International Women’s Day
OISE’s Mary Reid aims to inspire change, help bridge gender gap in STEM-related careers
March 8, 2017
By Lindsey Craig
OISE professor Mary Reid has an important opportunity.
“Studies show that from a young age, girls are more anxious about math and have lower confidence in their math abilities compared to boys,” she said. “It’s critical that teachers help diminish that anxiety in young female students and give them confidence at an early age.”
According to Statistics Canada’s National Household Survey (NHS), in 2011, 39 per cent of STEM degrees were held by women. Twenty years before that, in 1991, the number of STEM graduates who were female was only 23 per cent.
Despite the increase over the years, women are still vastly under-represented in the STEM workforce, occupying merely 22 per cent. There has been only a two per cent increase since 19871.
It’s an equation Prof. Reid continues to grapple with.
“There are no differences in academic ability between males and females, yet, significantly more men than women pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math…There are still so many unanswered questions that require more work in understanding how to close the gender gaps,” she said.
For International Women’s Day, OISE chatted with Prof. Reid about the gender imbalance within STEM-related professions. Read below to find out why it’s concerning – and why she’s working to change the status quo.
One-on-one with Professor Mary Reid
Talk about the gender imbalance in STEM-related professions, including software development, computer systems analyst roles and engineering. Why are these careers traditionally male dominated?
Prof. Reid: The gender imbalance in STEM is deeply rooted in a complex web of factors. The research indicates that there are no differences in academic ability between males and females, yet more men select STEM programs. In fact, in a recent study, males were more likely to pursue post-secondary STEM degrees, despite lower scores on their Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math tests. Specifically, “more than 30 per cent of men who had marks under 80 per cent and attended university chose a STEM program, compared with about 10 per cent of women in the same category.2
This suggests that the STEM gender gap goes beyond academic achievement. More research is required to better understand factors contributing to the gender discrepancy in STEM fields, such as a lack of female role models and mentors, math anxiety, gender bias, gender stereotyping, and work-family issues.
Why is it concerning that there aren’t many women in these science, technology, engineering and math-oriented careers?
Prof. Reid: It is so important that women play a major part in STEM careers, today and in the future. A deficit in female contributions means the STEM industry is missing the perspective of half the population. Support for female recruitment and retention in STEM is absolutely critical in order to broaden Canada’s supply of STEM innovation. Diversifying the STEM field is a key strategy to capture a multitude of skilled talent.
If we look at the numbers closely, the rise in numbers for female graduates was mainly in the health sciences. The proportion of female graduates in engineering, math and statistics, and computer science remain low.3 Increasing under-represented groups, such as women in STEM roles, will allow for a wider talent pool to generate innovation and thereby benefit a larger spectrum of our society.
What are some steps that can be taken to increase the number of women in these STEM-related careers?
Prof. Reid: A crucial step towards STEM gender equity is to engage girls at a young age. New parents, child-care workers, and kindergarten teachers can spark the interest of STEM-related concepts for young girls. We have data that shows that beliefs about math are established early on in elementary schooling. For example, from 2011 to 2016, the Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) questionnaire data reveal that boys in grades three and six were more confident in math. Specifically, boys responded more positively to, “I like mathematics” and “I am good at mathematics” compared to girls. Yet, there were no differences in achievement of math scores between the genders.
These attitudes are significant predictors of math-related career choices. As mentioned previously, more research is required to further understand the factors that contribute to gender inequities in STEM achievement. Other important steps in increasing the number of women in STEM include: targeted recruitment efforts, women mentor programs, and gender bias training for teachers.
Does any of your work involve encouraging women in math/science-related studies/careers? Please share this with us.
Prof. Reid: My role as a professor of math education directly involves combatting gender inequities in math. I have the privilege of teaching prospective teachers about math pedagogy and curriculum implementation. A major part of my research involves studying math teacher efficacy and its connections to math anxiety. Studies have consistently shown that girls from a young age are more anxious about math and have lower confidence in their math abilities compared to boys.4Other researchers have shown that female teachers with math anxiety negatively impact their female students… “the more anxious [female] teachers were about math, the more likely girls (but not boys) were to endorse the commonly held stereotype that ‘boys are good at math, and girls are good at reading’ and the lower these girls’ math achievement.5
The fact that 90 per cent of my teacher candidates are female makes it all the more critical that I cultivate a safe and positive learning community so candidates can freely take risks and openly develop their math teaching skills. I promote a growth mindset for each of my student teachers in which productive struggle, persistence and engagement are key factors to math achievement.
As a mentor to my women teacher candidates, I make it clear that we have important areas of research that help inform our classroom practice as math educators. However, there are still many unanswered questions that require more work in understanding how to close the gender gaps.
In Feb. 2017, media outlets reported that the Canadian government used the photo of a kitten to try and entice females into STEM-oriented careers. How did you react to this?
Prof. Reid: When I first viewed this government campaign, I was taken aback by the sexist undertones filtered throughout the website. As a mom of two teen daughters, I know firsthand how challenging it is to combat gender stereotypes. There is a lot of social pressure for girls to abide by gender norms. We must recognize that gender expression and gender identity are highly individualized. Several of the photos and captions on this website perpetuate stereotypical gender norms.
For example, the section on fashion and taking selfies implies girls are into vanity activities that focus on appearance and the photo of the kitten suggests girls are supposed to be nurturing caregivers. Furthermore, the caption “A career in STEM doesn’t mean spending your life in science class” might be interpreted that science class is difficult or boring for girls. Instead, I wish the campaign conveyed a clear message that science class is awesome and can be its own world of discoveries.
Although the campaign’s intentions were to promote girls in STEM, unfortunately, I believe it created more angst though reinforcing gender stereotyping.
Thank you, Prof. Reid for sharing your thoughts on this important topic as part of our International Women’s Day coverage.
1 Dionne‑Simard, D., Galarneau, D., & LaRochelle‑Côté, S. (2016). Insights on Canadian Society Women in scientific occupations in Canada. Statistics Canada.
2 Hango, D. (2013). Gender differences in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and computer science (STEM) programs at university. Statistics Canada. p.6.
3 Dionne‑Simard et al.
4 Ganleya, C., & Lubienskib, S. (2016). Mathematics confidence, interest, and performance: Examining gender patterns and reciprocal relations. Journal of Learning and Individual Differences, 47, 182–193.
5 Beilock, S., Gunderson, E., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. (2009). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 107(5), 1860-1862.