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Many US women are leaving behind prolific STEM careers – here’s why

A farewell to their careers? Source: AFP/Matt Stroshane

The under-representation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers is an enduring trend that even the most developed economies have struggled to shake off. Many factors contribute to this, from the devaluation of a women in the workplace to the gender pay gap that shows no sign of shrinking anytime soon.

A new study’s findings suggest one factor could be a major contributor to this: Parenthood. A significant number of highly-educated women leave full-time STEM jobs upon having or adopting a child, the study found. This reason causes women to leave at twice the rate of men, according to the paper, called The Changing Career Trajectories of New Parents in STEM.

“These professionals were rich in human capital, having successfully completed college- or graduate-level training and being employed in a STEM field,” the study says.

“They also demonstrated commitment to full-time work in these male-dominated, math-intensive fields and had moved beyond the key attrition points of education and the school-to-work transition. The exit of these trained and experienced professionals from the STEM workforce would be disadvantageous for both the organisations that employ them and for US STEM industries broadly.”

It’s hard to be a new mum and NASA engineer at the same time. Source: AFP/Lawrence Ho

STEM is one of the most male-dominated fields in the US. Fresh professionals in these fields are expected to put in long hours and have a family that supports their professional lives. Keeping up with the rapid pace of STEM innovation is another issue that makes the situation particularly hard for new parents with family responsibilities.

Within seven years of having or adopting a child, 43 percent of women and 23 percent of men leave their full-time STEM jobs, according to the study conducted in the period between 2003 to 2010. This trend applies irrespective of variation by discipline, race and other demographic factors.

It suggests a difficulty of combining caregiving duties with STEM careers. Although men shoulder more caregiving responsibilities compared to a generation ago, women still take on more. The modern workplace’s failure to provide more flexibility for parents, as well as the presumption that mothers are less committed to their work than their childless peers, adds to the problem.

The study found new mothers switched to either part-time work in STEM (11 percent), part-time work outside of STEM (6 percent), or left the workforce entirely (15 percent) by 2010. New fathers did the same too, though in smaller proportions.

What these findings show, the authors argue, is that drafting policies which focus solely on women is a flawed siolution, since results show that parenthood affects both new mothers and fathers. They point out that only four US states offer paid leave for parents regardless of gender to care for young children. This, and extending paid leave, are some of the changes governments can take to stem the outflow of parents from STEM fields.

“Of course, the solution is not to encourage STEM professionals to avoid parenthood altogether or to advise young adults with family plans to avoid STEM careers. Rather, the concerning levels of attrition of new fathers and mothers mandates the need for legislative, organizational, and cultural changes,” the authors explain.

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