It seemed strange that the boys who were our academic equals in every grade preceding Grade 9 would suddenly become smarter overnight. How were my little female friends convinced that they didn't belong in math and science? They didn't appreciate all of their options, and as a result may have underestimated their academic potential.

This woman engineer's story reveals the essence of the problem. Girls and young women do not try mathematics and science because they assume they will not succeed. Girls first say no to careers in engineering when they opt out of high school science and mathematics courses which are required for entrance into engineering programs. In Canada, the proportion of girls and women in mathematics and sciences decreases at each succeeding level of education. In doing so, they shut the door to about 85 percent of post-secondary education programs, including engineering (Status of Women Canada and Manitoba Women's Directorate, 1989).

Comprehensive data on the participation and success rates of young women in secondary school science and mathematics courses across Canada is difficult to obtain. One recent examination of the participation of female students in elective science courses found that the rate for both female and male students is higher in some provinces than in others. One consistent finding was that more female students than male students studied biology and, with the exception of francophones in Ontario and Quebec, more male students than female students studied physics. Generally, the proportions of male and female students who studied chemistry were more equal (Haggerty, 1989).

There is no reason why girls and young women should not be capable of succeeding in mathematics and science courses. For example, in Saskatchewan in 1988-89, female students in Grade 12 participated almost equally with their male classmates in all science and mathematics courses and their average marks were equal if not better (Burnett, Prairie Region Forum).

A survey of Grade 6 students by the Ottawa Board of Education revealed differences in attitudes towards and experiences in mathematics between boys and girls. Eighty-four percent of boys compared with 65 percent of girls reported that they "like" mathematics; 75 percent of boys compared with 58 percent of girls thought they were "good" at math. Yet, 94 percent of girls and 76 percent of boys said "yes" to the statement: "Girls can do as well as boys in math" (Reid and Hendleman, CCWE Conference).

The causes for differences in participation, interest and strengths between girls and boys in mathematics and science subjects are many and complex. One cause is self-esteem.

Women tend to internalize failure, tending to blame their lack of success on themselves. Men externalize failure, blaming it on the teacher, the textbook or other external circumstances. When girls find themselves having difficulty in science and mathematics courses, this self-blame becomes a critical factor. Believing that they are incapable of handling the course, they often give up, attributing their failure to lack of ability (Elinor Nicoll, Halifax District School Board, Atlantic Region Forum).

Applied science topics

Even when mathematics and science are retained as part of a girl's course selection, it is rare that she is exposed to applications of science that are both meaningful and accessible. There is little in the way of attention to the practical and mechanical experiences that would incite an interest in engineering (Janet Halliwell, The Science Council of Canada, CCWE Conference).

Applied science topics should be imbedded in the curriculum to help students see the relationship of science, mathematics and technical education in their everyday lives. The 1990 Canadian Teachers' Federation study reported that many adolescent girls found that curriculum materials lacked relevance to their lives and their futures: "Other girls stated that their classes were too focused on facts and information, and didn't allow for enough time to discuss the issues, express opinions and find ways to see the relevance of the issues to their own lives." (Robertson, 1990).

I do not believe that if parents buy construction sets for girls, we will have more female engineers. Rather, girls need to see that getting the proportions for making concrete is the same as following a recipe, that designing and cutting and serving a dress involves mathematics in a real way(Joan La Rue-van Es, Manitoba Course Ware System Cataloguing, Prairie Region Forum).

One reason girls tend to select biology as their compulsory high school science course may be that they can relate biology to their everyday lives. One solution to the absence of girls in physics and chemistry classes would be to alter physics and chemistry so that these subjects emphasize the real-life experience of students.

Provincial departments of education are key players in the development and application of science and mathematics curricula that appeal to women students. The application of the subjects in the practice of engineering could be explained to curriculum committees by an engineer acting in an advisory capacity.

Unfortunately, most current intervention programs focus on changing the behaviour of young women rather than on altering the present engineering, science, mathematics and technology curriculum in elementary and high school (Shelley Beauchamp, Women's Inventors Project, Ontario Forum).

Women's experiences

It is false to pretend that girls do not like sciences. It must be recognized that the male appearance of physical sciences and engineering, as well as the research priorities of these disciplines, lead talented girls to choose programs in biology, medicine and paramedical sciences (Joce-Lyne Biron, Quebec Ministry of Education, Montreal Forum).

