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What Impacts Women's Careers In STEM?

I recently shared on Twitter a Youtube video about "a tale of two women" in science. Based on a true story, the video narrates the career paths of two female scientists, from the time they graduate with their bachelor's degrees, outlining along the way the factors that impact their careers. The story struck a chord with my audience, garnering over 15,000 impressions on Twitter.

In Canada, women remain underrepresented in the STEM fields, making up 22 per cent of the STEM workforce. Women earn nearly half of the bachelor's degrees in science but only a third of the PhDs. They are also underpaid, with a 7.5 per cent wage gap.

Canadian science minister Kirsty Duncan drew strong applause from the audience at a conference last month when she said that the science workplace is "tilted against women." Speaking about her science research career, she described a hostile environment for women. "I loved my (university) job but was I asked at departmental meetings when I planned to get pregnant? Was I paid in the bottom tenth percentile?" The answer to both questions was yes. She added: "And when I asked how this could have happened, the answer: was 'because you're a woman.'"

Several factors impact women's careers in STEM, including the following.

Gender Bias

Multiple studies document the role of gender bias in pushing women out of STEM careers. For example, both male and female faculty rated a male applicant as significantly more competent and hireable than his female counterpart, when both had identical application materials. That experiment was part of a study in 2012 that randomly assigned a fictitious student with a random male or female name.

Starting a Family

Professional women in all fields struggle to juggle their career and family responsibilities. Female researchers have a small window in their careers, typically in their late twenties and early thirties, to publish papers and land grants.

Fortune magazine reports that many female scientists abandon their research when their careers are about to boom, suggesting starting a family as the reason. Even though women receive 46 per cent of science doctorates in the US, only a third of scientists in tenure positions are women and less than a quarter of full professors are women, reports the magazine.

Further research quoted in the Harvard Business Review documented the "maternal wall" as a major obstacle to women in STEM. Of all female scientists surveyed, nearly two-thirds of those with children reported bias. "Women felt they were competing with men who had stay-at-home wives, and that colleagues often assumed that they would lose their drive after they had children."

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is prevalent in the STEM workplace. A study shows that while doing fieldwork, 64 per cent of scientists, primarily women, have been sexually harassed and one in five has been a victim of sexual assault. CNN also recently interviewed many women in STEM who reported incidents of sexual harassment, exposing a very unfriendly workplace for women.

And we all recall Tim Hunt's sexist remarks about women last year, which resulted in strong criticism from the science community, forcing him to resign from a number of prominent positions in the UK.

As "A Tale of Two Women" points out, other factors could affect women's careers in STEM, such as having to care for an ill parent, for example. As the scientist in the video learns, career breaks are extremely hard to recover from.

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Dr. Emily Agard
Director of SciXchange 
at Ryerson University
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I'm on a mission to make science inclusive, accessible and engaging.

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