Rosine Hage-Moussa attended a science conference in Montreal shortly after she graduated with a biology degree in 2005 and was astounded to find that she was the only woman in the room.
"And I thought to myself, 'Oh, I can't be here,'" Ms. Hage-Moussa, the manager of programs and outreach at LifeSciences BC, said Wednesday. "All these men just walked right by me and they didn't care and I was so frustrated and I said, 'This is not fair.' Because in university you never felt that way."
New data from the 2011 Statistics Canada's National Household Survey suggest her perceptions were well-founded.
Although women are still greatly outnumbered in the so-called STEM fields of learning – science, technology, engineering and mathematics (which includes computer science) – they have surpassed the number of men in post-secondary science classes and are making modest gains in the other areas. While women were underrepresented in those fields, immigrants, who make up about a fifth of the population, accounted for half of all people holding STEM degrees at university.
Governments have been reaching out to young women in an effort to convince them to consider the STEM professions. And a number of organizations like the Society for Canadian Women in Science and Technology are mentoring girls who are drawn to science and engineering.
As a result, Ms. Hage-Moussa said the professional playing field is more level today than it was when she graduated. "I still feel that it's male-dominated," she said, "but I am trying to learn how to play the game and network and change the way I am viewed."
The Statistics Canada data suggest that although there were nearly three times as many female engineers between the ages of 25 and 34 in 2011 as there were between the ages of 55 and 64, there is still a long way to go. The same holds true for mathematics and computer science, where young women were outnumbered three to one by men.
Tamara Franz-Odendaal, a biologist at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax and the Atlantic region chair of Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)'s program for Women in Science and Engineering, said she suspects many of the women in science are in the biological fields. They are doctors and nurses and health technicians – traditional territory for women for many years.
And "just because the data is showing that more women are getting STEM degrees, and they may be getting STEM jobs, doesn't mean that they are going to progress in those careers," Dr. Franz-Odendaal said. "Because often we find women get stuck." Employers must still be convinced that they need to put in place strategies to support women in the sciences, she said.
Part of it comes down to women being role models.
Elizabeth Croft, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia who is another NSERC Chair for Women in Science and Engineering, said girls are looking for careers in which they can help people and be a team player and they need to be told engineering fits those criteria.
"We see girls going into universities in larger numbers but they have choices about where they can go," Dr. Croft said. "So, if you've got a profession that's not saying to them 'Come here because we need the things that you value, we care about the things that you care about,' if we don't say that to them, why would they come?"