Women in STEM and the Economy

January 19, 2018

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

Economics – a favoured topic by politicians and a system about which we receive daily updates from news outlets. Stock purchasers and brokers watch the rise and fall of the economy with great interest, and it affects even the most minuscule parts of our lives. But, how do women – especially women in STEM - fit into it? A report entitled “Women and STEM: Bridging the Divide” was released in September 2017 by TD Bank, with a perspective on the STEM labour market and the reasons for marginalization within educational and corporate institutions – a small, but important, area of Canada’s economy.

The Purchasing Power of Women

Women control 51% of wealth. Forbes reports they earn the majority of all university level degrees, and that 70% of women with children under 18 participate in the labour force. In the US, women are the primary breadwinners in 50% of households with children under 18. The folks at Sheconomy report that women account for 85% of all consumer purchases including everything from cars to health care. 45% of video game players are women, according to Girlpower Marketing, an all-woman marketing firm with an expertise in marketing to women. But, according to the Harvard Business Review, women feel vastly underserved, still appear to be undervalued in the marketplace (and underestimated in the workplace), and businesses behave as if they have no say over purchasing decisions – despite the statistics just quoted. Women are constantly juggling conflicting priorities (work, home, family), but few companies have responded to their need for time-saving solutions or for products designed specifically for them – perhaps because they are underrepresented in companies that design these products.

According to Kat Ely (designer and co-founder of Clear Design Lab in Boston, and writer for HH Design, a collection of writing by designers within the context of technology on, it is rare for a woman to be in a design or engineering role at a consultancy. She looked at 27 design and engineering consulting firms which public information about their teams, and she found out of 27 design firms made up of 743 people, 188 were women and 555 were men. Only 24.4% of the staff at these design and engineering firms are female.

A closer look:

110 women in design or engineering (including UX/UI)
18 women industrial designers
16 women mechanical engineers

That’s just 34 women across 27 companies in roles that are focused on physical product design. Several smaller consultancies didn’t have a single woman in a design or engineering role. This begs the question, how can products be designed with women in mind if they are not involved in the process?

Source: Kat Ely,

The Economic Case for Women in STEM

The labour market is increasingly demanding higher skill levels in STEM. According to the report by TD Bank, STEM jobs have experiencd the eighth most pronounced expansion in their share of total employment since 1997 - STEM jobs currently account for 9% of full- and part-time jobs combined. Computer science and engineering occupations experienced the most pronounced job gains, and represent the majority of STEM jobs (during 2009-2016). In Canada, around 557,000 STEM jobs fall into the "technical" (as opposed to "professional") category (making up 45% of the STEM market), however, technology companies have identified immediate talent shortages in the areas of machine learning, data science, product management, user experience design, sales, and digital marketing. There are a few factors that negatively affect women's presence in STEM.

The "wage premiun phenomenon" involves "occupational sorting" - differences in earnings due to a woman's chosen field of study, and by extension, occupation. Women account for 23% of full-time STEM positions, and women working full time in STEM generally earn 30% more than women working in other industries. But if women had the same representation in full time STEM jobs as they do in middle management occupations (roughly 40%), the gap in average hourly earnings between men and women would narrow by 16% on this alone.


This missing link in the educational pipeline means that women make up the majority of university graduates, except for the wide gender gap that exists among STEM graduates. There are nearly 4 men for every woman graduating with a bachelor's degree in engineering - "this figure has barely budged in more than a decade" says the TD Bank report. There are 3 men for every woman who graduates in computer science and math as well.

But occupational sorting can be seen in other realms as well - in particular, the workplaces women are already in. "It's not sufficient for a company to take an active role in implementing initiatives to provide greater jobs opportunities to women within STEM fields. Employers need to look inward to review whether hiring biases are occuring by asking and measuring: Are employees right-skilled to their education and skill levels? Are developmental and professional opportunities provided equally to individuals? How might corporate culture cause friction for women preferring full time roles?"

What Can Be Done?

Small changes create large outcomes. A professional learning program in 2016 in the Toronto District School Board for kindergarten to grade 12 teachers cited STEM career awareness as an area of concern. Nearly 40% of respondents did not know where to go to learn more about STEM careers. There were also extremely limited teaching activities involving cooperative opportunities with businesses, site visits, and robotics. "Targeted resources and training for teachers, alongside consistent implementation within teaching methods across geography can go a long way to help raise female student engagement within STEM fields," the report suggests.

A positive example cited in the report is that of Harvey Mudd College in California, which proved that changing curriculums to be more inclusive pays off. (Dr. Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd College president, was a featured speaker at the fall 2017 President's Dream Colloquium at SFU. She spoke about Harvey Mudd's computing science program in her talk, which you can see here.) Harvey Mudd redesigned its mandatory computer science introductory course for first-year students to include practical uses for programming. They created a separate introductory course for those who lacked the exposure from prior educational experiences. In 2006, only 12% of computer science graduates were women, but women pursuing computer science majors rose to 40% with their change in curriculum, as quickly as upon completion of the first four-year experiment. A positive example in Canada includes the fact that the Universiy of Toronto and the University of Waterloo are showing a steady uptrend in first-year woman engineer enrollments.

As women are huge players in the economy, and as their presence in STEM grows with the passing of time, their role in the STEM labour economy should not be undervalued. As early as primary school, shaping attitudes towards STEM-related subjects must be attempted. Educational choice is influenced by environmental and cultural factors. And within the workplace, employers need to revisit whether ongoing marginalization is present via occupational sorting within technical fields, lower wages than male peers, and/or a scarcity of meaningful internships and challenging opportunities. In addition, companies need to be able to attract and retain the highest talent, but also re-evaluate their recruitment methods (you can hear more about that in this interview with Dr. Danielle Gaucher of the University of Winnipeg, who took part as a speaker in the fall 2017 President's Dream Colloquium).

The TD Bank report also contends that women already in STEM fields should engage with younger generations as mentors and sponsors, and to influence corporate policies. See more about mentorship in our White Paper here.


Getting more women into the STEM fields starts when they are young. Here at WWEST, we have many resources for K-12 youth, parents, and K-12 teachers. These resources can help support teachers and parents in increasing girls' interest in STEM from an early age. We also feature lists of fun activities for students to use on their own. Please also share your favourite resources for girls and women in STEM by tweeting at us or interacting with us on Facebook!