Quirks and Quarks

Glass obstacle course: Why so few women hold top STEM spots

Female scientists are forced to navigate informal and formal barriers - sometimes called the 'glass obstacle course' - to progress in STEM disciplines at every level.

Female scientists encounter informal and formal barriers at every turn in their careers

The glass obstacle course describes the experience where female STEM professionals encounter unexpected barriers at every turn in their careers. (Ben Shannon/CBC)

Originally published on September 21, 2019.

Growing up, Megan Moore wanted to pursue a career in medicine after high school — an unusual choice for girls in her small Alberta hometown, where options were limited to being "a nurse, a teacher or a farmer's wife."

But when Moore shared her aspirations with a female teacher at her school, she was told there was no space for her in science.

"For somebody like me, a better suited career would be something a little bit slower, where I could play solitaire at my desk all day," Moore recalled the teacher saying. 
Megan Moore (Submitted)

Kira Hoffman got similar advice after receiving her first low grade in a high school math class. A male teacher told her that it was "really common for girls to struggle with maths and sciences," adding that "women do better in humanities — specifically English," and recommended Hoffman to focus her energy and time on those subjects.

For many women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields, stories like Hoffman's and Moore's are painfully familiar, according to Lisa Willis, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Alberta who started researching gender, diversity and inclusion after experiencing discrimination in her own work.

"It affects how you see yourself in the world and what you think that you can achieve," Willis said. 

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Kira Hoffman (Submitted )

Past studies have suggested that women are more likely to choose social science programs over STEM in university; however, that choice was not primarily motivated by their performance in math courses in high school. In fact, Statistics Canada research shows that women with higher mathematical ability are less likely to go into STEM fields than men with lower mathematical ability.

A 2011 study from the International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology described the discrimination against women in STEM fields as a "glass obstacle course."

It affects how you see yourself in the world and what you think that you can achieve. ​​​- Lisa Willis, University of Alberta

Authors of the study argue that the obstacle course metaphor is more accurate than the "glass ceiling" one, because, unlike a ceiling, female STEM professionals encounter informal and formal barriers at every turn in their careers — from grade school to post-secondary education, to field work, and tenure and grant applications. 

'I felt like maybe I really didn't belong in this space'

In spite of her teacher's advice, Moore pursued an undergraduate degree in biology. In one of her university courses — where she was the only female student in a physics lab — she suspected she was being graded lower than her male colleagues on lab reports.

Moore and one of her male friends in the same lab decided to test her hypothesis by switching names on their reports, to see if it made a difference.

"When we got those papers back, my friend had scored a 96 on my paper and I had scored a 54 on his," Moore said.

Krishana Sankar (Submitted)

"So at that moment, it was pretty clear that I wasn't being graded on the quality of my work and that I was being graded for the sole purpose of being the only woman in the lab."

Accounts of gender discrimination aren't limited to grades. Krishana Sankar, a doctoral fellow at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Medicine, said that her contributions in a lab were often dismissed by male colleagues. 

"I started to feel imposter syndrome where I felt like maybe I really didn't belong in this space," Sankar said. "Because every time I spoke, either people didn't care to hear what I had to say, or when they heard what I said, it seemed as though it made no sense."

The 'motherhood penalty'

In addition to workplace discrimination, female scientists are often confronted with the "motherhood penalty," where they are passed over for promotions or research grants because of the time they dedicate — or plan to dedicate — to family and childcare.

"The tenure clock overlaps for most people exactly with the timing of when you would want to have kids," Emma Hodgson, a postdoctoral research fellow at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., explained. 

Emma Hodgson on the NOAA Ocean Acidification Research Cruise. (Melissa Ward)

At the end of last year, Hodgson had pulled her application for a tenure track job when she realized that the work would not allow her to have a healthy work-life balance. 

"I wouldn't want to bring kids into a home where I felt tired all the time," Hodgson said. 

While academic institutions are technically not allowed to discriminate during a tenure process based on family issues, Willis says a scientist's decision to split focus between her home and work life can still affect how she is perceived by her peers.

"[It's] the idea that she's not as good because she took time off, that she's not as serious, that she's not as committed," she explained.

Research shows that in Canada, these obstacles persist over the course of a female scientist's career. According to a 2012 report by the Council of Canadian Academies, women tend to occupy fewer high-ranking STEM positions than men, with their numbers steadily decreasing as the rank increases.

"At every turn, she [the female scientist] encounters another glass obstacle," Willis said.

"So when someone is evaluated for an award, they are being evaluated based on these merit indicators: your awards, your talks, your publications. And because women are offered fewer of those, they are not considered worthy enough of the award. And then it just perpetuates." 

Removing the obstacles

In recent years, the Canadian government has made a number of changes to address gender inequity in STEM fields. 
Lisa Willis (Emily A. Agard)

This year, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) introduced a program to increase equity in post-secondary institutions

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) has also reviewed how the research funding was allocated after a 2019 analysis revealed that grant applications with lead female authors are less likely to receive research funding if their applications are reviewed based on the merits of the lead scientist rather than the proposed project. 

Now, the CIHR grants are given out based on the strength of the proposal  — although applicants are still required to submit a CV, which can pose challenges for female scientists who have missed out on opportunities while navigating the glass obstacle course. 

In addition to top-down solutions, Willis says that STEM professionals also need to work on recognizing their own unconscious biases. 

"Ironically, people who consider themselves to be objective are more prone to actually having these unconscious biases, because they're not paying attention to their behaviour and their actions."

Willis encouraged people to learn about and understand their own biases through tools like the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, and become more aware of how these ideas motivate behaviour in their everyday life. 

Produced by Sonya Buyting. Written by Olsy Sorokina.