powerful minds from the pipeline at different stages in a STEM career: between high school and undergraduate studies; throughout undergraduate studies; between undergraduate and graduate studies; and between degree completion and the workforce. In addition to a life specific component in their decision to leave their careers, the role that educational institutions are playing in this matter isn’t enough to keep women in STEM.

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Barriers to Women’s Involvement in STEM

In the Photo: The girl in the long hall of a building. Photo Credit: Vilma Camacho.

Women in STEM face several barriers at different stages of their education and life. Barriers include choices and decisions such as the initial field of study, and whether to complete their degree. In Canada specifically (between 2010 and 2015) women tended to drop-off their STEM careers at the early stages. By the start of the second year, around 17 percent of women had left undergraduate studies entirely or switched to non-STEM/BHASE (business, humanities, health, arts, social science and education) programs more than men (Katherine Wall, 2019).

Statistics Canada reported that at the end of 2015, only 39 percent of women ages 25 to 34 obtained a university degree in STEM fields, compared to 66 percent of graduates in non-STEM programs. The proportion of women who left their studies without completing a Master’s degree was higher in biological sciences and physical and chemical sciences than in other STEM fields or in BHASE programs. These realities constitute a detrimental factor in the perception that the world have of women in STEM nowadays. As such, what can educational institutions do to encourage women to persist and excel in STEM fields?

The Role of Institutions

In the Photo: The woman and the girl, power & determination. Photo Credit: Vilma Camacho.

From early childhood, parents and educational institutions can contribute. Firstly, by eliminating stereotypes and engaging girls and boys equally on learning duties and programs. The active enrollment of young girls and women in “boys” related activities can increase their awareness and aspiration for STEM professional careers. These activities include building robots, videogames, and Legos. It is crucial to build up STEM skills in girls from a very early age. This way, they will grow owing their abilities, talents and competences. Recognizing leadership and resilience in girls will allow them to face future challenges and to look for strategies to reach their own goals.

Universities can also fight gender-biased practices. They can bridge disciplines and build collaborative research programs merging STEM and non-STEM disciplines, such as science and art. Perceptions of Neuroscience is an excellent initiative in Canada that aims to connect and facilitate interdisciplinary exchanges between arts and science communities.

Many institutions are taking steps to hire more female STEM faculty members around the globe. In 2016, the proportion of women in full-time engineering faculty posts in Canada was 14.9 percent, a 1.5 percent rise since 2012. Engineers Canada is looking to increase the representation of women within the engineering field by raising the percentage of women engineers to 30 percent by the year 2030. Although it is work in progress, these are excellent initiatives that will increase women’s visibility and accessibility. More importantly, this will increase women’s participation as keynote in conferences and serve as inspiring models to move the balance to gender equity in STEM.

The Wage Gap in STEM

In the Photo: Equal Pay Day Demonstration. Photo Credit: 9to5.

More women are enrolling in STEM fields at university. However, very few end up working in STEM-related careers or are less likely to hold high-level, high-paying jobs than men. Women make up the majority of professionals in the biological sciences. Occupations relating to the life sciences are typically lower-paying than those relating to other areas of STEM. Representation of women in engineering and computer science, where the large majority of science and technology jobs are concentrated, is very low (Katherine Wall, 2019).

Furthermore, research shows that women who have children generally pay a price when it comes to salary. However, men may benefit from becoming fathers. Mothers with at least one child under age 18 earned 85 cents for every $1 earned by fathers, while women without children earned 90 cents for every dollar earned by men without children, based on 2015 data from Statistics Canada. This constitutes an extra layer of complexity which keeps women from advancing in the workforce and contributes to an uncontrolled wage gap in STEM. Accordingly, how do we tackle the gender gaps in STEM?

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The Role of Men in Eliminating the Gender Gap

Men and women working together to become better mentors can also contribute to eliminating the gender gaps. Yes, men need to become better mentors too. Men must understand that they are part of the equation. Although the great majority of men are concerned, they may not necessarily care about gender gaps. Men must be actively involved in the gender gap evolution. They can do this by educating, respecting and recognizing the role of women in STEM fields and the world economy.

Mentors are Models

Becoming better mentors means being able to strengthen competencies in women via knowledge, participation, inclusion and recognition. I am one of the co-founders of Immigrant & International Women in Science (IWS) Network all across Canada and our main focus is to mentor and empower women in science, specifically immigrant women. As immigrant women in science, we face many challenges including the different languages, cultures, and lack of family or social support. I had the great opportunity to have amazing and inspiring women mentors. They helped me shape my leadership and to own my talents to advance in structural biology, a field that until recently was a male-dominated environment.

In the Photo: A leap of confidence. Photo Credit: Vilma Camacho.

Our mentees can become better than us and go beyond by advancing STEM fields and society. As female leaders in STEM, we advocate for improved workplace policies. Some of these include childcare, family leave, equal hiring opportunities in academic, industry and government positions. Policies must assume equal pay between women (with or without children) and men, to promote more women in STEM and ensure future generations persist in their field and pursue high wage positions.

Finally, leading with competence, humility and being accessible to younger generations in general, not only in our scientific community, will help to cultivate and master women’s own abilities. By extension, this will enhance their confidence.

It is important to encourage women to step out of their comfort zone. Do something that has not been done before. Recognize and challenge gender stereotypes and biases in academia, industry and government positions. #She/Her/Hers lets reach gender equality in STEM.

In the Cover Picture: Brown canyon under clear sky during the daytime in Chahkouh Canyon. Photo Credit: Farnoosh Abdollahi.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by Impakter columnists are their own, not those of 

About the Author /

Edna Matta is the founder of STEM-Tolima - an education program that aims to bridge STEM fields and youth around the globe. “By creating education reachable to everyone, especially minorities and low-income populations, we can break the boundaries in STEM fields to face the global challenges in science and technological innovations”. Edna is a structural biologist with extensive experience in academia and the private sector. She obtained her PhD at McGill University, studying the structure of ubiquitin related proteins, and her discoveries represent a major advance in the understanding of the life cycle of proteins. During her academic formation Edna had the opportunity to mentor a large number of students in different countries. Edna is one of the Co-Founders of Immigrant & International Women in Science (IWS)-Network in Canada - committed to empower and support women in Science.

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