The Importance Of STEM Careers For Girls And Women In The 21st Century
Career Opportunities Change and innovation are drivers of economic growth, and doors to our labour market continue to open for individuals with skills in science and math.
Unfortunately, training for occupations where women traditionally work have not equipped them with the foundational skills and readiness for the jobs that underpin change and innovation — skilled trades and technology, science, and engineering. This is a situation that leaves women in peril.
The labour market disconnect that women experience, resulting from a skills mismatch for available jobs, results in economic losses to women, and the broader society. Whether through women's vulnerability to poverty through precarious employment in low-paying jobs, or through their increased reliance on social assistance, their lack of participation in STEM careers is a price we all pay.
We are already seeing a disturbing trend in women's diminishing viability in the labour market. Growing rates of poverty and income inequality amongst Canadian women, in particular among Aboriginal women visible minority women, and mothers that are single parents.
Equal pay for Canadian women
Luckily, women's economic viability is of growing interest to those pre-occupied with the health of our economy.
The Equal Pay Coalition's 2014 brief to the Federal Parliamentary Committee on the Status of Women noted that "women's pay is critical to individual, family, community and national prosperity. Women are almost half of Canada's workforce.... Such a large gender pay gap represents a failure to harness the economic potential of Canadian women and impedes Canada's economy recovery and future equitable development."
And choice of occupation is a critical factor impacting women's wages, according to the July 2010 background paper, Wage Gap Between Women And Men, prepared by Library of Parliament, Canada. This is not only because of the limited number of occupations that women choose, but also because women's choices lead many to jobs in the public sector, leaving women vulnerable to wage freezes and roll backs.
Despite their capacity to excel in STEM careers, as demonstrated by the success of the limited number of women who do pursue them, most women continue to choose careers in the occupations they have traditionally dominated. In 2009, Stats Canada reported "67 [percent] of women work in traditional occupations such as teaching, nursing, clerical, admin or sales and service jobs."
A more recent report from Stats Canada noted that in "1991 and 2011, the three most common occupations held by young women with a university degree were registered nurses, elementary school and kindergarten teachers, and secondary school teachers.”
"1991 and 2011, the three most common occupations held by young women with a university degree were registered nurses, elementary school and kindergarten teachers, and secondary school teachers.”
We need to do much more to redirect women to STEM careers. But first of all, we need to recognize that women's choice of occupations and the concentration of women in a small number of lower-paying or diminishing occupations is a result of a legacy of entwined social, institutional, and economic dynamics that continue to affect women's economic status relative to men.
We need to acknowledge that the profound disconnect of women from these occupations will require an equally profound investment to reconnect them.
Building STEM awareness for women
Women (and girls) cannot choose occupations they are not familiar with without well informed, well resourced, proactive systems and individuals that help them recognize and unlearn their biases, and support them positively at every step along the path to employment.
Influencers with the highest potential to support women’s and girls’ access — parents, peers, secondary and post secondary systems and educators, career and employment counsellors, employer and labour groups — are themselves in need of tools and assistance to acknowledge and rectify their own biases.
At this historical juncture, after more than a century of gender segregation in the Canadian labour market, we need to acknowledge the profound level of effort and resources that are now required to attract women to STEM careers. It's time to acknowledge that any labour force development strategy going forward needs a women's strategy — one that invests heavily in equipping both girls and women with the skills and the aptitudes to pursue STEM careers.