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Soapbox Science

Women in STEM: The leaky pipeline

Teaching and Learning

By Dr. Sarah Sauve

There are far fewer women in leadership positions in STEM (science, technology, engineering and medicine) fields than men.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, Statistics Canada reports 195 male and only 90 female full professors for 2019/2020.

Memorial University reports that out of 1,112 permanent faculty employees, 41.7 per cent are women.

Drop at post-doctoral level

However, Memorial’s statistic encompasses the entire university.

We expect these numbers to be lower if we looked at STEM faculties and departments alone. That being said, STEM fields have improved in gender diversity.

According to Soapbox Science, gender parity has essentially been reached, or at least is close, in most STEM fields at the high school level. In biology and chemistry, it even persists as far as the postgraduate level.

However, while physics and computing drop early on, all fields quickly drop to a very low percentage of women in the field from post-doctoral onwards, all reaching below 20 per cent at the professor level.

The proportion of women at progressive academic career stages in seven STEM fields.
Photo: Soapbox Science

It’s been called the leaky pipeline. Why is it happening?

This summer 12 women scientists from Memorial gathered to prepare for Soapbox Science, a public outreach event taking place this Saturday, Sept. 4, at the St. John’s Farmers Market.

As part of our preparation for the event, we shared some of the things we’ve either lived or observed that contribute to the leaky pipeline.

Numerous responsibilities

Work-life balance is more challenging for women.

For example, Yellow Martin shared that a woman professor on maternity leave had her teaching covered, but was not given the resources or funding to run the lab, leaving her to continue working, despite being on leave as a new mother.

Özgen Demirkaplan described the disparity in reactions to a child appearing on a Zoom call: a man is perceived as a great parent for taking care of his child while working; a woman is perceived as unprofessional for being unable to separate her home and work lives.

Dr. Janna Andronowski recalled that in her previous department, none of the four women among 17 faculty members had children.

Built in to the system

Hiring practices (unintentionally) perpetuate systemic issues.

Drs. Sukhinder Cheema and Sue Ziegler spoke about how differently candidates for hire are perceived based on their gender.

In their experience, gender biases affect the perceived “fit” of a potential candidate, which can be confounded with comfort.

Given the existing predominance of male faculty and therefore men sitting on hiring committees, this disproportionally and negatively affects women, and also BIPOC, regardless of gender.

“Losing these voices impoverishes science.”

Sexism in the work place takes many forms.

Examples were given in relation to field work, where Katja Kochvar and Dr. Ziegler have both witnessed men given more opportunities because of their perceived ability to physically “handle” the work better than women.

Shreyasi Sarkar remarked that stereotypes about women in STEM fields lead to micro-aggressions in the workplace. Hannah Wallace spoke about how women are described as “emotional” for reacting to bullying, while the bullies are not held accountable.

All of these reasons, systemic or specific, contribute to women leaving science as they progress in their careers.

Marisa Dussault pointed out that this creates a vicious cycle, as the underrepresentation of women and minorities leads to a lack of role models to support any incoming women and minorities.

Losing these voices impoverishes science; the greater the diversity of scientists we have, the better science will be.

Saturday, Sept. 4

Soapbox Science is an outreach event founded in the U.K. in 2011 that attempts to mitigate these issues by showing that women do indeed belong in science.

On Sept. 4, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the St. John’s Farmer’s Market, 12 women scientists will be speaking to the public about their work.

Come visit us! For more information, check out our website.

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