Report: Breaking Gender Barriers in STEM - Whose responsibility is it?

By: The Science & Policy Exchange Team

March 08, 2018

Contributing authors: Mary-Rose Bradley-Gill, Sara Ferwati, Lauren Fromont, Nicole George, Vanessa Sung, and Mehrgol Tiv

This report was generated from discussions among mostly female undergraduate and graduate STEMM students at an SPE Café on Dec 11, 2017, inspired by the Gender Summit that took place in Montreal on Nov 6-8, 2017. It reflects barriers that participants have experienced or observed during their studies, as well as obstacles they anticipate facing as they pursue their careers. We acknowledge that many institutions have taken steps to address some of the gender barriers identified in this report, and are encouraged by the progress. We are also pleased that gender equity was a key theme in the 2018 Federal Budget and look forward to seeing the Government of Canada advance this as a priority.



While there has been progress toward gender equity across all professional fields, there continues to be a persistent gender gap in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM). In 2012, women made up 57.1% of STEM graduate students but only 35.7% of full-time faculty. In physical sciences and engineering, the gap persists at the undergraduate level as well. This has been described as the “leaky pipeline”, the progressive loss of women at every stage of career advancement. Since this implies a linear trajectory where women simply drop out of the career path at some point, a more comprehensive analogy is the “glass obstacle course”. This refers to the invisible barriers, often unseen by the individual experiencing the barriers, that consistently arise over the course of the individual’s career in formal and informal ways.


Participants were invited to engage in group discussions about the gender barriers they have experienced and/or observed in STEMM, and generate potential solutions that could be implemented at the individual and institutional levels.


A series of small group discussions were guided by the following questions:


  1. What barriers do women face in obtaining leadership positions in STEMM? Share first-hand or second-hand experiences of barriers in STEMM.
  2. What local solutions exist in your community? What others can you think of? What can we do as individuals?
  3. What could our institutions be doing to promote women in leadership in STEMM?


Seven gender barriers emerged from our discussion:


1. Family planning:

  • Women fear that being pregnant and taking maternity leave is perceived as a burden for an employer.
  • Women worry, justifiably, that they will lose professional competitiveness if they take maternity leave and/or time off to take care of their health and family.
  • Graduate students face the possibility of not receiving any compensation for maternity leave.
  • Women continue to take on more of their families’ childcare and household responsibilities.


2. Criteria for excellence:

  • Conventional measures of excellence assume that everyone is on equal footing; women and minority groups encounter barriers that may make it more difficult to achieve measures of excellence.
  • Measures of excellence often don’t consider less quantifiable skills.
  • Maternity or caretaking leave can present gaps in a CV that may decrease a woman’s competitiveness in the hiring process.


.3 Hiring practices:

  • Women and minorities make up an increasing proportion of PhD holders yet are largely underrepresented as faculty members.
  • Implicit and unconscious bias may be manifested in reference letters that are less likely to highlight a woman’s most relevant professional skills.
  • Women have a fear of being the “diversity candidate”.
  • Women are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome.


4. Discrimination in the workplace:

  • Unwanted sexual advances or comments more frequently affect women in science, and often occur in accordance with established power dynamics; women of colour have been shown to be at an additional risk of harassment and discrimination in scientific disciplines.
  • Imbalance of power can affect the victim’s willingness to come forward and report harassment.
  • A hostile work environment can lead to psychological distress, reduced job satisfaction, and an increased likelihood of leaving a profession.
  • Women often are assigned assignments related to organization or mentoring activities, which are often not reflective of criteria for hiring/promotion.


5. Role models and mentorships:

  • Young girls and women lack female role models in leadership positions.
  • Women who do make it to leadership positions tend to take on more mentorships roles; this is an additional time commitment and an emotional burden for women.


6. Inherent societal biases:

  • Language biases - words used to describe men and women’s qualities are often biased, for example “bossy” is much more likely to be used for a woman than a man who might be considered “assertive”.
  • Gendered pronouns used to describe professions assert gender normative roles.   
  • Most women will only apply for a job or position if they meet 100% of the requirements, whereas the typical man will apply if they meet at least 60% of the requirements


7. Lack of men in the conversation:

  • Equity workshops are disproportionately attended by those who face barriers.
  • Privileged majority lack awareness and understanding of the barriers encountered by women and other marginalized groups.


Recommendations for addressing the outlined barriers above:


  1. Create awareness and transparency around rights for parental leave.
  2. Create parental leave plans for students/postdocs left out of coverage by specific grants.
  3. Create policies to better accommodate families - for example, childcare subsidies for students and postdoctoral fellows.
  4. Brainstorm creative solutions to foster a family-friendly environment.
  5. Revise the criteria used to judge merit for any type of application and nomination to reflect the reality that underrepresented groups are not on a level playing field and to value different types of merit (such as mentorship).
  6. Include discussions of implicit biases against female and minority candidates among hiring committee members before the hiring process begins.
  7. At the department level, implement written reports for each shortlisted candidate that should contain explanations on the final decision.
  8. At the institutional level, adopt a transparency policy for the hiring and promotions by publishing statistics annually.
  9. Consider the possibility of gender quota or reward system for hiring; explore different systems of implementation
  10. Create clear, accessible harassment policies that are enforced.
  11. Hold faculty accountable and be transparent about disciplinary actions.
  12. Clearly advertise process for reporting abuse.
  13. Establish sustainable positions for monitoring progress on equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  14. Improve equity training policies and provide up to date training.
  15. Collect and publish data about their policies and practices, based on clear targets and indicators of reduced harassment, bias, and discrimination.
  16. Incorporate equity, diversity, and inclusion training/discussion within each department’s core curriculum for students and faculty.
  17. Re-evaluate traditional language used in reference to prestigious awards and opportunities.
  18. Financially and socially support conversations, dialogue, and specialized groups that will identify and propose targeted solutions for the specific group needs.
  19. Include students in discussions for equity, diversity, and inclusion.
  20. All leaders need to engage, including and especially men.
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