Just when the nation has a need for more workers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, research at Cornell and the University of Texas, Austin, finds that women have often found those fields inhospitable, and left for other kinds of jobs.
In the first study to compare women in STEM with other professional women, Sharon Sassler, professor of policy analysis and management, and colleagues found that women in STEM fields have been more likely to move out of their field of specialty than other professional women, especially early in their careers; few women in either group completely leave the labor force. Their report, “What’s So Special About STEM?” will appear in the December issue of the journal Social Forces.
“A lot of people still think it’s having children that leads to STEM women’s exits,” Sassler said “It’s not the family. Women leave before they have children or even get married. Our findings suggest that there is something unique about the STEM climate that results in women leaving.”
Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tracked men and women who were ages 14 to 22 in 1979 through their midlife, the researchers compared the career trajectories of 258 women in STEM occupations with 842 women in professional and managerial positions.
After about the first 12 years, 50 percent of women who originally worked in STEM fields had moved to other occupations, but only about 20 percent of other professional women left their occupations over the entire three decades of the survey. The result is particularly curious because STEM jobs are often higher paid and offer better working conditions.
The effort to obtain an advanced degree and the rewards offered in the workplace ordinarily build commitment to a job, Sassler noted, but somehow that process is failing in STEM fields. “It’s not rational to invest that amount of time in getting a degree and then exit,” she said. In fact, having an advanced degree actually decreases retention, suggesting that the STEM jobs held by advanced-degree holders are either more noxious or more isolating than those held by bachelor’s degree recipients, or that difficulties women perceive in STEM fields do not disappear at higher levels of skill or maturity as they appear to among other professional women, Sassler said.
The researchers noted that men in STEM fields tend to have more traditional ideas of gender roles than other college-educated men. Many studies have shown that gender role beliefs can influence performance evaluations, and this might be exacerbated by the fact that much scientific work is done by teams, on which women are often the minority.
Women married to men who also work in STEM, however, are less likely to drop out, the researchers found. “A spouse who understands the dictates of the work and can accommodate a wife’s career may be especially influential in women’s STEM retention,” the researchers write.
The report acknowledges that times have changed, and today’s young women may use their STEM degrees to go into fields that are more amenable to work-family balance, including medicine.
The next step, Sassler said, is to conduct in-depth interviews with recent college graduates about job selection, mentoring at school and on the job, and relationships with co-workers. “We need to better understand why so many of the highly skilled STEM workers trained – at great expense – for these fields are exiting,” she said.
Co-authors are Jennifer Glass, the Barbara Pierce Bush Regents Professor in Liberal Arts at the University of Texas at Austin; Yael Levitte, associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity and formerly executive director of CU-ADVANCE; and Cornell Ph.D. candidate Katherine Michelmore. The study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, part of the National Institutes of Health.