female scientist in white lab coat using a microscope
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Women have fought for equality and parallel representation in post-secondary education for decades. However, for too long, women have been underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Women accounted for more than 64 per cent of students in non-STEM-related university programs, and only 44 per cent in STEM-related programs in 2010, according to a study written by Katherine Wall, that looked at whether or not women stuck with their chosen fields.

“Among those who were first-year students in a STEM undergraduate program in 2010, 66 per cent of women and 72 per cent of men remained in a STEM program (as students or graduates) as of 2015,” wrote Wall.

Academic segregation by gender causes separation and unequal learning environments that lean more in favor towards male students. In turn, this creates degrees that are female-dominated or male-dominated, which often results in post-graduation disadvantages for women, such as wage gaps.

“Women’s self-identification with math and sciences is lower than that of men, and even women who report strong self-identification with math and sciences are less likely than men to intend to pursue a major in those fields,” wrote Wall.

Nurture and nature

As girls grow up, they are shaped by their environment around them.

“If what you’ve seen your mom do isn’t STEM related, or the females in your life, then you might not visualize yourself in that,” says Erica Bayley, high school teacher and graduate from the University of Calgary with a bachelor in mathematics and education.

Erica Bayley, teacher and recent graduate from the University of Calgary in mathematics and education. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: ERICA BAYLEY

Bayley experienced both sides while pursuing her undergraduate degree.

“In education, it was almost entirely females…in math, it was almost entirely males,” says Bayley.

Not only are students recognizing this divide, but professors are as well.

“Instructor wise, or research professors…my recognition is there are more males than females,” says Karen Ho, chemistry professor at Mount Royal University.

Longstanding issue

Gender inequality amongst STEM professors is not a new concept.

Karen Ho, chemistry professor at Mount Royal University. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: KAREN HO

The University of Alberta’s Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology’s (WISEST) website states, in December of 1981, women made up only 19 per cent of all professors, with five per cent in science, and a mere two per cent in engineering.

The University of Alberta took action after recognizing this and established WISEST to encourage young female students to pursue STEM related fields of study.

However, academic segregation is still evident today, and female students can still experience a lack of respect.

“When we were collaborating on a problem, particularly if I was the only female in the room…I felt isolated in working through the math,” says Bayley. “What I was saying wasn’t valued as much as everyone else…I would say an idea and it was like no one even heard me.”

Women seeking a higher education in STEM are often questioned for their attendance, whereas men are encouraged.

Trends in high school

Not only is the discrepancy between men and women in STEM-related fields evident within post-secondary education, but a lack of young women in high school level STEM classes is visible as well.

“I teach calculus and there’s two females and 11 males,” says Bayley. “It’s so hard, when that’s what you’re seeing, to visualize yourself in that.”

Erica Bayley as a young girl receiving a math booklet for Christmas. PHOTO SUPPLIED BY: ERICA BAYLEY

Despite the fact that the percentage of women obtaining a STEM-related degree has increased by about 20 per cent from 1991 to 2015, women still need more encouragement and representation in STEM.

Women in STEM are still underrepresented and with women representing half of the world’s population, half of the world’s potential is lacking.

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