As long as science and mathematics are perceived as "masculine" and girls and young women do not see women active in these fields, many girls and young women will not be attracted to them. The science and mathematics curricula and teaching methods need to be made less masculine. The curricula should be enhanced by including women's experiences as an integral part of the curricula, and by highlighting achievements of women, especially Canadian women. The biographies of Canadian women scientists and engineers should continue to be updated, published and distributed. Publishers are beginning to profile women in textbooks and posters, and science textbooks to show the discoveries of women scientists and engineers. Researchers in women's studies should be encouraged to share their insights and discoveries with those who teach science and develop science textbooks and teaching materials.

Women are virtually invisible in all but the most recent science and math textbooks, even though there have been many important contributions made by female scientists and mathematicians. The typical portrayal of a scientist is the 'white male' image (Mildred Minty, Newfoundland Chapter of Women in Science and Engineering, CCWE Conference).

Examples used to illustrate scientific concepts need to reflect the interests of both male and female students. In attempting this change, teachers face a dilemma.

On one hand, the teacher must avoid choosing examples of applications that reinforce outdated stereotypes. On the other hand, the teacher must not suggest there are two versions of science--one for girls, one for boys (Janet Halliwell, Science Council of Canada, CCWE Conference)

Teaching science and mathematics

Teachers at the elementary school level often do not have the resources or the training to teach science as a hands-on activity, so they teach it as a collection of facts. The average elementary teacher has had only one course in science--often a course on how to teach it. Is it any wonder that they avoid science teaching and give an unconscious message to all students? (Mac Sudduth, Science World, West Coast Forum)

Few elementary school teachers have a solid grounding, such as an undergraduate degree, in mathematics or science. Faculties of education, in co-operation with other faculties, should enhance science and mathematics courses in teacher education programs, and make efforts to demystify these subjects for elementary school teachers, the majority of whom are women. Engineering and science faculty could make presentations to education professors and students or provide elective courses on science and engineering. Science and mathematics faculty should prepare teachers to teach science and mathematics and their practical applications, especially in ways that appeal to female students. Educators should also conduct research on mathematics and science teacher education as it relates to role modeling, teaching methods and instructional materials.

Teacher qualifications and standards required to teach mathematics and science in elementary and secondary schools should be reviewed to determine whether teachers are adequately prepared to teach these subjects. In times of cutbacks and declining enrolments, school boards and districts are doing their best to staff their schools appropriately. However, it is important that teachers who teach mathematics and science at all levels have the educational background necessary to teach these subjects effectively, especially to female students.

As changes in the curricula and instructional approaches are made, teachers need assistance in implementing them. However, there is some resistance by teachers to changes in curriculum. One experiment in "female-friendly chemistry" demonstrated that it is difficult to change teachers' teaching methods and styles, even when curriculum, resource materials and sensitivity training are provided.

We did learn that it is not easy to change the attitudes of members of the teaching staff towards their subject of specialization. They seem to believe that understanding theory is more important than seeing practical applications, and that students who leave science do so because they are afraid of hard work. Therefore, it is in the areas of teacher training and professional development that the educational milieu needs to focus its efforts if it wishes to increase the participation of women in engineering (Catherine Gillbert, Champlain Regional College, CCWE Conference).

In-service programs for elementary teachers can increase their ability and interest in science teaching, as well as boost their self-confidence. Some extracurricular activities designed to interest girls in science and engineering also include their teachers (Appendix C).

Increasing science credits

The development of interest in mathematics and science begins at a very early age and at school entry. It is especially important that girls be introduced to science and mathematics before gender stereotypes give them the message that these subjects are only for boys. Educators should increase the emphasis on science at the elementary school level.

Consistent and continuous efforts also need to be made to ensure girls and young women continue with science and mathematics throughout high school. Students need to be made aware that credits in mathematics and science are required for dozens of careers, including engineering. This message needs to be conveyed by teachers, as well as by representatives of faculties and schools of engineering, and associations of professional engineers when they participate in school visits and career days. At the present time, required courses for high school graduation vary from province to province; consideration should be given to increasing the number of science, mathematics and technical education courses required for secondary school graduation.


4. The CCWE recommends that educators enhance the mathematics, science and technical learning experiences of women students in elementary and secondary schools so that they develop interests and abilities in these subjects and acquire the academic prerequisites for engineering studies.

Schedule for success: