It is tempting to be smug about the state of gender equality in Canada, particularly when we compare ourselves to a country like Bangladesh.
After all, most Canadians endorse statements supporting gender equality and the World Economic Forum ranks Canada in the top quartile of countries globally on gender equity. In contrast, far fewer Bangladeshi agree with principles of gender equality and Bangladesh ranks 82nd out of 134 countries on gender equity. Yet, paradoxically, Bangladesh has been more successful in recent years than Canada on one front in the gender equality battle — recruiting more women into STEM education.
STEM is shorthand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. It is an area where women are significantly under-represented. In Canada and the United States, female enrolment in university engineering programs peaked at 19 per cent in 2000, but has declined since to 17 per cent in Canada in 2009.
In contrast, female enrolment in engineering in Bangladesh has risen from 14 per cent in 1999 to over 20 per cent in 2009. Increased female enrolment in STEM fields has also been observed in other Asian countries such as India, China, Taiwan and South Korea.
Educators and policy-makers are concerned about STEM fields because technology is an important driver of economic growth and can play, as we have seen in recent events, a critical role in political change. When these fields are not drawing on one half of our talent, it represents a significant loss to all of us.
There are at least two possible kinds of explanations for the differences we observe between Western and Asian countries — individual choice and the influence of context. Our research suggests that both are relevant.
In a survey of over 800 engineering students in Bangladesh, we found that young women were less likely than their male colleagues to say that they chose engineering as a major because they have been interested in it since childhood, but more likely to say that they chose engineering because of their grades and admission test scores. These results highlight fundamental differences in how our education systems deal with choice.
In Bangladesh, students are offered university places according to their marks on standardized admission tests. The students with the highest scores are offered the most prestigious opportunities including places in engineering programs. In Canada, students choose their field of study based on personal interests and vague notions of fit.
Unfortunately, concepts of fit are notoriously subject to the influence of stereotypes. Other research in North America has indicated that young women perceive technology careers as boring, nerdy and not cool. Our research indicates that this is not the case in Bangladesh, where technology careers are viewed as challenging and creative by both women and men. These perceptions are critical as our research shows that perceiving technology careers as challenging is the most important determinant of interest in a high-tech career for both women and men in Bangladesh.
Ideas about the suitability of careers come from a variety of sources including parents and friends but the media also plays an important role. Previous analysis of media portrayals of high-tech show that gender stereotyping is pervasive globally.
Women are either absent or portrayed in passive roles in high-tech advertisements...Oh, please. Why does it never occur to these "progressive" types that if women in Canada are more inclined to go into law, medicine and veterinary science it's not because of "gender stereotyping" or "high-tech advertisements," but because those are the careers that women find most appealing?
And the fact that fewer men than women want to become, say, teachers or dental hygienists--is that, too, a matter of "gender stereotyping"?
Of course not.
As for the idea that Bangladesh--Bangladesh!--should be looked to as some sort of exemplar of women's rights: well, that's about as nutty as it gets!