SPECIAL REPORT

GENDER AND THE NUMBERS

Women still shy away from math and science

DEIRDRE McMURDY November 9 1992
SPECIAL REPORT

GENDER AND THE NUMBERS

Women still shy away from math and science

DEIRDRE McMURDY November 9 1992

GENDER AND THE NUMBERS

SPECIAL REPORT

Women still shy away from math and science

The atmosphere is tense. A young woman in a severely tailored suit and dark-rimmed glasses stands warily at the head of a table, confronting a group of scowling middle-aged men. A voice informs the television viewer that Nicole designs “fast cars” and is about to unveil her latest model. Clearly apprehensive, Nicole tugs uncertainly at a tarpaulin to reveal the vehicle. After a brief pause, and the exchange of some surprised looks, the men offer their grudging approval. Nicole is obviously relieved: her ordeal is over, and she is apparently grateful that her antiperspirant has saved

her further humiliation. “These ads carry exactly the negative stereotype that we are working so hard to debunk,” says Jane McGinn, a civil engineer who worked with the Canadian Committee on Women in Engineering (CCWE), based at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “They depict a male-dominated, patriarchal environment that’s intimidating to women and their abilities. What young woman would ever want to face those crabby guys—let alone have to work with them?”

The answer is a matter of increasing concern in both academic and professional circles.

In an age in which technology and efficiency are closely linked, the reluctance of Canadian women to study math, science apd engineering is an increasing cause for alarm. “Engineering and science are a critical component of Canada’s strategy for a competitive, knowledge-based society and economy,” says Micheline Bouchard, president of the Ottawa-based Canadian Council of Professional Engineers (CCPE) and a vice-president of marketing for DMR Group Inc. of Montreal. “For that to work, we need to recruit more women.” Adds Charlie Edmunds, a mathematics professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax: “The truth is that subjects like math are the cornerstone for anyone who wants career options.”

As awareness of the need for Canadian women to expand their options has grown, educators and professional organizations have combined forces to address some of the underlying problems. Together, they have launched campaigns and campus workshops to provide girls and young women with information about science-related jobs. Educators are now paying greater attention to the teaching of science and mathematics at all levels, while trying to foster a more relaxed environment. In many cases, that environment may exclude males. Since 1989, when an anti-feminist gunman massacred 14 female engineering students at the Université de Montréal, administrators have been acutely aware of the potential for conflict when women cross traditional gender boundaries.

In some fields, women are already making huge inroads. In fact, female enrolment has begun to outstrip that of males in medicine, veterinary science, dentistry and pharmacology at the Université de Montréal. There, 63 per cent of the students training to be medical doctors are now female; nationally, the perclass average stood at 45 per cent in 1989, up from 24 per cent in 1975. At the veterinary medicine program at the University of Guelph, 65 per cent of the 400 full-time undergraduate students are female, as are 24 per cent of the department’s faculty. Experts credit those figures to the nurturing element of those disciplines. Studies show that while boys respond to such factors as salary and job security, girls tend to list service to others as key considerations in choosing a career.

“Girls know that doctors are caring,” says UNB’s McGinn.

“But an engineer is a big guy with dirty fingernails who works alone in a basement somewhere.”

The available statistics prove McGinn’s point. According to the CCWE report More Than Just Numbers, released last April, women accounted for only 14 per cent of those enrolled in engineering and applied science programs in 1989-1990. Their participation in mathematics and physical science courses was only slightly higher at 27 per cent in the same period. And the situation is growing more urgent as the generation of engineers and scientists who have dominated their fields prepares to retire. “By the mid-1990s, there will be a huge vacuum to fill,” says Douglas Goldsack, dean of engineering and science at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ont. “We just don’t have the people in the pipeline to replace them.” According to industry association estimates, Canada will have 26,000 new engineering jobs by the end of the decade—and only 11,000 engineers will be there to fill the spaces.

Several organizations are campaigning to attract women into engineering, scientific research and computer science. The National Committee of Deans of Engineering and Applied Science have joined forces, encouraging employment equity in the hope of placing more role models in the classroom. They have also clamped down on some of the traditional antics of engineering students, including sexist and racist humor in student newspapers. Further support comes from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the federal funding agency, which has scholarships designated specifically for women. Corporate spon-

sors such as Northern Telecom are funding several ventures, including the Women in Engineering Chair at the University of New Brunswick, currently held by electrical/biomedical engineer Monique Frize.

But despite such concerted efforts, the progress is slow. “There is a deeply ingrained social perception that scientific and technical tasks are not for women,” says Garry Wacker, assistant dean of undergraduate engineering programs at the University of Saskatchewan. And, he concedes, “areas like engineering have a bad reputation historically—there are lots of horror stories from the campus and the work site.”

Recent campus events have compounded the image problems of science-related studies.

In October, the student engineering newspaper of the Université de Montréal, where the 1989 massacre took place, published a special “sex” issue that included pornographic drawings and other overtly sexist material. One week before, at Ottawa’s Carleton University, the photographs of 22 female physics students were stolen from its files; that theft was followed by anonymous telephone calls that threatened that 10 students would be killed.

Many schools have introduced courses for science and engineering students designed to combat alienation on the campus and beyond. At the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, engineers must complete “The Engineer in Society,” a compulsory course introduced in 1990. Elective seminars entitled “Gender and Sexual Ethics” are offered to engineering students at the University of Calgary. “Students were slow to accept the course as something serious,” says Axel Meisen,

UBC’s dean of engineering. “They are so used to quantifying everything and this course is about issues—not about neat problems with clear solutions.”

However, Etta Wharton, an engineer and the director of Ontario Hydro’s aggressive employment equity program in Toronto, is reserved about the narrow emphasis of what she calls “politically correct” measures. “All these institutions are on the defensive because of their poor record of attracting and retaining women in their ranks,” notes Wharton. “The danger is that they are all preoccupied with the public image rather than concentrating on actual, fundamental change.”

