Girls need more exposure to science – researcher

Early secondary school engagement crucial to increasing the number of women in science-related fields, according to study.

The Goldberg Computer Science Building at Dalhousie University.
The Goldberg Computer Science Building at Dalhousie University. (Photo: Jennifer Grudic)

A group of researchers from Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) say early secondary school engagement is crucial to increasing the number of women who work in science-related fields.

The WISEatlantic Research Group surveyed nearly 600 students in Grades 7 through 9 from both rural and urban areas in Atlantic Canada. Their goal was to better understand the students’ engagement in math and science, whether or not they had plans to study science or math in the future, as well as the likelihood that they would pursue a science-related career.

The report is the first phase of a longitudinal study in which they hope to track the attitudes and opinions surrounding science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM subjects – among secondary students from Grade 7 to Grade 12.

The report outlined several findings including how more boys than girls in Grade 7 rated general science as their favourite subject, and how students who were actively engaged in STEM activities showed more interest in pursuing STEM-related careers in the future.

Tamara Franz-Odendaal, the chair for Women in Science and Engineering Atlantic and the lead researcher on the project, says she was motivated to conduct this research to gain a better understanding of the gender imbalance among science-related fields in Canada.

“Less than 25 per cent of the workforce in STEM-related fields is occupied by females. We want to change that statistic,” says Franz-Odendaal.

The study found that the most effective way to increase the likelihood of girls pursuing these types of careers is by engaging them in highly active STEM activities such as science fairs or science camps. Ideally, this should be done before girls reach high school, where many science and math courses become optional.

“I think many girls have already ruled out a lot of the STEM careers by the time they get to university and we’re trying to understand when that starts. And it’s clearly already starting in Grade 7,” says Franz-Odendaal.

Post-secondary education

According to Statistics Canada, women accounted for 56.5 per cent of Canadian university students during the 2011/2012 academic year. Despite this, there were significantly fewer women enrolled in science, technology, engineering and math programs at only 39 per cent.

Franz-Odendaal attributes this to a “leaky pipe” effect in that as girls age and progress through the school system, they are more likely to lose interest in the STEM subjects.

“There are such strong stereotypes of what an engineer looks like, or a scientist, physicist, or chemist. To break through that you need to expose girls to women who are in the field so that they can say ‘I can do that,’” says Franz-Odendaal.

Margaret Walsh, an associate professor for the department of civil and resource engineering at Dalhousie, says she tends to see an even split between the number of males and females in her classes. However, she says this is not the norm for other engineering departments.

She says universities are aware of the importantance of exposing girls to STEM subjects at an early age, and to inform them of the different STEM-related career choices after high school.

“Most of the engineering schools in particiular are very aware of where we are, and where we want to go in terms of female enrollment. There are lots of outreach programs that have been developed over the years,” says Walsh.

Walsh says many of the stereotypes from 20 years ago are no longer present, and the field of engineering is changing in a positive way.

Maggie Barnable, a mechanical engineering student at Dalhousie University, says that although she enjoyed math and science throughout secondary school, she did not know very much about the various STEM degrees being offered.

“I think if more universities sent more people to talk to junior high and high school students about the programs they’re offering… that would be really helpful.”

Barnable says young girls should not be intimidated when deciding to enter into these sorts of male-dominated fields.

“What a lot of girls don’t realize when they’re in high school is that they actually end up having a slight advantage once they get into university and get into the workplace. In a field like this, there is more incentive to hire women because there is less of them,” she says.