ApplyInsights: How Canadian Universities Can Help Female Students Succeed in STEM

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The recruitment of international students by Canadian universities has surged in popularity over recent years. It’s an exercise that helps all parties involved. International students receive a high-quality education and are often afforded the opportunity to work in Canada following graduation. Institutions diversify their student bodies while boosting their co-op and work placement rates in the process. Everybody wins.

International student recruitment is a powerful way to increase ethnic and cultural diversity on Canadian campuses, but what about gender diversity? A host of recent studies suggest that there’s an opportunity to increase the representation of women in fields historically dominated by men—STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).

Specifically, the studies uncovered that graduates from all-girls secondary schools have higher levels of interest in STEM and increased self-confidence in their abilities to perform skills necessary in STEM fields when compared to female graduates of coed schools.1

In today’s ApplyInsights, I’ll explore how young women from all-girls schools are positioning themselves for success in careers in STEM, highlight the need for improved gender diversity on Canadian campuses, and share my thoughts on what Canadian universities need to do in order to help capable young women flourish in STEM careers.

Key Insights at a Glance

  • Girls’ school graduates are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology than girls who attended coed schools.
  • At the start of university, girls’ school graduates in the U.S. rate their confidence in their math abilities 10% higher than do their coeducated peers.
  • 80% of girls school graduates have held leadership positions since graduating from high school.
  • Two out of every three graduates of girls’ schools expect to earn a graduate or professional degree.

While a large share of these studies were conducted on North American all-girls schools, I believe the learnings from this research translates to women around the world. All-girls schools are extremely prevalent in dozens of countries, meaning Canadian institutions can apply these findings to their recruitment efforts in most source markets.

Post-Secondary Gender Diversity in Canada

When it comes to international students, women have historically been a minority at Canadian institutions. From 2016 to 2020, 276,890 more study permits were processed for male applicants than females.2 The chart below highlights the percentage of study permit applicants that were female from 2016 to 2020.

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The growth of the female share of applications has been steadily trending in a positive direction, increasing by 1.6% over the same time period. 54.6% of men applied to study in Canada in 2020, compared to 45.3% of women.3 Even though things are improving, there’s still a significant imbalance.

The reality is that there are a substantial number of women around the world who aren’t provided the tools to close this gap. These findings showing the aptitude of girls’ school graduates in STEM excite me because we’ve clearly identified a sub-demographic of prospective female students who could increase gender diversity among Canadian institutions.

The recruitment of women students must be prioritized by admissions teams in order for this change to get underway. Before they can make the decision to apply, girls’ school graduates need to understand why pursuing a career in STEM is a viable option, and how women can succeed within these fields.

Instilling Confidence in Young Women

Navigating the lack of female role models and teachers and within the patriarchal culture that many women grow up in, are just a few of the factors which contribute to the difficulty of women developing confidence in their abilities.

The most challenging aspect of pursuing a career in STEM for women is the strain their confidence is under. Constant and often unwarranted criticism from male peers, insults suggesting women are less likely to succeed, and chronic cases of their contributions being ignored or even stolen—it’s no wonder women are apprehensive to follow through on their dreams to work in STEM.4

82% of women working in STEM say their contributions are ignored.5

On the other end of the spectrum, confidence is exactly what girls’ school graduates are being equipped with to fight back within an industry that’s historically put a ceiling on their potential.

Here’s a few ways young women are benefiting from learning in an all-female environment:

  • Girls’ school graduates, on average, report greater confidence than coeducated peers in their ability to use technical science skills, understand scientific concepts, generate a research question, explain study results, and determine appropriate methods for data collection.
  • Girls’ school graduates are six times more likely to consider majoring in math, science, and technology compared to girls who attended coed schools.
  • At the start of university, girls’ school graduates in the U.S. rate their confidence in their math abilities 10% higher than do their coeducated peers.

At girls’ schools, students aren’t collared by the expectations of what subjects are better suited for boys versus girls. There’s nobody telling these young women “that subject is too hard for girls”—an unfortunate reality that exists in many coed high schools. 89.9% of students at girls’ schools felt supported by other students—16.8% higher than their coeducated public school peers. This absence of negativity breeds more confident students.

