Women in STEM ‘more likely to burn out’

Universities need to open up communication channels to help retain women in science, says study

January 25, 2017
female runner lays on the floor
Source: Rex

Women working in university science departments report higher levels of job-related burnout than men, suggests new research.

The study points to reasons why women working in science might leave academia and offers ways for universities to better support them.

But a critic of the research’s findings said that talent retention was a management issue and that the problem does not lie with the women themselves.

People suffer burnout when they are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, making them more likely to leave a position. Although it is known that there is a “leaky pipeline” in science, with women leaving the profession at earlier career stages and at a faster rate than men, until now little consideration has been given to how burnout contributes to this.

Daphne Pedersen, professor of sociology, and Krista Minnotte, professor of sociology, both at the University of North Dakota, surveyed 117 people working in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) departments at a research-intensive liberal arts university in the US.

In an online questionnaire, they asked about the extent to which academics felt burnt out by their job and about various aspects of their work environment.

About 30 per cent of those who responded were women. On average, the women reported higher levels of job burnout than the men. The trend persisted even when the researchers took into account the rank and tenure status of the respondents and whether they were married or had children.

Professor Pedersen told Times Higher Education that feelings of overwork and strain are more likely in STEM departments because faculty face increased pressure to seek external grants and to live up to the expectation of the “ideal worker”, who is completely devoted to work and is always available for it.

“Women in STEM face other pressures including isolation, tokenism and lack of support – some of the key predictors of burnout. They are more likely to describe their work environment as ‘competitive’ and ‘chilly’,” she added.

Professors Pedersen and Minnotte write in the Journal of Feminist Family Therapy that a lack of access to information and interpersonal conflict contributed to burnout among respondents. They add that universities should open channels of communication to help alleviate the strain and retain women.

But Averil MacDonald, professor emerita at the University of Reading and member of the board of the WISE Campaign, which promotes the involvement of women in science careers, said that the research wrongly concludes that the problem of burnout lies with the women.

“The solution is to apply interventions for the women to increase their self-confidence,” she said, adding that talent retention is a management issue.

She said that when women move from academia to other careers, they do not feel burnout or the need to move on, which implies that these employers are successful at making all their workers, including women, feel like they fit in.

“There is no need for interventions to change these women to be more like their male colleagues,” she said.


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