In 1929, Elsie MacGill became the first North American woman to earn a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering. She went on to lead Canada’s production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during World War II, earning the nickname “Queen of the Hurricanes” and even a comic strip.
While the ranks of women engineers have risen since MacGill’s days, they’ll need to take a quantum leap to shrink the gender pay gap in a global economy hurtling into the digital age, a study from Toronto-Dominion Bank argues.
“It will be difficult to close, or possibly even further narrow, the overall gender wage gap if women fail to make strong inroads,” in science, technology, engineering and math, or the so-called STEM fields, Beata Caranci, chief economist at Toronto-Dominion Bank, and her colleagues said in the report released last week.
Her study, spurred in part by MacGill’s inclusion onto the shortlist of women to feature on Canada’s $10 bill last year, comes amid intense scrutiny on women in technology amid tales of sexism and harassment in Silicon Valley’s “bro” culture. The imbroglios overshadowed a milestone for U.S. women last year: for the first time, they earned more than 80 cents for every dollar made by a man. In Canada, that figure has risen to 87 cents.
But unless women make more inroads into higher-paying science and technology jobs, that might be about as good as it gets for women’s pay, Caranci’s team wrote. Women make up less than one-quarter of employment in Canada’s STEM fields yet a Statistics Canada projection of labor shortages indicates the industries will experience the second-most pronounced excess demand for workers in the years to 2024.
In the meantime, women who do make it into STEM are often slotted into lower-paid technical roles and many work part time, the study showed. Women with a university degree make up about a third of all full-time technical roles compared with only 21 percent for men. And only 23 percent of all full-time STEM positions are filled by women.
That’s been a potent combination in holding down women’s pay. If women had the same representation in full-time STEM jobs as they do in middle management -- roughly 40 percent -- the gap in overall average hourly earnings between men and women in Canada would narrow by 16 percent on this one factor alone, according to the study.
“The low representation of women automatically places their lifetime earnings at a disadvantage to that of men,” according to the authors.
Female representation in Canadian university STEM courses suggests the situation isn’t about to change much. Nearly four men graduate for every woman who earns a bachelor’s degree in engineering, a figure that’s barely budged in a decade. Computer science and math hold their own distinction: the ratio of three men graduating for every woman has actually worsened from two decades ago.
Caranci’s team said numerous studies refute the idea raised by an engineer who was fired from Google in part after writing a memo that said women are biologically less suited to be engineers than men. If high proficiency in math ultimately underpins the pursuit of STEM fields, females have it, statistics show. Fifteen-year-old females in Canada, Singapore, Korea, and Switzerland outperform their U.S. male peers in the 95th percentile, according to the OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment.
So what needs to be done to get more women in STEM? Engage girls in science at school, make paths to STEM careers clear and even consider making courses in computer science and foundational engineering mandatory, Caranci’s team suggests. One U.S. college made the simple change of renaming its computer science classes to include the words “creative” and “problem solving” to boost enrollment.
At work, reducing biases, marginalization, and self-selection into technical and part-time roles is key, the study said. Companies need to track and measure outcomes within hiring and career development.
“Firms that argue there’s insufficient supply of women need to first ensure the elimination of attitudes that can create workforce friction that cause women to either self-select out of the STEM workforce, or shift involuntarily into part-time ranks,” the study says. “To have run the gauntlet through a 20-year educational journey, only to experience a fatal career blow due to corporate culture is a loss to society and the economy.”
Women considering STEM careers might take inspiration from the Queen of the Hurricanes to persist and agitate for change, the study argues.
Told MacGill would never walk again after contracting a form of polio, she eventually became mobile with the aid of two metal canes. She earned money during her recovery by writing articles on aviation and studied at MIT. MacGill became the world’s first female aircraft designer, insisted on being a passenger on all test flights, and helped defeat Nazis with her planes during the Battle of Britain.