Removing Barriers: Exploring the Gender Boundaries in STEM
February 11th marks the 8th annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science! This day was created to highlight the critical role that women and girls play in science and technology, while also aiming to promote full and equal access to and participation in science.
The fact is that while 34.4% of STEM graduates are women, they're proportionally more represented in life and social science majors like Biology and Psychology. Women in STEM occupations are still underrepresented in engineering and computer science.
As a science based company that is made up of nearly 40% women, the majority in STEM related fields, we have the unique position of being able to learn from the experiences of these women and mentor those coming into the working world through our co-op programs. These stories and experiences, while seemingly unique to the person, also represent the stories of thousands of women in STEM related fields.
In honour of International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we're excited to be sharing a set of interviews that we performed with some of our staff, speaking to these experiences that they've had as a woman in STEM - from education through to their current positions here at Escarpment Labs. All of these women come from various areas of the company, ranging from our lab technicians to our data scientists, and are at different points in their careers!
The stories we'll be hearing from are including:
- Janice Flinn, a recent co-op in our lab and on our production floor
- Camille Regimbal, a Harvesting Technician
- Hana Knill, our Data Scientist and Production Specialist
- Krista Stemmler, a Laboratory Technician (who also organizes our training courses for brewers and writes silly [editor's note: fun and engaging] blog posts
- Emily Storey, our Data Science and Software Development Lead.
What did you study?
Janice: I am studying biotechnology. This program is offered at McMaster through the Faculty of Engineering but it is considered to be it’s own program- I don’t get a B.Eng, I get a B.Tech.
Camille: I have received my BScH in Biology from Trent University.
Hana: I obtained a Bachelor of Science specializing in Biochemistry from the University of Ottawa then followed that up with a Masters in Management Science from the University of Waterloo's Faculty of Engineering focusing on data science and data analytics.
Krista: I studied Integrated Sciences at McMaster University, which means I studied all of the sciences together as one big happy family. I also majored in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behaviour while there. I have my brewmastery diploma from Niagara College, and am now in teachers’ college at Brock University.
Emily: Let’s say Physics. My Bachelor's degree is in Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics. My Master's degree is in Electrical and Computer Engineering with a specialization in Photonics, Spectroscopy, and Machine Learning.
What made you choose STEM as your education path?
Janice: I always imagined I would choose a STEM path, as those were the courses in which I did the best in grade school. It was also kind of assumed by people around me; “she’s smart, she’ll be a scientist for sure”. I never thought to question that, and so filled out my required Grade 10 career-finding quiz accordingly, which ranked biotechnology third or fourth.
Upon reading the summaries of the top five careers it had suggested for me, I redid the quiz so that biotechnology would be first.
Camille: Growing up I always had a natural curiosity for science related subjects. I was often found collecting bugs and other critters (much to my parents dismay). I was also a big book worm and often chose non fiction books about various topics from the library because I wanted to learn more. This led me to choose Biology for my post secondary education.
Hana: My best marks in high school were biology and chemistry. Extrapolating from the data I decided to study biochemistry.
Krista: I love math and sciences - they’re the basis for everything! I enjoy investigating problems and using experimentation to test out hypotheses. Combining knowledge from across the STEM fields and adding a flair for creative problem solving is just fun and exciting.
Emily: I’ve always loved solving puzzles and word problems. Physics was a natural extension of that when I was in high school.
What do you love most about your chosen STEM path?
Janice: I love how it shows just how complex life is. That there are so many things that a living organism can accomplish just to survive that are far too complicated for us to reproduce chemically. As well as the fact these things happen naturally, with nothing but a cascade of concentrations and complex polymers, the whole system is regulated without a consciousness being required to direct it.
Camille: The study of Biology is very broad and this keeps it interesting. Personally, I decided to focus my studies on Environmental Science so the bulk of my studies were geared towards subjects like environmental chemistry, water biology, entomology and ornithology.
I also wanted to have a diverse set of skills so I was able to take courses geared towards genetics, microbiology, cell biology and anatomy.
Hana: I love how my chosen STEM path reflects the process of me discovering my interests and dialing in on my passions. It's exclusive to me and I get to bring those unique experiences and perspectives to my career.
Krista: I love that my chosen STEM path is always changing and morphing and adding more elements to itself. Whereas I thought I may focus on a distinct field of research when I was in my undergrad, I’ve found that it’s blending the many STEM paths together that brings me joy.
Emily: In the 2nd year of my bachelors I took a class on mathematical proofs and it kicked my ass but I loved it. I love the challenge of figuring out how to solve a logic problem and present an elegant solution that you don’t have to be an expert to work with.
What was your first impression as a woman in STEM and how did that impact your path in STEM?
Janice: I would place my first impression as a woman in STEM in high school, where I took several advanced level science courses. The gender balance in those courses was fairly even, though the Biology 111 and 121 classes were mostly girls.
I also worked as a junior counselor at my local science university’s STEM camp. These would often favour boys, with the obvious exception of the girls-only camps, but the most enthusiastic campers were usually girls. From these, I have generally thought of girls as being perhaps more apt for STEM fields, even if parents don’t assume science camp is where they should send their girls for the summer.
Because of this, my decision to pursue STEM was unwavering, and I did not think too hard on the notion I would be joining the Engineering faculty.
Camille: My first real exposure to STEM in an academic scenario was in high school. I was so excited that I finally got to explore more in depth theories and take part in hands-on labs, and took every available science course offered by my high school. I showed up to class excited and ready to learn everyday.
I was also very lucky that all of the science teachers at my high school were women. Since I had such an affinity for the STEM courses available to me in high school, it only made sense for me to pursue STEM post secondary.
Hana: I was first made aware of the gender differences between the disciplines within STEM in my grade 12 physics class. The semester started off with 5 girls enrolled in a class of around 30 students. I was aware of the imbalance but I was still excited and engaged by the material. Over the course of the semester every other girl dropped the class while I stayed. I began to feel very uncomfortable in the environment, like I didn’t belong in the classroom. My engagement diminished and my grades suffered. I passed the class, but the impact of the experience stayed with me for a long time.
When it came time to apply to university I had unconsciously ruled out all engineering, physics and math programs instead I focused on life science programs where I knew the gender diversity was much more balanced.
Krista: As a woman in STEM I had many positive experiences and a variety of influential role models that showed the pathways women could take. Nonetheless, the mentality of some of the sciences being ‘lesser’ because they are the fields women are more prevalent in has been a consistent reminder that women’s fields are often devalued.
I want to be one of those role models that I looked up to and show that women can pursue whatever field they desire, and I hope to inspire others through teaching STEM.
Emily: There are not a lot of women in physics or engineering sciences, and the higher you go the worse it gets. Starting from the earliest classes in high school, it was blatantly obvious that I'd be a minority if I went down that path. But I'm a bit of a stubborn B. I grew up watching a lot of Sci-Fi, and I think that getting to see someone like myself represented in characters like Samantha Carter from Stargate went a long way towards giving me the confidence that I absolutely belonged in STEM.
What would you like to see in the future to increase diversity in your field?
Janice: The gender balance in my academic program is pretty even. Coming from a small town, I would also describe it as racially diverse, but I do not know how well that diversity reflects the demographics of the area. As such, the main hurdle I see is in the workplace, where two main factors are keeping industries male-dominated.
The first is cultural inertia, which can only be changed by people actively checking their biases, in a way which I see to increasing degrees. The second is equipment. Many pieces of equipment are sized (handles, door height, etc) with an average man in mind, which often makes them just that little bit more awkward for a woman to handle.
If these things were built just a little bit smaller, and if work required just a slightly smaller lift capacity, I think more women would feel welcome.
Camille: In Canada, there is an underrepresentation of BIPOC, women and other marginalized groups in STEM. These marginalized groups are also more likely to be underpaid, and often less likely to be in more senior or executive positions in workplaces. A lot of these issues are systemic within STEM fields and there should be a push for greater initiatives that start in elementary school to help remove barriers for these diverse groups of people as early as possible.
An increase in diversity could be pushed forward by having more mentors, groups and camps geared towards young women and BIPOC. Starting mentorship at a young age may help more people from these groups feel included and know that there is a place for them in STEM. Seeing people that look like you working and educating in STEM can encourage and set these marginalized groups on a path towards STEM.
Additionally, most STEM education in Canada is taught from the perspectives of Western male scientists. If education included teachings from Indigenous leaders and scientists could help to move away from the traditional approach that most Canadian curriculum is modelled after, further removing some of the systemic barriers experienced by young minorities in Canada.
Hana: I noticed that in many of my own job searches, the positions I am the most interested in are specifically looking for applicants who majored in computer science. While I may have all or most of the desired skills I am always very aware I will never have the right major. Limiting searches to historically male dominated majors discourages diversity by creating a smaller pool of women applicants.
I would love to see job searches expand filters to prioritize skills and interest. This reduces unconscious bias and increases the opportunity to bring unique perspectives and talented women to an organization.
Krista: In the future I would like to see an appreciation for the different perspectives in STEM, and a promotion of showcasing the individual within studying STEM. Scientific research is often posed as a monolith and I think it’s paramount that we show how individuals do not all have the same experiences with their interactions in the field. Making space to show how everyone’s individual perspectives can influence how they see and understand STEM can provide everyone with a greater understanding of the world.
Emily: Firstly, representation is paramount. Seeing gender minorities succeed in STEM careers, especially at higher levels, makes things a little bit easier for the next generation.
Second, accountability. Everyone across the board needs to call attention when someone is being treated unfairly due to their gender. If you're being marginalized in your career due to your gender, and the person or practices responsible are facing no consequences, why on earth would you stay?
What advice would you have for other women entering a career in STEM?
Janice: I think my advice is to make girl friends, even if you have to reach into formal women’s associations or slightly different programs. Having other girls around has been very helpful to me, and I think has been even more helpful for my friend who is in a much more male-dominated program.
Camille: My advice to other women entering STEM is to be a part of the community that removes barriers for others. Be a part of the change you want to see within your field and make STEM a more inclusive and accessible space for marginalized folks. Having a diverse group of people can give new perspectives, more creative ideas and better problem solving than trying to work through problems on your own. Build each other up instead of tearing each other down. It can be easy to get caught up in a competitive mindset, but instead of competing, work together.
Hana: My advice for women entering a career in STEM who are looking to explore a career outside of your direct discipline of study is to remember your experiences do not limit you. Even though you may not have the desired major, your different experiences are an asset and you are capable of learning everything you need to be successful in any job or industry.
Krista: My advice would be to be yourself and showcase your personality in whatever you do. The beauty of diversity in STEM is that we can all bring something important to the table, and as individuals we can create a better community.
Emily: Get involved! There are many organizations dedicated to helping women and gender minorities advocate for themselves in their STEM careers. One of the best decisions I made in my undergrad was attending Women in Physics conferences. Having the opportunity to learn and network with a group of women who have been where you are, who have had their ideas pushed aside, who have had the credit for their work given to another colleague… It is truly empowering. It gives you a toolbox of skills to pull from when you need them. It makes navigating things a little easier when you know that someone's been through what you're experiencing.
UNESCO | International Day of Women and Girls in Science
Forbes | Women Achieve Gains In STEM Fields