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Why Women Abandon STEM Mid-Career

We ask the experts

7Jul

The gender gap in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) is well documented. Women make up 56.8% of the US labor force, yet account for just one-third of the STEM jobs. The truly shocking thing is that this number is not getting better, in fact, it’s getting worse. In 1991, 36% of roles in STEM were filled by females. It seems that despite countless initiatives by organizations in industry and government, a perceived shift in societal attitude, and trials of various quota systems, that we have somehow managed to go backwards.

There are tremendous benefits to be gained from having a diverse team when it comes to promoting innovation and new ideas, as has been documented in numerous studies. Many organizations are, therefore, not fulfilling their potential.

One point of blame is a failure at school and college level to get women involved. However, the research does not reinforce this - 52% of women in STEM quit their job by mid-career, which implies that the huge disparity is not necessarily occurring in entry level jobs, but occurring further down the food chain.

We asked four leading women in STEM what they believed to be the biggest factor in this high attrition rate, and what the solution is.

Kat Bloomfield, Individual Giving Manager, Tribeca Film Institute

ATTITUDES AND POLICIES AROUND WORK-LIFE BALANCE! If, for example, a woman wants to get a Ph.D. in a STEM field, they will likely spend around 6 years completing the degree and another two or three years in post-doc fellowships. Assuming they went straight into their Ph.D. studies after undergrad, they are likely in their early thirties, peak childbearing years. Women have to weigh the opportunity cost of having children and having a career because of work environment cultures that reflect traditional male gender roles.

Even if a woman didn’t get a Ph.D. and works in a STEM field, she would still face a dearth of places to pump breast milk or inflexible personal time policies to care for a sick child or the myriad of things that come with having a family. To add insult to injury, post-doctoral positions are often not considered part of the workforce and thus exempt from the Family and Medical Leave Act. As Dr. Erin Cadwalader noted in her 2013 Huffington Post article, 'Between the chilly work environments, unconscious bias, wage gap, and a lack of policies to support work and family needs, the current practices in this country make STEM careers seem like a more questionable path for women than ought to be the case.'

The best things a company can do to plug the women in STEM pipeline leak is to provide adequate (read:2-3 months) paid maternity and paternity leave, company-sponsored childcare, flexible scheduling, and family healthcare benefits. These benefits build the on-ramp back into the workforce so that women (who want children) are not forced to find a job outside of STEM that has more flexibility for their new circumstances.

Sivan Aldor-Noiman, Director of Data Science for the Data Science, Center of Excellence, The Climate Corporation

I'd say that many women I have seen want to be able to see themselves advancing but looking at the top it's very hard to picture themselves there because they don't see a good role model. The solution is training managers and executives on how to make the environment more supportive, helping women find their voice and confidence in their abilities, and training them as well on how to be successful.

Pallas Horwitz, Manager of Data Science at Mayvenn

I’ve mostly worked in startups. The hours can be brutal. Generally, none of my colleagues have kids. Those that do are usually men and their wives only work part time. I don’t think it’s fair to say that this is why women aren’t more prevalent in mid-career STEM roles. However, I don’t know of any women with kids where the husband only works part time.

Gale Allen, Deputy Chief Scientist at NASA

As far as the federal government is concerned, I think the perception of advancing in a STEM field as a female is daunting. In most cases, it is still a heavily male influenced environment and we are seeing implicit or perhaps unconscious factors. Also, there are personal reasons: child care, elder family care, etc. increasing options in child care and family friendly leave may help, but sometimes personal conviction may trump any of the 'fixes' that may be put in place.

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