Women encouraged to pursue STEM careers, but many not staying

There is a drive to get more women interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, but research shows that once women are employed, many aren't staying. What's the problem?

'If you're not respected and valued, then why do it?' Canadian exoplanet researcher says

People hold signs picturing pioneering women in science in front the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the March for Science in Washington on April 22, 2017. (Sait Serkan Gurbuz/Associated Press)

There is a drive to get more women interested in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, but keeping them there might be the real challenge.

According to the Society of Women Engineers, more than 20 per cent of engineering graduates are women, but only 11 per cent are practising engineers.

Naomi Kramer isn't surprised at all by the statistics. She has a masters degree in chemical engineering. But she works as the aquatics manager and prenatal and baby manager at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.

"It doesn't surprise me because a lot of women are treated poorly in the field," she said.

She knows first-hand the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated profession.

"All the nightmare things you hear and think, 'that doesn't really happen,' I've had happen," she said.

Her experiences include an adviser who would comment on her body; men who didn't want to speak openly around her; and being told that a project would be "too wrench-wielding" for her.

Lisa Saksida, a cognitive neuroscientist and the scientific director at Western University's BrainsCAN in London, Ont., recently spoke at the school's Inspiring Young Women in STEM conference. She said that although she feels overt sexism has declined, implicit bias still exists. 

"People often don't think about women," Saksida said. "It's not intentional necessarily, but the first people who come to mind are often the men."

For example, women are often not invited to participate on panels, leading some to refer to them as "manels," she said. 


Another contributing factor to the problem could be a lack of self-confidence among women compared to men. 

Women may not be as quick as men to promote their work or go after high-ranking jobs, Saksida said, noting that she fell into that trap herself. While on the faculty at Cambridge University in Britain, the thought of pursuing a professor position didn't occur to her until a male co-worker — who had been there half as long and had less experience — mentioned he was going to apply for the job.

"I thought, 'What? This guy is going to apply? Wait a minute,'" she said. "Often we don't put ourselves forward for these things, and I think that is part of it, too," Saksida said.

Toronto-born MIT professor Sara Seager, a renowned exoplanet researcher, says having mentors in scientific fields could help women become better represented. (Justin Knight/MIT/Canadian Press)

Toronto-born Sara Seager, professor of planetary science and physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said that, while she never personally felt hindered by her working environment, she understands why other women would choose to leave if they're not treated well compared to men. 

"If you're not respected and valued, then why do it?" Seager said.

Two recent incidents have served as a reminder on how gender bias is still relevant in STEM fields.

In 2017, at an astronomical conference in Norway, women walked out after Nobel-prize winning economist Christopher Pissarides told the gathered crowd that he prefers using a male voice when using iPhone's voice assistant, Siri, because a man's voice is more trustworthy.

Jill Tarter, who was at the forefront of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence for more than 30 years, stood up and chided him, saying he'd "pissed off half the world's population," before she walked out, along with Seager.

In 2015, at the World Conference of Science Journalists, British biochemist Tim Hunt was taken to task for saying, "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry."

He was stripped of his various academic posts as a result, though he said the remarks — though "inexcusable" — were intended as a joke.

But that's the kind of attitude many women feel can push them out of STEM fields.

'Better results'

Canada's Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan, a former scientist herself, said that getting more women into high-ranking scientific position adds new perspectives.

"We absolutely need women's ideas, their smarts, their voices. We get better results," Duncan told CBC News. "When you include women, they may ask different questions, use different methodologies, and they may get results that benefit everyone."

While Naomi Kramer may not be practising chemical engineering right now, she hasn't written off a STEM career and still thinks about going back. 

"I don't think I'll ever turn off my engineering mind," she said.


Nicole Mortillaro

Senior reporter, science

Based in Toronto, Nicole covers all things science for CBC News. As an amateur astronomer, Nicole can be found looking up at the night sky appreciating the marvels of our universe. She is the editor of the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the author of several books. In 2021, she won the Kavli Science Journalism Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for a Quirks and Quarks audio special on the history and future of Black people in science. You can send her story ideas at