Women in STEM: A feature on UW students 


Despite being among Canada’s most renowned science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) institutions, fall 2022 admission data revealed women represent less than 27 per cent of Waterloo’s computer science programs and only 32 per cent of students admitted to the 2020 engineering faculty. 

There are many initiatives on campus designed to address this issue. UW Women in STEM (WiSTEM), founded in 2013, is a club that connects, empowers, and advocates for women in STEM. WiSTEM runs professional development workshops, technical bootcamps, and panels and collaborates with major technology companies like Google and IBM. 

Melanie Lo is a fourth-year biology student and WiSTEM external affairs member. She said, “Being in this community is empowering as I’m able to connect with like-minded individuals who understand and have felt the same way that I do.” 

A phenomenon not uncommon to women in STEM fields is imposter syndrome, often described as feeling uncomfortable in spaces disproportionately occupied by those you don’t resemble. Imposter syndrome can cause women to question their abilities as students and professionals. 

Shanaya Barretto, a second-year mechatronics engineering student, was selected as one of 10 University of Waterloo 2021 Schulich leaders. The Schulich leader scholarships are Canada’s most competitive for undergraduates in STEM, valued at $120,000 for entrepreneurial-minded engineering students. 

There is definitely a noticeable relationship between the number of women on an engineering team versus the amount of imposter syndrome felt by these female team members,” Barretto said. 

In previous co-op terms, engineering teams I have worked on have had very few women with respect to the size of the entire department, and it would be great to see that number even out in the future.” 

Imposter syndrome is often coupled with sexist comments and microaggressions made by male colleagues, according to UW’s Women in Computer Science (WiCS) committee. 

Lo said during her experience working in healthcare, there were discrepancies between respect afforded to women and men. “There were significantly less comments about absences due to vacations or other personal matters concerning the two male doctors than the one female doctor,” Lo said.

Beyond direct comments made about women in STEM fields, an equally harmful, but often ignored, form of sexism is benevolent sexism, also known as “friendly” sexism — comments or positive evaluations of women that perpetuate gender stereotypes. 

Women are more likely to receive feedback related to their interpersonal skills than men. For women in STEM fields, compliments that do not reference their technical skills can be detrimental, leading women to feel as though their value lies in contributing to a positive atmosphere and workplace culture. 

Many companies have taken the challenge head-on to promote women in STEM who work in male-dominated teams. Google hosts numerous events and leadership programs to connect women in tech and highlight key contributions made by female employees. 

There are specific opportunities, like fellowships and gender minority groups, geared toward women in STEM which are great ways to build a supportive community,” Barretto said. 

Even small steps made by companies can have a huge impact. 

“One of my companies had a Slack channel for women in tech which was constantly active. We shared media, tech news, and female specific opportunities all the time,” Barretto said. 

Present efforts and growing communities of empowered women are continuing to encourage women to enter STEM fields and feel confident working alongside their male colleagues. “If you’re interested in STEM, then keep working towards those goals, regardless of how many failures you might need to overcome along the way,” Barreto said.