The reality of being a woman in STEM

A ‘frat culture’ still exists in STEM classrooms

The Journal spoke to three students about how gender roles and expectations impact their learning.
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Women students have outnumbered their male classmates for years at Queen’s. For the past decade, the percentage of women at Queen’s has remained relatively stable at around 57 per cent of the student body. However, in STEM classrooms—any subject falling under science, technology, engineering, and math—women are still a minority. 

In 2020, 28 per cent of undergraduate engineering students at Queen’s were women. While that number may seem small, it’s significantly higher than the national average of about 19 per cent. 

There are similar numbers in other STEM programs at Queen’s. In 2015, about 35 per cent of undergraduate computing students at Queen’s were women. The national average percentage of women in computing programs hovers at around 15 per cent. 

The humanities, social sciences, and education are just some programs that are usually far over 60 per cent women. Women in these programs study, learn, and eventually work with plenty of other women. Women who are studying STEM subjects don’t always have the same luxury. 

From the classroom to their careers, women in STEM are constantly working in male dominated spaces. Without proper intervention, this can lend to inequalities.

“The boys would just dive into the technical components.”

In STEM classrooms, group work is defined by a gendered division of labour.

Simone Markus, PhD candidate in Geological Engineering, is particularly aware of this phenomenon. As a teaching assistant (TA), Markus is sometimes responsible for overseeing group projects in class. She noticed patterns in how tasks are delegated between genders. 

“I remember so distinctly there was different components to the design projects they were working on,” Markus said of a design class she was a TA for. 

“The girls would end up doing the work that was like editing the reports, making the presentations, and doing more of the touchy-feely work and the social aspects of engineering. The boys would just dive into the technical components.”

Markus worries that by dividing work this way, women can miss out on developing important technical skills.  

“I feel like that is a challenge for a lot of female students where they end up not really learning all the aspects of the course.” Markus explained. 

“I don’t know if it was intentional for excluding the girls, but it’s something that happened in every group that I was supervising. That’s how the work was divided. I don’t want to say because the male students push them out, because it’s not really anybody’s fault.”

Even if gendered divisions of labour aren’t intentional, they can create an environment where men’s learning is prioritized. 

For Zoe Rolfe-Low, Eng ’22, these same gender roles have had a noticeable effect on her learning. In a first-year coding class, Rolfe-Low was teamed up with a male classmate who was having problems with his computer. 

“His computer wasn’t working for coding and so we could only use my computer. Every single class he would take my computer from me and then write it.” 

As a result of losing that class time, Rolfe-Low wasn’t able to perform well in the course.

“I didn’t learn to code, and I did really poorly in that class,” Rolfe-Low said. 

When she did get the chance to learn to code again, Rolfe-Low discovered she was good at coding when given the opportunity to learn on her own. 

“In third year, I did really well in a class that’s very similar.” 

These problems aren’t unique to Queen’s, or even a university setting. Alice Cehic, CompSci ’22, had a similar experience before attending Queen’s.

“In high school, I went to a computing competition, and I was partnered with a dude, and he was taking more of the reins on the computer,” Cehic said. 

“There was only one computer, he only let me have it a few times, then he’d take it away from me.”

“All my professors this semester are male. All of them except for one last semester were male.”

Women in STEM programs can sometimes struggle to relate to their male professors. Although Queen’s carries out inclusive hiring practices, many programs lack women professors.  

“All my professors this semester are male. All of them except for one last semester were male,” Cehic said. 

“Having a female professor would be great, just to have someone to relate to, someone who understands, and you can feel a bit more comfortable with.” 

The lack of women in senior roles isn’t unique to academic institutions. In many STEM fields, it’s rare to find women in managerial roles.

“As a young engineer, you don’t end up seeing a lot of female role models who are doing the things that you want to do,” Markus said.

“In industry, it’s a lot harder to find role models and mentors that are senior in their career that are women.” 

There are several potential reasons for this gap in representation. 

Often women are expected to juggle family life and a career in a way that’s not expected of men. This is called the “double burden” of working women and consists of the extra housework and caregiving women perform. In 2018, Statistics Canada found that, on average, women perform over 6 hours more of household labour per week than men.

“When women have children when they’re working, if it’s a male and female couple, often the woman is the one who takes the parental leave, and it kind of becomes expected that women will take parental leave and men won’t,” Markus said. 

“If a woman is thinking about having a family, subconsciously a manager might think ‘is she gonna go and take time off?’ and maybe that effects what project she gets put on or if she gets a promotion.”

The lack of women in senior STEM positions has a generational impact. While the first classes for women were held at Queen’s in 1869, it would be decades before women broke into STEM subjects. Women were not accepted into the Faculty of Engineering at Queen’s until 1942. 

“It’s a frat culture basically in engineering.”

In the near-80 years since Queen’s Engineering first started accepting women, a culture rooted in patriarchal standards has remained. 

“It’s a frat culture basically in engineering,” Rolfe-Low said.

“There’s all these traditions that have sexist and racist undertones that are just being kind of watered down, but the culture is still there.”

This culture isn’t unique to engineering, but also manifests in other male-dominated classrooms. 

“The things said in class, not just by students but also by the professors—that is the main thing that could be changed to make it feel more inclusive,” Cehic said.

In the computing program, Cehic has experienced many instances of professors using gendered examples in class. Professors sometimes single out women students in an attempt to engage them with stereotypically feminine objects or topics.

“For guys, expensive cars, and for girls another example,” Cehic said. 

There is a general lack of awareness about discrimination among many STEM students. Although Queen’s offers courses on both the past and present of discriminatory practices, these courses aren’t usually seen as relevant to STEM programs. 

“Being required to take more courses about history or the experiences of other people would really help a lot of engineering students,” Rolfe-Low said.

Promoting STEM to young girls has been a longtime goal of academic institutions, nonprofits, and even the Canadian federal government

“I think there’s a lot going on with promoting STEM to younger girls and high school girls,” Markus said. “More is always better.”

The faster women enter STEM fields, the faster classrooms can learn to actively include them. However, these efforts have left a lot of women in who are currently in STEM programs feeling a lack of support. 

“I was pushed into STEM as a teenager without any of the problems that women in STEM face being fixed,” Rolfe-Low said. Despite the relatively high rates of women in Queen’s STEM programs, stepping inside the classroom can still feel isolating. 

“Queen’s makes the effort by accepting females, and sure, that’s great, but once you’re in the door it’s not fun. It’s not great. It’s not inclusive. It’s like from the outside it looks nice with a good ratio, but once you’re inside it sucks,” Cehic said. 

“I think that there’s a lot to be done. They’re trying, and I’ll take it, I’ll take what I can get.”

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