All-girls learning environments are also a place where students are encouraged to speak up and share their opinions to the point where they feel comfortable doing so in social and professional settings. 45% of girls’ school graduates rate their public speaking ability as “above average,” 9% higher than graduates of coed schools.6
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The end result is students who believe in their ability to succeed at the post-graduate level and beyond. Two out of every three graduates of all-girls schools expect to earn a graduate or professional degree—a figure which should excite admissions teams.

It’s clear that girls’ schools produce graduates who are capable, interested, and hungry to continue developing their skills in STEM programs at Canadian institutions. The question remains, how can universities ensure none of this budding talent goes to waste?

Targeted Recruitment Programs and Scholarships

Our local recruitment partners have shared with me that they’re hearing from universities and co-op offices that women enrolled in STEM programs are getting hired for post-graduate jobs and finding co-op placements quicker than ever before. This trend is a product of Canadian workplaces looking to meet their gender diversity goals, which are rising at an increasingly fast pace.

Applyboard is proud to be home to the STEM for Change Scholarship Program, which offers up to C$100,000 in scholarships to women applying to study STEM at an ApplyBoard Canadian partner school.

We have all-girls schools turning out motivated, STEM-ready young women and we have employers looking to hire more women in STEM. Are universities the missing link?

Canadian universities have made concerted efforts to recruit more international and indigenous students, working to build diversity on campus and provide better representation to underrepresented demographics. Why aren’t more schools intentionally and specifically recruiting graduates from girls’ schools to STEM programs?

There’s a massive opportunity for Canadian institutions to increase the number of female applicants in the field they need the most. I urge Canadian institutions to fill the void by putting resources towards incentivizing the enrollment of women in STEM programs. Schools should also prioritize educating young women around the world about the potential they have to incite female-driven change in a male-dominated industry.

Moving Forward

Women have had to fight for equality in nearly every professional industry that exists. Unjustifiably low salaries, inaccurate job titles, and a nagging feeling of disrespect—it’s fair to say women are still trying to overcome serious obstacles that come with navigating their professions, no matter what they do for a living.

Today, universities have a golden opportunity to lend a helping hand to young women in a field that’s presented a particularly challenging path to success for them.

The potential of graduates from girls’ schools to succeed in STEM programs, along with the growing appetite of STEM employers to hire more women, creates the perfect storm for schools to usher in female talent and systemic change, just a little bit sooner.

Canadian universities looking to normalize the contribution and participation of women within STEM fields should consider implementing the following practices:

  • Create scholarship and grant programs tailored for women applying to programs in STEM-related fields.
  • Hold educational sessions for prospective female students which highlight the inequity of STEM industries and encourage women to pursue careers in those sectors.
  • Work with female and male alumni who hold leadership positions in STEM to offer insight through lectures or webinars highlighting the power of diversity in the workplace.
  • Partner with all-girls schools to deliver information packets or other forms of e-content to educate students about pursuing a degree in STEM.

Published: August 26, 2021

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Meti BasiriMeti Basiri
Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer (CMO)
Meti is driven by the belief that education is a right, not a privilege. He leads the International Recruitment, Partner Relations, and Marketing teams at ApplyBoard, working to make education accessible to people around the world. Meti has been instrumental in building partnerships with 1,500+ educational institutions across Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Working with over 5,000 international recruitment partners, ApplyBoard has assisted over 150,000 students in their study abroad journey. Follow Meti on LinkedIn for more access to ApplyInsights and key industry trends.


1. Source: Fostering Academic and Social Engagement: An Investigation into the Effects of All-Girls Education in the Transition to University. Tiffani Riggers-Piehl, Ph.D., Principal Investigator with Gloria Lim, Ph.D. and Karen King.

2. Statistics used in this article are for new study permits only. All data courtesy of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), except where noted.

3. It’s important to recognize that the term “gender” encapsulates more than men and women. In 2019, the IRCC added an “other gender” category to help refine gender data, Fewer than 0.1% of study permit applicants listed another gender on their study permit application between 2019 and 2021.

4. Source: Steeped in Learning: The Student Experience at All-Girls Schools. Richard A. Holmgren, Ph.D.

5. Source: The Confidence Code. Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

6. Source: Women Graduates of Single-Sex and Coeducational High Schools: Differences in their Characteristics and the Transition to College. Linda J. Sax, Ph.D., Principal Investigator.


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