Female engineering students work to be the role models they didn't have

Despite 20 years of effort by the government, gender parity in careers related to science, technology, engineering and math is still far off. Now, the Quebec government is working with professionals to change that.

Despite 20 years of gender-balancing policies, province struggles to attract, retain women in STEM fields

Karina Bagryan and Fariha Kamal from the Women in Engineering group at Concordia University visited Vanier College on International Women's Day to encourage women to study engineering. (Jaela Bernstien/CBC)

Getting women to take up careers in science, technology, engineering and math — often referred to as STEM — has inspired official policies and grassroots efforts for years, but lackluster results are pushing the government into high-gear to confront the problem.

Over the past 20 years, many of Quebec's ministries have enacted gender-related policies to encourage women to join their teams but the results are weak, said Maryse Lassonde, the scientific director at Quebec's ministry promoting research in STEM fields, FRQNT.

Lassonde said most ministries are working to promote women, but blindly — they're not sure which policies are paying off and which are a waste of time.

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"We are trying to increase the number of women getting into science but the statistics haven't changed in 20 years," Lassonde said.

"So it's really discouraging."

The 'leaky pipeline'

Not only are fewer women interested in studying these fields than men but over the course of their studies and careers, many drop out.

It's being called "the leaky pipeline" among those studying the issue and efforts to find out where the leaks are have been gaining momentum globally.

A Montreal-based United Nations agency, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), is helping shed light on the problem with their SAGA project, which aims to understand why women are underrepresented in STEM fields around the world.

According to UIS, only about 30 per cent of the world's researchers are women.

This engineering student had the perfect reply after being told she would never be hired because of her gender.

7 years ago
Duration 0:50
Engineering student Karina Bagryan was told during an internship that there was "no room for women" in the lab she was working in.

The agency has been courting countries around the world to take part in its STEM research.

Working with Quebec is proving mutually beneficial because the province already has so many policies in place.

"We're seeing what Quebec is doing and how we can improve the project," said UIS SAGA researcher Kim Deslandes. 

The results are expected to be online next spring. 

By that time, Quebec's ministries will have pooled their knowledge together to figure out which policies work.

​"It's not that the efforts are not being made, it's that it's so difficult," Lassonde said.

Students inspiring students 

Advocates of women in STEM say that from childhood, girls often don't see themselves as engineers or mathematicians.

So students and women in those fields are taking it upon themselves to address that part of the problem.

Concordia University's Women in Engineering student group goes to CEGEPs and high schools to talk about their field and drum up awareness among younger women. 

Villa Maria High School students take part in a Women in Engineering workshop offered by the students at Concordia University. (Women in Engineering)

"Parents would come up to us because they're engineers or professors and they want their daughters to take an interest in engineering," co-president of the group Fariha Kamal, 22, said.

"Then I'd speak to the daughters and they'd say 'I don't see myself in it.'"

Canada falling behind?

The group's other co-president, Karina Bagryan, 26, is from Russia and was surprised by the culture around STEM here.

"[In Russia] there were a lot of girls who were in engineering and I never knew it was an issue until I came to Canada," Bagryan said.

Professor and associate chair of electrical and computer engineering at Concordia, Anjali Agarwal, agrees there's something about how these fields are perceived here which fails young women.

She said that in her native India women have no trouble seeing themselves in STEM, but in Canada it's still an uphill battle.

"There is a family root cause. Daughters need to be encouraged," Agarwal said.
Anjali Agarwal is a professor and associate chair of electrical and computer engineering at Concordia University. (Elysha Enos/CBC)

"There is a culture in Canada. If women are interested in science, they go into medicine, or health-related areas. They don't see technology as a career."

Agarwal and the women in her faculty have formed a committee working to recruit and retain female students.

This includes a new summer camp for girls which will be based out of the university and every day give the teenage girls a sample of different engineering fields — from electrical engineering to game development. 

But even with programs that show women can have fulfilling careers in STEM, and government policies supporting their advancement, the extent of the barriers show a long road ahead.

According to the UIS, beyond policies and motivation, women run into a myriad of other unique roadblocks.

They include starting a career and a family at the same time, special financial considerations, workplace cultures like the pervasive "old boys club" of men promoting men and of course, flat-out discrimination.

Lassonde with the FRQNT says the "unconscious bias" against women in science remains widespread — and that the bias exists in both genders.

"We know that women tend not to judge their potential as being as vast as it is," Lassonde said.


Elysha Enos


Elysha Enos is a journalist with CBC Montreal.