In recognition of International Day of the Girl, celebrated each year on October 11th, this HillNote explores the participation of girls and women in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly referred to as STEM
Girls and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics globally
The United Nations (UN) recognizes that the full participation of women and girls in STEM is integral to achieving gender equality. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), globally, women are underrepresented in the field of research and experimental development, which includes STEM fields. Women represent, on average, 29% of the world’s researchers and 35% of global higher education enrolment in STEM fields.
UNESCO suggests that women’s participation in STEM is crucial to achieving not only gender equality, but also “should be considered as crucial means to promote scientific and technological excellence.”
Canadian girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: a statistical overview
Statistics Canada’s 2017 Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, provided data demonstrating that a higher proportion of STEM graduates were men than women in 2011 (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 – Graduates in STEM Fields and Non-STEM Fields by Gender, 2011
Note: The data are for Canadian graduates between the ages of 25 and 64 in 2011.
In 2011, a higher proportion of young (25 to 34 years) STEM degree holders were women (39%) compared to older (55 to 64 years) STEM degree holders (23% women). The report noted that women aged 25 to 34 years were typically concentrated in the natural sciences such as biology, and were underrepresented in engineering and mathematics fields (see Figure 2).
Figure 2 – STEM Degree Holders by Field and Gender, 2011Note: The data are for Canadian graduates between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2011.
Source: Figures prepared by the author using information obtained from: Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey 2011, as cited in Sarah Jane Ferguson, “Women and Education: Qualifications, Skills and Technology,” Chapter 8 in Women in Canada: A Gender-based Statistical Report, 7th Edition, Statistics Canada, Ottawa, 2017.
However, some differences exist among groups of Canadian women in STEM fields. For example, in 2011, female immigrants were the majority of women aged 25 to 34 years with degrees in mathematics and computer science (65%), and engineering (54%), whereas Canadian-born women represented 70% of all female science and technology degree holders.
The data available for Indigenous women in STEM fields indicate similar trends to those for non-Indigenous female STEM degree holders in Canada; in 2011, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous women with STEM degrees were more likely to hold degrees in the science and technology fields.
Skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds in science and mathematics
Although women are underrepresented in STEM careers globally, mathematics and science scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), illustrated in Figures 3 and 4, show that girls and boys achieve similar levels in science and mathematics assessments within their respective countries.
Maps prepared by the Library of Parliament, Ottawa, 2017, using data from United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization. Global Administrative Unit Layer. GeoNetwork, 2015; OECD Program for International Student Asessment (PISA). 2015 PISA Mathematics Scale: Overall Mathematics and 2015 PISA Science Scale: Overall Science. PISA Data Explorer, accessed October 3, 2017. The following software was used: Esri, ArcGIS, version 10.3.1.
In Canada, performance gaps between boys and girls in science are relatively low compared to those in other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries; however the OECD highlights that a gap exists between girls and boys in mathematics. A report by the Council of Ministries of Education indicated that in 2015, there was no gender gap in average PISA scores in science, but that boys’ average scores in mathematics were nine points higher than girls’ scores.
Why are women and girls underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?
A 2017 UNESCO report noted that the underrepresentation of women and girls in STEM education can be attributed, in large part, to the persistence of gender stereotypes. The report concluded that “Girls’ disadvantage is not based on cognitive ability, but in the socialisation and learning processes within which girls are raised and which shape their identity, beliefs, behaviours and choices.”
Among suggestions to encourage girls’ involvement in STEM, the report suggested:
- increasing the representation of women in STEM in the media;
- making STEM curricula gender-responsive;
- ensuring girls have female role models in STEM fields; and
- increasing mentorship opportunities for girls and women in STEM.
Parliamentary and federal initiatives in Canada to encourage the participation of girls and women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics
There have been several parliamentary and federal government initiatives related to increasing girls and women’s participation in STEM. Recent parliamentary work includes:
- the 2015 House of Commons Standing Committee on the Status of Women Report 8 – Women in Skilled Trades and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Occupations
- the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance’s report on consultations in advance of the 2017 budget. The report recommended that the federal government increase funding to promote digital skills and coding education, with a focus on increasing women’s participation in technology fields.
Among recent federal government initiatives are:
- a program called CanCode, which was announced in June 2017 by the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development and the Minister of Science as part of the federal Innovation and Skills Plan. This program will provide coding and digital skills training to students from kindergarten to grade 12, with a specific focus on encouraging young women, Indigenous Canadians and other under-represented groups to pursue careers in STEM.
- an Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, which was announced in May 2017 by the Government of Canada to address the underrepresentation of women, Indigenous peoples, persons living with disabilities and members of visible minorities among chairholders in the Canada Research Chairs Program. The program aims “to attract and retain some of the world’s most accomplished and promising minds.”
- a campaign called Choose Science, which was launched in February 2017 by the Minister of Science. It is designed to encourage girls to pursue education and careers in STEM.
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, an engineer and astronaut, assumed her role as Governor General of Canada on 2 October 2017. Inspired at a young age to pursue a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Her Excellency may inspire young girls to pursue these careers as well.
I grew up in a society where the idea ‘that a girl can’t do it’ was less and less prevalent. At least in my family, it didn’t exist.”
– Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette.
Catalyst, “Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM),” Knowledge Centre.
European Commission, SHE Figures 2015, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Brussels, 2016.
Nadya A. Fouad and Romila Singh, Stemming the Tide: Why Women Leave Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2011.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, PISA 2015 Results (Volume 1): Excellence and equity in education, OECD Publishing, Paris, 2016.
Author: Clare Annett, Library of Parliament