Women's work

Women's work

To mark the centennial of International Women's Day on March 8, we look at the state of women in the fields of science and technology in Canada
March 8, 2011
When Karen Kidd thinks back on the women who inspired her as a young scientist, she can’t come up with any.

“All the researchers I worked with were men. I didn’t have a female mentor until more recently,” says Kidd, an ecotoxicologist at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John who earned her PhD in 1996.

She doesn’t feel her experience impeded her career, but the Canada Research Chair in Chemical Contamination of Food Webs acknowledges that there is a need for more women in science. And she recognizes that there are barriers which sometimes keep them away.

“Self-promotion and marketing — I think that’s what we [women] tend to do poorly,” she says. “It’s important to get out there and show others what you’re capable of. I think it’s really critical in this field, because it’s a competitive field for receiving grants and getting published. You have to be willing to sell yourself and defend your work.”

Kidd believes that initiatives like International Women’s Day, which marks its centennial on March 8, help raise awareness about the role of women in science. Thousands of women like Kidd have entered science-related careers since the inception of International Women’s Day, but with this year’s event highlighting equal access for women to education, training and science and technology, there is still a need to help nudge women into these fields.

A study conducted by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), released at the end of 2010, found that the natural sciences and engineering disciplines rank at the bottom of choices for Canadian women entering university or college. It also suggested that the odds of a girl entering first grade going on to earn a PhD in the sciences or engineering are 1 in 286, while the odds for a first-grade boy are 1 in 167. And women make up only 30 percent of the doctoral degrees awarded in engineering and natural sciences in Canada.

The report, “Women in Science and Engineering in Canada,” concludes that there is a need for more targeted programs and female mentors and that women need increased exposure to these fields to encourage them to pursue studies in science and engineering.

Mary Williams agrees. An adjunct professor in engineering at Memorial University of Newfoundland in St. John’s and a former NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering — a program intended to boost the participation of females in science — she suggests that fostering an effective female-friendly workplace by encouraging greater participation and sharing leadership is paramount to attracting more women to the field.

“In order to change a culture in any organization, it is absolutely essential, and it has to come from the leader,” says Williams, who is now director general of the National Research Council’s Institute for Ocean Technology. “Science and engineering are often seen as something that is only for genius types or for people who do it because they have to do it. But, in fact, a lot of women are in their particular branch of science and engineering because they love what they do.”

A recent study from Statistics Canada suggests women could be making some in-roads in graduate studies. Of the 3,500 doctoral graduates in Canada in 2005, for example, 46 percent were women. But female representation in engineering was only 17 percent and 26 percent in computer, math and physic sciences.

Reni Barlow, executive director of Youth Science Canada says that in the past two decades, a push to attract females into science at the elementary and secondary school levels by his and other organizations has enjoyed some success. The organization promotes inquiry and project-based science to Canadian youth and runs the annual Canada-Wide Science Fair, which hosts 500 top young scientists in grades 7-12, selected from about 25,000 participants at 100 regional science fairs each year.

“The gender balance at the Canada-Wide Science Fair has flipped from boys to girls, so for the past three years, girls have outnumbered boys at about 55 percent,” says Barlow. “We kind of push that figure back to the regions and ask, ‘Does this reflect what you’re seeing?’ Generally, they say yes.”

The key, he says, is to get girls’ attention early and sustain it long enough to bring them into university, hopefully to reverse the trend of females leaving science. In 2010, the Canada Foundation for Innovation commissioned Ipsos Reid to produce the Canadian Youth Science Monitor (see sidebar), the first pan-Canadian survey of youth attitudes on science. Approximately two-thirds of the 2,605 Canadian youth between the ages of 12 and 18 who participated in the online questionnaire said they are “very” or “fairly” interested in science, with 78 percent of 12- to 13-year-olds expressing an interest, compared with 58 percent of 17- to 18-year-olds.

The results also showed that girls lose interest in science faster than boys as they get older, except in the study of biology, where girls’ interest increases.

Barlow says an emphasis on promoting the benefits of scientific investigation will further attract girls if put forth in an engaging and memorable way.

“When activities are presented in a way that builds inquiry and critical-thinking skills, collaboration and investigation and all of those various things that are strong attributes of science,” he says, “both boys and girls retain their interest and develop their skills and pursue it.”  

By the numbers: Young women and science

• two-thirds of both male and female youth express interest in the science

• from age 12-13 to age 17-18 interest in science drops by the same amount for both genders (20 percentage points)

• males are more interested in physics, chemistry and mathematics than females

• females are more interested in biology and environmental science than males

• a quarter of both males and females say studying science in school is important to their eventual career

• female youth are significantly more likely than male youth (66 percent versus 57 percent) to say that science would be a good career for young people generally

• one-third of both males and females in the final years of secondary school (age 17 to 18) express interest in a scientific career
(Source: Canadian Youth Science Monitor, May 2010)

How to give science a boost

Get to them early: We are missing a window of opportunity for nurturing an interest in science among 12- to 13-year-olds. Efforts to promote interest and engagement in the sciences that take place in the latter years of secondary school education arrive too late; programs that seek to engage middle school students through a compelling, hands-on introduction to science, accompanied by high-quality teaching are likely to meet with greater success.

Parental push: Efforts targeted to parents to promote science as an inherently valuable cornerstone of their children’s education could serve longer term efforts to build a culture in which science is valued and prioritized, and increasingly chosen as a field of study beyond high school. This research suggests that young people who do not choose to pursue science studies often do not do so because their interest in other subjects is greater and not because of an aversion to science itself.

Careers are key: As compelling as programs in science targeted to young people may be, if young people do not clearly sense that the difficulty and complexity of science carries rewards in terms of career options that are plentiful, well-paid and interesting, they may remain unlikely to choose scientific studies.
(Recommendations from the Canadian Youth Science Monitor, May 2010)