Women in STEM: Why Are They Leaving?

Women in STEM: Why Are They Leaving?The fields of science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as STEM, have gained a lot of attention in the recent years the United States. The US is lagging behind several countries when it comes to math and science education. STEM is critical for global competitiveness; however the field is not attracting or retaining as many professionals as in the past. This month at LTAW we will be talking about this field in particular – what is it, how can you get into it and why STEM is critical to the future.

I am a woman. I have a degree in computer science and a degree in electrical engineering. So what wonderful, exciting, glamorous engineering job am I working at today? I’m not. I’m no longer working in the technology / engineering field. And, believe it or not, I’m not an anomaly. In the US, only 26% of women with STEM degrees actually work in STEM jobs. Working as a female in a STEM field can sometimes be very challenging.

Even though more women are entering science and technology, they are also more likely to leave the industry in their mid-thirties when they are well trained and of great value to the organization. A Harvard Business Review report found that over time, in the US, 52% of women leave science and technology jobs. The reasons women leave their STEM career for something else is because of hostility, isolation, work styles and conditions. The same report cited the following key reasons women leave STEM:

  1. Hostility in the workplace
  2. Isolation associated with being the only woman on a team
  3. Difference in work styles between men and women
  4. “Extreme” jobs with long work weeks
  5. “Mystery” around what it takes to advance

So what can be done about this situation? There are a lot of programs devoted to getting girls interested in STEM, which I think is great! We definitely need to continue the work to spark interest in this field with young girls. We also need to focus on those women who are working in STEM and making sure they do not experience one of the five situations listed above. If you are a woman in a STEM career dealing with one of the five issues above, here’s what you can do:

  1. Hostility in the workplace: Hostility can take many forms from little micro-inequities to downright harassment. In male dominated environments, there can be resentment to the need to be more careful with language, protocol on business trips, etc.  It is best to first be aware of the differences and to be willing to have open, honest and respectful dialogue about how you feel. The key is to be in an environment where you have the ability to do your best work…where you feel valued and respected.  Many companies have training programs to help managers create inclusive environments.  Hopefully your leaders are receiving this type of training.
  2. Being the only woman on a team: Last year we wrote a post about what to do when you’re the only woman on a team full of men. Some of the tips offered to help a woman cope with that  situation included speaking up about what bothers you and establishing boundaries at the outset.
  3. Difference in work styles: Work style differences between men and women exist in any field. It’s just a given…men and women are wired differently and therefore are going to have different work styles. Don’t minimize your differences or try to act more like your male counterpart thinking that it will help you get ahead. In the end, you will likely feel worse because you are not being true to who you are. Instead, have a dialogue about the differences.
  4. “Extreme” jobs with long work weeks: Negotiate with your manager a work schedule that is suitable for you. Nowadays more and more organizations are recognizing the importance of flexible work schedules and work life balance. So it may be easier to find the balance that you need, while still making a valuable contribution to the team.
  5. “Mystery” around what it takes to advance: Ask more questions. Seek out someone that you trust, who is in a higher position, that can be a mentor and you can discuss with them what they did to advance and any advice they have for you. Also, talk with your boss about what stretch assignments he or she would suggest to help you gain some of the skills you’d need to move up in your career.

We need more women in STEM but we also need more inclusive work environments that foster growth and development for women.

Getting to Know STEM!

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  • stemeducator

    I left a career in engineering to pursue the mommy track. After seven years I decided to go into teaching because of the extreme schedule. Engineering is not a family friendly career. The changes you imply must be embraced to make it more desirable.. I am now 56 years old and unemployed. I want to go back to engineering but cannot even get an interview.