Central Science l Why women leave science (and what’s being done about it)


Why women leave science (and what’s being done about it)

Women in their mid-thirties with careers in science, engineering and technology are twice as likely to quit their jobs as men– and studies on women and work-life balance suggest that it will take more than surface-level changes to put a dent in this statistic.

Even though it’s not 1923 anymore, women in STEM careers still report that they struggle to thrive in a male-dominated workplace culture.

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review wrote about a research study that explored the reasons why women leave behind STEM careers:
The researchers found five reasons why women leave science:

The hostility of the workplace culture
A sense of isolation in a male-dominated workplace
Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields
Long work weeks and travel combined with household management becomes too much to handle
Bemoaned by the “mystery” surrounding career advancement and lack of mentors

It’s easy to see how it can become a downward spiral: Women drop out because there aren’t many other women who they can relate to—which serves to worsen the situation.

But it’s not just that there aren’t more women around. The pressure of juggling responsibilities of work and home, as well as a plethora of other factors, contribute to why more educated women are quitting their jobs recently than ever before.

The results of a research study on why women opt out of their careers are chronicled in a book titled Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family.

The authors are Karine Moe and Dianna Shandy, professors at Macalester College in Minnesota in labor economics and cultural anthropology, respectively. They spent several years surveying and speaking with hundreds of educated women (with Bachelors degrees or higher) about their careers, how they manage work/life balance, and why they made the career choices they’ve made.

Since I got it, I can hardly put it down. I highly recommend listening to this interview with the authors that was on my local public radio station– the interview pretty much summarizes the entire book and all their major findings.

Although their study focused on women in all fields, I think their findings can help shed light on the opt-out phenomenon that is taking place in STEM fields.

According to a research study on women with careers and a family, the key to a happy working mom is job flexibility.

In more or less words, here’s what happens:

Highly educated woman meets highly educated man, perhaps at school or at work. They’ve got their high-intensity jobs, each plugging 60-70 hours a week. They fall in love, get married, start a family, and find themselves hiring three nannies to cover all the shifts. They’re struggling to balance it all. They look at their finances and realize that they could get by just fine on a single income. They do the math and find out it would be more financially beneficial for the wife to stay home.

In cases where one spouse quits their job to stay home, 97% of the time it’s the woman, the authors report.

It seems to me that the juggling of many responsibilities coupled with isolation in the male-dominated workplace culture in STEM careers could be the recipe for women choosing to walk away from their scientific jobs.

It certainly doesn’t help that the stressful pre-tenure years, as well as medical school and residency, coincide directly with a woman’s most fertile years, the authors pointed out during a seminar they gave on my campus last week.

I wonder if more women than men look to nontraditional science careers as alternatives to traditional research jobs for this reason, in the hopes that they’ll find something more family friendly without having to quit science altogether… I don’t have data to back this up, it’s just a thought.

Companies are starting to realize that women opting out could be bad for business and have been taking action to revert this phenomenon by developing programs designed to retain women in science— these programs are summarized towards the end of the 2008 article Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science.

In more recent news, I found out last week that the National Science Foundation is implementing so-called “workplace flexibility policies” in an effort to be more supportive of women and men with family responsibilities. Among the changes include the option of postponing grants for up to one year after child birth or adoption and grant suspension for parental leave.

I, for one, was pretty excited to hear that the NSF is seeking out ways to better support scientists and their families– and that they are encouraging other institutions to adopt similar policies.

Do you think it would help if more institutions adopted policies like these? Or is “family friendly academia” an oxymoron?

To all the women and men out there in STEM careers— What do you think needs to happen to make the STEM workplace a place for both men and women to thrive?

By Christine Herman
October 14th, 2011

Central Science l Why women leave science (and what’s being done about it)

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