Women putting work first ‘still held back in STEM careers’

Researchers have found that women who chose to put their STEM career before their family life have not gained the same benefits that men have

November 30, 2016
Woman wearing a virtual reality headset
Source: Alamy

“Women have a harder time being perceived as likeable if they are non-normative, such as not wanting to be mothers or wives,” said Sharon Sassler. “They may have been perceived by employers as not a ‘good fit’ for the team, or a troublemaker.”

Professor Sassler, who works in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, was commenting about the factors dissuading young women from entering STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.

In a new study, Professor Sassler and her co-authors found that even women who planned to be “ideal workers” by delaying marriage and limiting the size of their family have had greater difficulty entering STEM careers than similarly career-oriented men.

Of a cohort graduating with STEM majors from the 1970s to 1990s, 41 per cent of women were working in a STEM job two years after graduating, compared with 53 per cent of men. A previous study by the authors found that this was attributable not to women abandoning work altogether, but to their abandoning STEM. “Women who graduate with other majors are more likely to stay in field than women in STEM. In fact, the difference is quite large and glaring”, said Jennifer Glass, a professor at the University of Texas’ Population Research Centre, who worked on the studies.

“So there is something peculiar about the STEM labour force that has not been adequately understood.”

Women intending to prioritise their careers were no more likely to remain in STEM careers than women intending to marry early and have two or more children, according to the study “The missing women in STEM? Assessing gender differentials in the factors associated with transition to first jobs”, published in the journal Social Science Research

Gender disparity in the pipeline of STEM academics is often attributed to the underrepresentation of women in engineering and computer science, disciplines more likely to lead to STEM careers. “But that did not explain all of the difference in transition rates,” said Professor Sassler. “We interpret our findings to suggest that employers viewed the women and men differently.”

Women with STEM majors have less traditional values than other women, the study found, while men with STEM majors have more traditional values than other men. This could lead to a “clash of interpersonal cultures”.

But progress has been made, the authors agree, and further efforts – such as campaigns to build confidence in STEM among women, and organisational features aimed at rendering women’s contributions more visible in the workplace – could be effective. While a traditional learning style and “lockstep curriculum” remain in universities, however, women will continue to be underrepresented in STEM careers, the authors contend.

“Women more so than men say they want their work to have social relevancy and meaning, which deters them from STEM. Pitching STEM as a route to solving social problems might go a long way towards increasing young women’s interest,” said Professor Glass.

“Finally, close attention to the interpersonal climate in STEM workplaces might help. Many women scientists and engineers have reams of stories to tell about casual and entrenched sexism at work.”

hilary.lamb@tesglobal.com

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