Women’s equal representation in STEM is about innovating a better future together
UN Women's theme for International Women’s Day 2019 is “think equal, build smart, innovate for change.” It is focused on innovative ways gender equality can be advanced, particularly in the areas of social protection systems, access to public services, and sustainable infrastructure. Participating in innovation ecosystems and the process of technological advancement provides crucial opportunities for women to gain economic autonomy. In fact, in countries where gender inequality is more pronounced, women study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields at a higher rate than women in countries that are more equitable. Research has suggested that this is because women in more unequal countries recognize that STEM careers present the clearest path to their financial independence. While increasing women’s financial independence is a key component of the fight for gender equality, women’s presence in and contributions to STEM fields is about much more—it ensures the technologies we are developing, which have the potential to shape our future society, will equally benefit everyone.
Women and other diverse peoples’ participation in innovation processes, particularly technology development, creates opportunities where differing viewpoints can more quickly identify and prevent built-in biases and negative technological features in software, hardware, and applications. Diverse teams also increase innovation and group performance including better problem solving, increased creativity, and increased knowledge creation and patent filings, accelerating the innovation process. This innovation advantage also translated to a better bottom line—companies with above average diversity scores reported 19 percent higher average innovation revenue than companies with below average diversity scores.
Yet despite the individual financial and broader societal benefits that can be gained from women’s participation in STEM fields, globally only 35 percent of STEM students in higher education are women and just three percent of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) studies students are women. Additionally, at every step of their STEM career, women drop out at much higher rates than men, a phenomenon known as the “leaky pipeline.” The low number of women enrolling in STEM fields as well as the continual exit out of these sectors is particularly troubling amidst the rapid growth in employment and wages in these fields. In 2017, professional, scientific, and technical services was one of the fastest growing sectors in Canada, posting a year-over-year increase of 3.4 percent or 29,300 people.  It is also among the highest paying sectors—the average salary of Toronto tech workers was $92,000 in 2017, a seven percent increase compared to 2016.
The reasons women choose not to enter or stay in STEM careers are multifaceted. While overall boys tend to perform slightly better than girls in mathematics in grade school (but perform equally in science), even girls who do earn good grades tend to have lower confidence in their abilities. For women who do pursue post-secondary STEM credentials, they often face sexism, harassment, and discrimination over the course of their studies and career, which may encourage them to leave the field.
In Canada, young women are less likely to choose a STEM career, regardless of their mathematic ability—just 23 percent of women with scores in the three highest categories of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) chose a STEM program, compared with 39 percent of men in the three lowest categories of PISA scores. Following graduation, women with STEM degrees are more likely to be employed in jobs requiring a high school education or less, or be unemployed, than men with STEM credentials. 
Tech’s retention problem and why women leave
Globally and in Canada, the technology–software industry has the highest turnover rate of any sector. While the sector does have uniquely high demand for talent which could contribute to higher turnover as a result of more competitive compensation elsewhere, the top three reasons employees generally cite for leaving an organization include a lack of opportunity to advance (45 percent), dissatisfaction with senior management (41 percent), and dissatisfaction with the work environment or culture (36 percent).
According to a survey by the US-based National Centre for Women and Information Technology, despite a high number of women in technology jobs reporting that they “lov[e] their work,” they leave their organizations at more than twice the rate of men (41 percent vs. 17 percent)—a much higher rate than women leave their jobs in non-STEM careers. While no significant differences emerged in personal characteristics including racial/ethnic background, being married, or having children, the primary differences highlighted by respondents related to women’s experience of workplace environments including supportive management and access to training and development.
A recent survey of technology workers in Toronto supports that women may be feeling less valued in their jobs than their male colleagues. While women and men did not report a statistically significant difference in their company enabling them to balance their personal and professional lives, there were notable differences in women and men’s responses when it came to feelings of diversity, inclusion, and belonging. Women were less likely to feel:
- comfortable voicing their opinion when it differed from others ;
- encouraged to be innovative even though they may fail at some things;
- part of the decision-making process at work; and
- that their total salary and benefits are fair compared to other employees in similar roles (this makes sense when you consider a 2018 analysis of technology job candidates found that men were offered higher salaries than women for the same job at the same company 63 percent of the time, and that more than half of women had previously found out they were being paid less than a peer of a different gender in the same role).
In Toronto, women working in the technology sector earn, on average, $7,300 less than men. While some of this pay difference is certainly a result of self-selecting into less well remunerated specializations, the disparities in pay are even larger for women who are also visible minorities.
It is also important to question why some sectors are less well remunerated—is it because they are truly less challenging or because they have historically been filled by women? Historically coding was considered a menial job and filled predominantly by women, particularly women of colour, before it was recognized that the task required complex problem solving analysis, at which point the gender balance of the field and the accompanying pay shifted. It has been observed in the past that when women enter a male-dominated field in large numbers average pay drops, while the reverse is true when men enter an industry dominated by women.
Additionally, it is important to consider why women are self-selecting into roles that are less demanding in exchange for less pay—is it because they do not enjoy their work and the responsibility or is it because they are carrying a larger share of household demands? Canadian women continue to log more hours of unpaid labour than men—in 2015 women between the ages of 25 and 54 spent an extra 1.4 hours per day on unpaid labour including child care and household chores.
The way forward
The barriers to women entering STEM careers in Canada are different than those facing women in other countries. Canada is consistently ranked one of the best countries for women to live, however there still remain variations in women’s quality of life across the country including access to reproductive healthcare, employment opportunities, and the likelihood of experiencing criminal harassment. While Canada does have a year of pregnancy and maternity leave provided through the federal Employment Insurance system, and has recently added an additional five weeks of take-it-or-leave-it parental leave for women’s partners, there remains no national child care strategy that ensures there are enough affordable child care spaces available for all women who want to work.
Ensuring girls with the aptitude to enter STEM careers pursue them in greater numbers and women who enjoy their STEM careers remain in the field will require a culture change both at home and in the workplace, including continuing to work towards an equitable split of household duties, continuing to push for workplaces to enact policies that encourage the retention of women (such as flexible work arrangements where possible), and ensuring women are being given the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes at work. While Canada has come a long way, to effect this cultural change a systems approach, including buy-in from senior leadership and men, will be required because no single educational institution, employer, or non-profit will be able to tackle the barriers preventing more equal representation in STEM.
To learn more about the steps that can be taken to ensure more equitable representation of women in innovation sectors, including within the federal Innovation Superclusters Initiative, please read the Institute’s latest White Paper, Gender equality, diversity, and inclusion in innovation: Roundtable summary report, which was written in collaboration with the WE EMPOWER Programme of UN Women.
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