Individuals may be legally equal in Canada, but our society is by no means equitable towards both genders. A patriarchal culture still exists, resulting in the under representation of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Women currently represent the majority of both non-STEM students and university graduates overall. However, Statistics Canada recently published a study that showed women enrolling in university are less likely than men to choose programs in STEM, regardless of mathematical ability.

Why are women refraining from pursuing STEM programs? Some critics still argue that women and men are physiologically different — men are naturally better at studying these disciplines than women. Yet, these biological determinist claims are weak rationalizations.

Many cite that men have superior 3D spatial and visualization skills, which are considered crucial for success in STEM. While men are reportedly more likely than women to pass spatial-visualization tests, research shows these skills are easily improved over a short period of time, and are not necessarily a function of biology.

Students’ average scores on the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (PSVT:R) rose from 52 per cent to 82 per cent — the mean engineering student’s score — after simply taking a 40-hour spatial-visualization course over ten weeks. Any deficiency in spatial-visualization skills is easily overcome, and consequently should not be used to justify the lack of female representation in STEM.

The study also showed that students who played with erector sets, 3D computer games, or enrolled in mechanics classes were more likely to score well on the PSVT:R. Such activities are typically represented as “masculine” — more men than women engage in them, and thus men inevitably improve their spatial-visualization skills. The gender difference in such skills, is therefore more likely a result of persistent gender norms than physiology.

Other analyses concerning men and women’s differences in IQ, brain structure, and hormonal effects on cognition are largely inconclusive. In contrast, many contemporary reports show a rapidly shrinking, sometimes even non-existent gap in general performance levels between women and men.

Women are just as capable of pursuing STEM subjects as men. The reluctance to do so is not a matter of ability, but one of socialization and stereotypes.

People may have stopped actively barring women from pursuing STEM subjects, but our subtle biases still exist, disproportionately encouraging men to enter STEM work areas over women. Harvard’s online Implicit Association Test found that over 70 per cent of half a million participants from around the world more readily linked “male” with science, and “female” with arts than the reverse.

Further studies show that people consider women less likeable if they are in “masculine” fields, especially if they are clearly competent. Competence and likeability are essential for succeeding in any field, so women pursuing STEM are caught in a Catch-22. While we may consciously support gender equity, our actions reflect implicit biases in ways that ultimately deter women from pursuing or succeeding in STEM.

The lack of female role models recorded in STEM history perpetuates these implicit biases. Nettie Stevens, Jocelyn Burnell, and Chien-Shiung Wu are all among the women who have made contributions to STEM and who eventually won Nobel Prizes, but male counterparts ended up receiving the official awards and public recognition. These women need to be given proper credit, so as to create a narrative where women have their rightful place in STEM.

It is imperative that women are properly represented in STEM — if not to fulfill democratic principles of equity, then to harness a hugely untapped potential, maximizing innovation and competitiveness. Products of STEM fields are crucial to the national economy and society; without women, STEM outputs are ill-suited to serve all users. The first automotive airbags were calibrated to adult male bodies, resulting in preventable deaths of women and children. Early voice-recognition systems only picked up male voices.

We have a responsibility to recognize that the legacy of sexism still lingers in our society, detrimentally affecting the lives of at least half of our population. We need to be conscious of our implicit biases, and how they translate into gender inequity. Only with this awareness can we begin to effectively dismantle society’s patriarchal structure which deters women from pursuing STEM.


Victoria Wicks is a first-year student at Trinity College studying philosophy and political science.

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