Girl studying scienceAt the end of this academic year, graduates’ names will be called in alphabetical order as they waltz across a stage. They will shake hands with a university dean, move the tassel on their cap from one side to the other, and pose for their parents’ cameras.

For decades, graduation ceremonies have been carried out in relatively the same way. But one significant change has occurred. The proportion of women graduates now surpasses that of men. According to 2012 data, 58% of all post-secondary graduates are women.

Hopefully over the coming years we will see a similar increase in the proportion of women graduating with degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and computer science (STEM). According to a 2013  Statistics Canada report measuring gender differences in STEM, women represent 39% of students leaving university with a degree in a STEM field. Within specific programs, the percentage dips even lower:  in computer science programs, 30% of graduates are women, and in engineering programs, 23% of graduates are women. The gender disparity is also clear when it comes to the workforce: In 2014, women held less than a quarter, or 22% of Canadian STEM jobs.

With the labour market continuing to shift in favour STEM fields, it’s crucial to encourage girls and women and girls to consider these areas of study early on. Research and innovation in STEM help the country to stay competitive on a global level. When a lower number of women participate in these fields, the potential of the sector is limited, and the economy suffers. STEM careers also tend to have better labour market outcomes, offering women high earning power and career advancement opportunities.

Why aren’t there more girls and women pursuing STEM? Research suggests that the likelihood of girls to pursue education or careers in STEM is linked to gender biases. The stereotype that boys are better than girls at math keeps many girls from following their interests in that subject. Studies also show that jobs in science are perceived as “masculine”, and that women who are successful in such roles are considered “unlikable.”

Some research indicates that academic ability isn’t a factor when it comes to students’ choices about university programs. Proficiency tests indicate that even when young women score higher in math and sciences, they are still less likely to pursue a university STEM program compared to young men who score lower in the same subjects.

In order to fix the disparity we need to keep encouraging girls to follow their passions, and challenge stereotypes so they have the confidence and skills to study or work in any field they want.

That’s why The Canadian Women’s Foundation proudly supports programs that offer empowering, hands-on STEM experiences to girls across the country. By breaking down gender stereotypes, connecting them with women in STEM and encouraging participants to develop the skills they need to be successful in these fields.

For ten years we partnered with Actua to bring STEM learning opportunities and mentorship to some of Canada’s hardest to reach communities. Actua’s National Girls Program provides an all-girl space for 6,000 youngsters to explore their interests in STEM subjects.

If we want to see more bright young women grasping diplomas and succeeding in STEM jobs, we need to foster their interest in science and maths from an early age. 

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