International Day of Women and Girls in Science: We need frameworks, not patchworks, to plug the leaky pipeline

By Dr Maryse Lassonde, Scientific Director of Les Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies (FRQNT) and President of the Royal Society of Canada 

On 11 February, the world will be celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science. There will be lots of articles and speeches about the famous “leaky pipeline”, a metaphor used to describe the constant flow of women leaving the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) throughout their studies and careers.

Let’s be honest – you cannot “plug the leaks” with policy fixes. In Quebec and Canada, we have an impressive array of policies and projects to promote gender equality that span across almost every ministry. Yet the data show that there has been little, if any, progress in the number of women pursuing STEM over the past 20 to 30 years.

UNESCO - Women In Science Interactive

What are we doing wrong and what are we doing right? I cannot tell you because we have no way to measure the impact of our efforts. But by working with the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS), we are about to transform that patchwork of policies into a comprehensive framework based on solid data.

Quebec has joined SAGA - STEM and Gender Advancement – an initiative lead by the UIS and UNESCO with financing by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). We are joining about 10 countries and regional organizations to develop a toolkit of methodologies and frameworks to produce more precise data to better target policies.

Our first workshop, held in Montreal on 1 February, surpassed all expectations. While the initiative is being led by two organizations (Les Fonds de recherche du Québec and le Ministère de l’Économie, de la Science et de l’Innovation), we had scientists and policymakers from all fields – even the transport sector. Best of all, they came with the same agenda: to break out of their individual boxes and work together.

Why do so few women make it to the top?

I needed this boost of inspiration. When I started my career, there were flagrant salary gaps between women and men in science. This is starting to level off but unfortunately very few women make it to the top. They have great local networks but lack the international exposure that brings wider recognition and citation of their work.

Why? Many factors shape career decisions. For example, women are often torn by their responsibilities at home. So we put in place more family-friendly policies, like enabling researchers to get reimbursed for childcare expenses while traveling to conferences. But this is not enough.

I think the biggest problem is a lack of confidence. Women often feel that they are just not good enough. So they are reluctant to apply for top positions or wait for others to submit their candidatures for awards. For example, one of the most prestigious and general research awards available, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program, includes just one woman out of 27 laureates.

It takes tremendous courage to break into fields traditionally dominated by men. Numerous studies have shown the effects of stereotypes and how they lead to different reactions to very common scenarios, like the opening of a high-profile position. Studies show that a woman with 90% of the experience is likely to tell herself that she doesn’t have all the skills and decides not to apply. Whereas a man with 70% of the skills will feel that he must apply.

No quick fixes - we need data to measure the impact of policies

We need to take a proactive approach to encourage women to assert themselves – to apply for the top jobs, research grants and awards. There are many ways to cultivate this shift through, for example, the prominence of female role models during the education of girls and careers of women. But we need to constantly review and evaluate the impact of these policies to stay on track.  

This is where SAGA comes in. It offers a framework to link objectives to policies and data. Personally, I think the most important area of work focuses on the role of women in entrepreneurship and technology. This is where the money and jobs are now and will be in the future. Yet even in Scandinavian countries, which are in many ways the leaders in gender equality, women are not getting ahead in these areas.

Once again, there are no quick fixes. But by using data, we can transform our patchwork of policies into a concerted strategy with data to show us what works and what doesn’t. It is not enough to say that 20 women received grants to study abroad. The measure of success is: did they pursue their fields afterward or not? Hard questions demand hard data.

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