University curriculums in science and technology programs should be reformed to strengthen their appeal to women by emphasizing inclusiveness and support rather than competitiveness between students, according to a new report by a cross-border women's business group.
The Canada-United States Council for Advancement of Women Entrepreneurs and Business Leaders, which was founded last year following a White House meeting between Justin Trudeau and U.S. president Donald Trump, has released a new report on finding ways to boost the proportion of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions.
The wide-ranging report urges new methods of teaching STEM subjects as early as middle school, and calls on companies and other organizations to set internal goals to improve diversity in STEM positions.
Women account for about 36 per cent of entry-level workers in the technology sector at large U.S. companies, the report said, and just 17 per cent of top C-Suite executives.
Council member Linda Hasenfratz, chief executive officer of Guelph-based auto parts maker Linamar Corp., said some universities have developed successful approaches that have greatly boosted enrolment of women in STEM programs, demonstrating that progress is already happening and more is possible.
"I actually think great progress has been made, and the key right now is to build on the momentum and keep it going," Ms. Hasenfratz said.
The 2017 engineering class at the University of Toronto, for example, is 42 per cent female, which the department achieved through outreach programs to high schools, targeted personal follow-up with interested female students and broader admission criteria that assess problem-solving skills and successes in challenging environments, the report said. Female faculty members have increased to 22 per cent from 9 per cent over the past decade, providing more role models for women.
Women account for more than half of computer-science graduates at Harvey Mudd College in California, compared with 10 per cent a decade ago, which the report said was achieved by "creating a culture that emphasizes openness, inclusivity and support," rather than competitiveness among students. Students work on group puzzles, 3-D graphics, and other engaging projects, and are offered research opportunities after their first year.
The college has specifically targeted greater diversity of all types in hiring and enrolment, including race and sexual orientation. The computer science faculty is 40 per cent female, the report said.
More than a dozen U.S. colleges have adopted similar teaching methodologies because of the success rate of the program, and the report recommends more universities with STEM programs should adopt the new curriculum approach.
"They did a lot of work in terms of making the curriculum more engaging, more inclusive, and building more confidence, as opposed to being competitive and kind of driving people away from each other," Ms. Hasenfratz said.
She said there are misconceptions that young women aren't interested in STEM professions or that they will find themselves studying and working alone with no other women if they pursue them.
"I think part of the problem why we don't have momentum building everywhere is because of a misconception that we don't have women in STEM, and that's not at all the case," Ms. Hasenfratz said. "That's why one of our key recommendations is that we do a better job broadcasting and sharing this information and also the best practices those institutions used in order to have the results they did."
The report also urges the Canadian and U.S. governments to work with private-sector partners to develop major online Web portals aimed at students in junior high and high school, offering a centralized location to learn about STEM careers and available opportunities.
The portal would allow students interested in an academic subject to research possible career options, or allow students interested in a cause – such as an environmental issue – to find out what kind of jobs exist that are related to the cause and what to study to achieve those careers.
Ms. Hasenfratz said it is also important that the portal provide information on job availability and salary ranges so that students can choose careers that meet their expectations.
The business council was formed last February after Mr. Trudeau visited Washington with a delegation of prominent Canadian female executives and attended a roundtable meeting with Ivanka Trump, who is an adviser to her father, President Trump. Council members include General Motors Co. CEO Mary Barra and TransAlta Corp. CEO Dawn Farrell.
The council agreed to prepare five reports on key pillars to advancing women, including a report published in January on expanding women-owned businesses. The second report was published Tuesday on increasing women in STEM occupations, and will be followed by reports on increasing women's access to capital, advancing women in leadership roles and encouraging more female entrepreneurs.