By Akhila Srinivasan
Due to a growing demand for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) careers, the field is expected to grow exponentially over the next decade. A few stats to help illustrate this growth: In Canada alone, STEM has one of the fastest rates of job growth (4.6% yearly growth versus 1.8% for non-STEM). In the United States for comparison, the number of STEM jobs will grow by 13%, compared to 9% for non-STEM jobs. Given there is a proven demand for such jobs, why aren’t there more women practicing in the field?
While STEM is a growing occupational option, the number of women in these careers is often lower than men, resulting in a large gender gap. I remember when I received a job offer to work at a mine years ago… I was quite shocked and intrigued. Mining is an industry that’s notoriously known for being archaic with the “old boys club” mentality… and yet they had hired me? An Indian woman… A woman and a visible minority? Naturally, I thought, “Okay, maybe that’s changing! Maybe the industry is finally catching up with the world?”
I got to the mine site in BC’s Copper Mountain and to no one’s surprise, I was the only woman in the engineering department. But here’s where things got interesting. I found out that I wasn’t the first, second…or even third choice for the role. They had hired me because all three male candidates who had been selected before me had rejected the role, so they went with the “next best alternative” … Yours truly. This scenario is only a microcosm of how our society functions because it’s the reflection of a larger issue in our world; women not being considered and/or being overlooked for STEM roles, let alone work in leadership positions!
Female CEOs and board members are rare in all fields. Case in point, only 12.2% of board members in the information technology industry are female and only 16% are in managerial and senior positions. Moreover, the gender gap continues in the C-suite, where women are only 3% of CEOs and 20% of CFOs. Globally, on average, women accounted for less than a third (29.3%) of those employed in scientific research and development in 2016.
Research has repeatedly shown that having more women in leadership roles is beneficial to society. On top of being strong communicators and possessing the ability to handle crises well, studies have shown how greater board and leadership diversity has benefitted companies. Some examples of the positive impact of hiring more women include widening the corporate staff’s communication and networking skills, nurturing new perspectives, and facilitating critical thinking.
So why don’t we see more women at the top? Yes, we might be seeing more women in higher status positions, especially with the acceleration of the #metoo and #timesup movements in industries where support networks are strong. However, change is still slow. The glass ceiling may no longer be a proper analogy. Instead, think of the idea of a labyrinth: there are many possible routes and many dead ends. Some of these may include discrimination and harassment, fewer resources and lack of support, family obligations, lack of role models and mentors. Wrong turns and backtracking are likely and common, yet there can be successful paths.
How can we overcome these barriers to leadership and greater representation in STEM fields? Many other women (thinking really far back to Marie Curie and more recently to the accomplishments of leaders like Dr. Love Ese Child), have managed to build successful careers with degrees in STEM disciplines so how did they do it? If you’re a woman in STEM, here are some tangible strategies that will help you succeed in your career:
Project confidence: In STEM, women’s confidence levels have long been under assault from overt insults insinuating that they’re less likely to succeed and less suited for STEM careers. Simply put, telegraph confidence and you will see results.
Claim credit for your ideas: 82% of women in STEM say their contributions are ignored. Successful women in STEM are more likely to speak up when they’re overlooked.
Leverage the power of networking: Building relationships with others increases trust. Successful women invest deeply in networks, help peers connect to senior leaders, and advocate for the ideas and skills of their peers.
Build up proteges: Most successful women in STEM report sponsoring someone at their companies. As sponsors, they advocate for their protégé’s next promotion, identify improvements in performances and opportunities, fix their problem-spots, and advocate for and defend their protégé when they stumble.
Women in STEM have one of the toughest yet most rewarding careers in the world. In Canada, women accounted for less than a quarter (23.6%) of those working in natural and applied sciences occupations. In the US, women made up only 29% of those employed in science and engineering occupations. The numbers are even smaller for women of colour, with a whopping 11.5%.
After my graduation, I went through a tough time – at 25 years of age, unemployed, and in debt. I was desperate for a job, so I researched online and came across SWE Toronto Coffee Club, a networking community where women in the field get together in a cafe and talk about their experiences. I had never been part of a community of like-minded women, who not only understood what I went through, but where I also felt heard, seen, and understood. This is what women in the field suffer from – we don’t feel like we value or matter.
I loved attending SWE (Society of Women Engineers) Toronto’s events so much so that I worked my way up to the top, sitting here before you as the President of SWE Toronto. Here, we strive to create an empowering and supportive space for women in STEM enabling them to rise together as a community. It’s our mission to contribute to the continued professional growth of women in STEM. We encourage meaningful and engaging conversations through a series of meetups, speaker sessions, and workshops. All our events are free (and virtual) and you can find us here. I believe that, through this organization, we can increase the retention rates of women in STEM. One thing is certain, the onus on improving gender diversity in STEM shouldn’t solely be placed on women’s shoulders.
Akhila Srinivasan is a civil engineer, specializing in the Geotechnical field. She works at HDR for the Underground and Tunneling Division.