But to bring about profound changes, experts say that a host of social and gender issues

must be addressed long before women reach university. A subtle socialization process begins in early childhood, contributing to women’s unwillingness to participate in fields of study dominated by men. Most recently, the controversy over the new talking Barbie doll, whose conversational gambits include the observation that “math class is tough,” has underscored the problem of preparing girls for success in mathematics and sciences.

Barbie’s whine—which Mattel now claims it will exchange upon request—does not come out of the blue. For years, girls who had trouble with math and science received less attention than boys. “When a boy has trouble with math, it’s never excused or overlooked,” notes Mount Saint Vincent’s Edmunds. “It’s considered an important matter because it’s assumed that he’ll need math later in life.”

Even for those girls who did excel at math, the message from peers and teachers was little more encouraging. Patricia Rogers, a professor of mathematics at York University in Toronto, was educated at an all-girls school—a factor that some experts claim can improve academic performance. Still, her ability in mathematics caused her some early discomfort. “Math was always seen as cold and rational and very unfeminine,” she says. As a result, Rogers recalls “compensating for my math skills by pretending to be frivolous and helpless in other areas.”

To change that, educators are joining forces with unprecedented intensity. The primary focus of the burgeoning number of university “outreach” programs is young girls and those who teach them. The objective is to provide female role models, current information about science-related careers, and to shatter the perception that science and mathematics are for boys alone. Says CCPE’s Bouchard: “Girls wrongly believe that engineering is about hard hats and work boots. It’s generally viewed as a career that lacks heart.” UNB’s McGinn agrees: “We need to soften the face of such professions and emphasize their creative, nurturing aspects.”

To educate boys and girls about sciencerelated professions, the women-in-engineering group at UNB has prepared a video featuring women in engineering for junior high school students. For the past five years, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., has invited hundreds of high-school girls to a variety of femaleled mathematics and science workshops and demonstrations. In the same vein, students from the University of Saskatchewan organize annual one-week “sci-fi camps” for children in Grades 5 to 8, with the aim of demystifying science laboratories and showing that both math and science can be fun. Notes McGinn: “It’s equally important for boys to have been exposed to the example of women in science. It helps them accept that fact in later life.”

Teaching methods and tools have also reinforced the message that math and science are not for girls. Until relatively recently, mathematics problems in textbooks were often couched in terms of experiences and interests typical of boys. “It’s critical to make math and science relevant to the lives of women, to humanize those subjects,” says Katherine Heinrich, chair of the mathematics and statistics department of Simon Fraser. “Why should the images always involve cars and tools? What about hair dryers and muffins? They involve math and science too.”

But Heinrich also notes that the teaching of small children has traditionally been the job of women, many of whom are uneasy with math and may communicate that involuntarily. “We teach a math course for elementary school teachers: 90 per cent are women and 90 per cent of them are afraid of math,” notes Heinrich. Laurentian’s Goldsack is especially critical of the lack of special training of gradeschool teachers responsible for those subjects. “You can’t get an organ grinder to teach the piccolo without turning students off,” he says.

Another stubborn problem is the fact that girls mature at a different pace than their male classmates, and deal with that development in a different way. Although those differences are apparent even in primary school, when girls tend to be more emotionally mature than boys, the crisis tends to arise after puberty. According to a comprehensive study conducted by Carol Gilligan, a professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., girls’ self-confidence is shaken in their early teenage years, and they lose their willingness to speak openly and to take risks. The tendency to internalize failure, always present in younger girls, also becomes more pronounced at that phase. More Than Just Numbers notes that while boys usually

blame an academic problem on the teacher, the textbook or any other external factor, girls blame themselves. Boys also openly mock others who show weakness, compounding girls’ anxieties in math and science classes.

Discouraged by classroom situations—and the fact that female highschool students only account for 22 per cent of physics classes in Calgary—teacher Randy Blanchard introduced a girls-only physics class at William Aberhart High School three years ago. “The problem was the class dynamic,” says Blanchard. “The boys try to boost thenegos by showing off whatever small amount of expertise they have—and putting down others. It’s pretty primal behavior and very inhibiting for the girls.” Among themselves, however, Blanchard notes that the girls “speak out more freely and stick to the topic much better.”

Improving confidence at the high-school level has a direct effect on the students’ performance at university. “You need confidence and a

willingness to take intellectual risks to solve more complex math problems,” says Heinrich. “To excel, you have to be willing to take leaps and learn from your mistakes.” Where that confidence is lacking, Heinrich’s department at Simon Fraser works to improve it with a math anxiety clinic, staffed by a female faculty member, Malgorzata Dubiel. Women are encouraged to confront and resolve their misgivings about mathematics.

At the same time, faculties of mathematics, science and engineering face a shortage of female instructors. According to data compiled by the Canadian Engineering Human Resources Board, only two per cent of full-time engineering faculty members in 1990 were

women, and 25 per cent of universities had no women professors in engineering at all. To remedy that, most Canadian universities have implemented aggressive employment equity initiatives, backed by salary grants from the federal government, to boost the number of women in their ranks. “A woman with a PhD in engineering could write her own ticket at any Canadian school,” says University of Saskatchewan’s Wacker. “There’s enormous demand.” Still, the best intentions of the university deans cannot alter the inherently sexist, hierarchical culture of most academic institutions, says Etta Wharton. “At the corporate level you have a clear policy and a boss who can enforce it. But at a university, professors have no real boss and there’s no system to enforce the required changes—especially in attitudes.” As more women are encouraged to enter the arena, however, attitudes are certain to change. Ultimately, the numbers will add up.

DEIRDRE McMURDY