What are the “barriers facing women in STEM”?

Following OSPE’s recent announcement of receiving funding from Status of Women Canada (SWC) for its Canada 150 Challenge: Overcoming Barriers for Women Choosing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Careers proposal, OSPE has received requests for examples of what specific barriers women face when it comes to entering, remaining or exceling in the engineering profession. Some major barriers are listed below, along with findings and statistics from surveys and reports that OSPE and other organizations have conducted.

Getting more #WomeninSTEM is not a new initiative – it has been a focus of post-secondary institutions, the private sector, governments and not-for-profits across North America for more than a decade. Why? Because as science, technology and engineering innovation continue to transform society as we know it, everyone will need a wider range of skills to compete. In order to remain competitive, Canada and other countries must ensure that more young people, including women, are pursuing careers in STEM, and that once they have that education, STEM careers remain attractive to them. That’s why so many initiatives have been underway for years to address “barriers”.

1. Cultural bias and discrimination

STEM organizations and institutions across North America and beyond have been conducting studies to find out why women are increasingly prominent in medicine, law and business but not science and engineering. In 2006, the US National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine joint committee on “Maximizing the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering” conducted a report entitled Beyond Bias and Barriers: Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering.   

The study identified that “women are very likely to face discrimination in every field of science and engineering” and that a lack of action to correct this and other issues will be “detrimental to the nation’s competitiveness”.

From the report: “Considerable research has shown the barriers limiting the appointment, retention, and advancement of women faculty. Overall, scientists and engineers who are women or members of racial or ethnic minority groups have had to function in environments that favor—sometimes deliberately but often inadvertently—the men who have traditionally dominated science and engineering. Well-qualified and highly productive women scientists have also had to contend with continuing questioning of their own abilities in science and mathematics and their commitment to an academic career. Minority-group women are subject to dual discrimination and face even more barriers to success. As a result, throughout their careers, women have not received the opportunities and encouragement provided to men to develop their interests and abilities to the fullest; this accumulation of disadvantage becomes acute in more senior positions.”

Here at home, researchers at the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto partnered with OSPE to conduct a Changing Workplaces online survey of Ontario engineers in 2016-17. With more than 600 respondents, over half of the women who completed the survey (51%) reported being discriminated against in their workplace. A large majority of men (85%) reported having no discrimination directed towards them.

Individuals and initiatives working to change cultural biases and discrimination in engineering have popped up online and in the news frequently over the years.

  • Another video of interest: The #ILookLikeAnEngineer campaign made headlines for its efforts to break gender stereotypes in the field of engineering.
2. Lack of mentorship in early stages of career

Before beginning its Engineering Professional Success pilot mentorship program in partnership with the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE), Professional Engineers Ontario (PEO), PEO York Chapter, and the Canadian Centre for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology (WinSETT), OSPE conducted a needs assessment survey in February 2015 which was completed by 1,566 engineering students who were about to graduate, as well as Engineering Interns (EITs) and professional engineers from across the province.

A vast majority (97%) of female respondents thought mentorship was important when starting an engineering career after graduation. About two-thirds agreed that mentoring improves women’s career prospects and retention in the engineering profession. The research also provided a clear sense of women’s priorities and the hurdles they must overcome in the early stages of their careers.

Survey respondents listed the following as the top challenges they face:

  • Weak professional network
  • Inadequate on-the-job training or professional development opportunities
  • Underutilized engineering skills
  • Work culture and job demands that compete with family and/or community responsibilities
  • Fewer opportunities for field work than colleagues
  • Feeling disrespected and undervalued by managers and/or co-workers

As a result, OSPE designed a pilot mentorship program to reflect the needs of both International Engineering Graduates (IEGs) and Canadian Engineering Graduates (CEGs). Through the creation of 90 mentoring relationships, protégées (mentees) reported that the pilot program was “incredibly valuable”, allowed them to make “wiser career decisions”, created a “renewed passion” for engineering, and “inspired me to stand up for myself”.

OSPE will be continuing its mentorship program and is pleased that the results were so positive and beneficial to young women.

3. Pay equity

OSPE’s 2015 Report Crisis in Ontario’s Engineering Labour Market: Underemployment Among Ontario’s Engineering-Degree Holders analyzed census data from the 2011 National Household Survey for civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers, finding that women earned 16% less than their male counterparts ($66,703 versus $79,540). For other types of engineers, earnings were 15% lower ($67,284). For engineering managers, 17% lower ($98,009 versus $117,489).

More recently, the 2016 Mercer OSPE National Engineering Compensation Survey drew on data from 180 organizations that employed over 13,000 Ontario engineers across all major industry groups in both the private and public sectors. The Mercer survey results indicate that from entry level (Level A) to having over eight years of experience (Level D), there is no more than a 5% difference in salaries between women and men. This is not considered significantly different. However, the longer one works in engineering, the wider the wage gap becomes between men and women.

The largest discrepancies between salaries of women and men occur in the most senior level positions (Levels E and F). Both these levels entail highly responsible and complicated technical functions and/or a high level of administrative, management, and/or consulting work.

At Level E, salaries of women are consistently 6% or 7% lower than men. Women in this level were getting paid less than men in 2016, more so than in 2014. In monetary terms, women on average earned more than $9,000 less than men in comparable jobs. By far, the widest gaps in compensation occurred in the highest level of responsibility (Level F). While 2016 demonstrates the gaps are lower than in 2014 and 2015, women salaries were still 10% lower in 2016 and 11% lower in 2014 and 2015. In monetary terms, women in 2016 earned on average over $15,500 less than men in comparable positions.

Several other OSPE blog posts share the insights of women engineers regarding barriers they have faced first-hand throughout their careers, along with advice on how young women in the field can be successful.

What are your views on #WomeninSTEM initiatives? What positive or negative experiences have you had in your engineering career? What needs to change?

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Darya Duma

    Traditionally, I have found that women are poor at supporting other women in professional environments. So one of the things that should change is our own attitude towards our female colleagues, to be more supportive and less competitive.

    1. STAFF

      Great suggestion, Darya. Thanks for taking the time to share your comment and get the conversation started.

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