Women in STEM: Past, present, future
Sandra Zhitkova, co-president of the UTM Physics Club, and Professor Sharmin share their journeys battling the lack of female representation in STEM fields.
Female representation in STEM has long been the subject of debate. The term STEM, which stands for “science, technology, engineering, and mathematics,” was coined in 2001, and in recent years, researchers have been interested in the seeming disparity between male and female representation in the field.
A report published by Statistics Canada in 2021 found that although more women pursued postsecondary education, in the workforce, men continue to out-earn women. Graduates of STEM disciplines tend to earn more than graduates of non-STEM disciplines, but men are far more likely to choose STEM programs than women. Why is this?
To answer this question and discuss their journeys in STEM, The Medium sat down with Professor Sadia Sharmin, a University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) alumni and assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at St. George, and Sandra Zhitkova, a third-year student at UTM and co-president of the UTM Physics Club.
Describing her first computer science class in high school, Professor Sharmin noticed the gender disparity early on. “It was a small class in grade 12. We had six people in the class [..] and I was the only girl,” she explains. Despite this, she enjoyed the material. After taking CSC108: Introduction to Computer Programming in her first year at UTM, she decided to pursue computer science as a second major along with Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology.
Zhitkova, who is majoring in astrophysics and astronomy, also started her journey in high school. “My biggest contributor was my physics teacher in high school; she pushed me towards it a lot, and I liked it […], and then at some point, I started looking at the stars,” she shares.
Upon entering the classroom after the pandemic, Zhitkova notes that it was somewhat of a relief to see many other women in her classes. A lot of the pushback, she found, came from outside of her classes. “When I talk to people […] outside of the university, a lot of people go ‘Oh, wow! You’re doing astrophysics. I would never expect you to do that.’ I was like, ‘Why? Why do you say that?’ and I have felt that it’s because I’m a girl [and these conversation are mostly] with guys,” shares Zhitkova. When she asks them why they’re surprised, they can’t answer. “It makes it seem like it’s something they don’t want to say out loud,” she remarks.
When asked why there is still a lack of female representation in the field, Professor Sharmin says, “the idea of gender itself is so complex, but it’s so ingrained into our society; even as a child, [or] as a toddler, people, knowing your gender, or at least your supposed gender, will treat you slightly differently.” To this end, she credits her parents for giving her the freedom to explore computer science. “I had a lot of support and positive guidance from my parents. My dad is an engineer, and he has four daughters [….]. After learning more about these issues, about women in STEM whose parents were unsupportive, I realized how lucky I was to have a dad who never did that,” she says. “He always made those fields seem accessible to me.”
Professor Sharmin notes that she most felt that the gender gap was a barrier when she returned to UTM as a professor. “When I first joined the department, I was one of the youngest people there, […] and on top of that I was one of the only women—it was a highly male-dominated department, and even though my colleagues were amazing people I still felt this sense of imposter syndrome,” she confesses.
Professor Sharmin adds that despite how welcoming the members of her department were, the feeling of being a minority left a sort of disconnect that manifested in many, seemingly small ways. “There was a time when we were all invigilating a test […] and we were standing in a circle, whispering because the students were writing a test, and I just couldn’t hear what they were saying because their heads were a foot higher! It sounds silly but I just felt so left out and different at that moment,” shares Professor Sharmin.
Certain things Professor Sharmin experienced with students also left her wondering whether the same would have happened to a male professor. She describes some anonymous student feedback she received: “‘She talks a little bit fast. At first it was cute but it’s starting to get annoying.’ It just felt a little demeaning,” she notes. “I’m sure if I was a male professor, they probably would have worded that differently,” she argues.
Opening up and engaging with other like-minded people helped Professor Sharmin feel less like an imposter. “As I opened up and talked to more people around me, I found people who had similar viewpoints as me. [It helped me feel that] I am really not so different from everybody else,” she shares.
Professor Sharmin notes that the lack of female representation can not only be detrimental to women, but it can also be dangerous, leading to real-life consequences. “Things like voice recognition is not as good for higher-pitched voices, facial recognition is not as good for darker-skinned people as it is for white people, especially white men,” she argues. These disparities may further emphasize inequalities. As more things become reliant on these forms of technology, it is more important than ever for these fields to be as diverse as possible.
In combatting the lack of diversity, both Professor Sharmin and Zhitkova remarked that representation can play a significant role in increasing accessibility and making women feel more welcome in these male-dominated fields. “There was a stigma in my head too when I was in high school taking math and physics classes, and girls were definitely the minority,” says Zhitkova. “[In university] it was nice to see that we have a lot of girls that are interested in STEM who didn’t listen to the stereotypes built by society long ago,” she expands. In speaking of the elections for the UTM Physics club, she says “It was really nice to see that girls also took part and were interested, and most of the candidates were actually girls,” she shares. Three of the five executives of the club are women.
Recently, Professor Sharmin has been trying to highlight representation within programmers. During the ten minutes before class starts, she says: “I will make a point to show [videos] of programmers of diverse backgrounds, or programmers with disabilities. […] It’s a way to see how diversity can exist in the field. Every voice is important to be listened to, not just the dominant ones,” emphasizes Professor Sharmin.
Going forward, Zhitkova hopes that this increased representation leads more women and girls to follow their passions and see STEM as a viable field for them. “Girls can do whatever they want, guys can do whatever they want, and if I want to be an astronomer or an astronaut, I can do that, and I don’t want people to get surprised when I say that. Keep pushing!” encourages Zhitkova.
Staff Writer (Volume 48 & 49) — Hema is currently in her final year, finishing a double major in Linguistics and French Language Teaching and Learning. She previously served as a Staff Writer for Volume 48 of The Medium. Her favourite part of writing is the opportunity to research new topics, speak to new people, and make her voice heard, and she hopes that her articles can spark this interest in other students. In her spare time, you can find her in bed reading with a cup of coffee (and she's always looking for more book recommendations!).