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Why some women may choose not to enter STEM careers

The lack of women pursuing science careers has been a perennial hot topic. Unfortunately, scant progress has been observed in spite of a vast amount of effort on many fronts to address this inequality. Earlier this month, a special issue of Nature

was devoted to the subject.

Coincidentally, an attempt to unearth possible causes of this disparity was a study published earlier this month in Psychological Science

, entitled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” by Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Sarah Kenny, from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan.

Although I’m likely to give this study short shrift by not going into enough detail, let’s focus on the source material. Here’s the full abstract of the original paper:

The pattern of gender differences in math and verbal ability may result in females having a wider choice of careers, in both science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and non-STEM fields, compared with males. The current study tested whether individuals with high math and high verbal ability in 12th grade were more or less likely to choose STEM occupations than those with high math and moderate verbal ability. The 1,490 subjects participated in two waves of a national longitudinal study; one wave was when the subjects were in 12th grade, and the other was when they were 33 years old. Results revealed that mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills. One notable finding was that the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males.

Many previous studies by other researchers were cited as motivators behind some of the key questions this study poses. The study contains a number of controls that, to me at least, seem sensible and appropriate: Continue reading →

Successful women chemists and the importance of role models

After last week’s post on why women leave science, I thought it would be appropriate to follow up with a more positive message about the women who do stay in science and have successful careers.

The stories of 26 successful women chemists compiled into a single book, published by the American Chemical Society.

A quick internet search on “successful women in chemistry” led to my discovery of a book with that exact title. No kidding. I checked it out of the library immediately.

Successful Women in Chemistry is published by the American Chemical Society (ACS) and contains the stories of 26 women in mid- to upper-level positions in a plethora of fields, including industry, business, patent law, and even human resources.

Each of the chapters was originally written for a 2003 newsletter series put out by the ACS Women’s Chemists Committee (WCC). The writers are themselves women chemists and active members of the WCC.

As mentioned in my previous post, some women who leave behind their scientific careers report a lack of mentors as one of the deterrents. This book is aimed at taking one step toward correcting that, by introducing up-and-coming women chemists to those who have gone ahead.

The goal of this book is to create a resource where women can find a role model, someone with whom they can relate. Profiling women with a wide diversity of experiences and career opportunities allows the reader to find a common connection.

- Oxford University Press book description

As I flipped through the chapters, I discovered that the writers discuss both the successes as well as the challenges these women faced along the way. Also, instead of focusing exclusively on their professional lives, they also discuss their personal lives, including how they have handled the matter of work/life balance throughout their careers.

Some of the women highlighted in the book worked for a single company their entire careers, moving from one position to another. Others moved into part-time positions in order to focus on raising a family for a period of time before returning to work full-time. Still others moved around into many different positions.

The diversity of career paths reminded me that it is a unique minority of scientists out there who set out on their careers sticking to the one thing they’ve always wanted to do. It seems like more often than not people jump around— and that’s okay!

More resources for women in science Continue reading →

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. Photo credit: flickr user Meaghan Courtney

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

“The Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work, recently reported that women in science, engineering, and technology fields are likely to leave their positions, in large part ‘because the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in the United States, then this [science, engineering, and technology fields] is its Alamo– a last holdout of redoubled intensity.’”

-Quote from p. 50 of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples

The researchers found five reasons why women leave science:

  1. The hostility of the workplace culture
  2. A sense of isolation in a male-dominated workplace
  3. Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields
  4. Long work weeks and travel combined with household management becomes too much to handle
  5. 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. Continue reading →