Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why Do Women Leave Careers in Science and Engineering?

Recently I was intrigued to come upon an article in which an economist explained why women drop out of careers in science and engineering. The topic is of special interest to me because it’s only a month since, working with Dave Anderson of JIST, I finished a manuscript about careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and another manuscript about nontraditional careers for men and women.

Discussion of the lack of women in STEM careers usually focuses on how girls tend to lose interest in the STEM subjects sometime around high school. Much less attention has been paid to the women who went as far as to get a college degree in a scientific or engineering subject and then walked away from the field. And this economist, Jennifer Hunt of McGill University, unlike almost everyone else studying this problem, decided to use samples that compared scientists and engineers to people in other skilled occupations. Her reasoning was as follows: If the problem with science and engineering is long work hours (as some researchers have concluded), then are women similarly abandoning other careers with long work hours? Or if the problem instead is a heavily male workforce, are women baling out other male-dominated careers at the same rate? In short, what characteristics across various careers cause women to flee?

For her research sample, Hunt looked to the 1993 and 2003 National Surveys of College Graduates, which indicates what students majored in. Those students who reported they were not working in the field of their major (or not working at all) are those she considered as having left their field. These respondents were asked why they left their field, and all workers were asked about the importance they placed on various work conditions and rewards.

She found that science and engineering--and particularly the latter--lose more women than other fields, and that most of these career drop-outs go to work in other fields rather than leave the workforce.

The main reason the women left the field: dissatisfaction over opportunities for pay and promotion. This phenomenon has not been noticed previously because almost the same proportion of men drop out of science and engineering for this reason. But when she looked at other fields, she found women were much less likely than men to drop out for this reason. In other words, for women there’s something about science and engineering that makes perceived lack of opportunities especially discouraging.

She found the opposite phenomenon when she looked at family-related issues as a reason why women left. This factor caused many more women than men to leave science and engineering, but the gender gap was just as wide in other fields. So it was not a discouraging factor for women in science and engineering per se.

The key relationship Hunt found was between the female career drop-out rate and the proportion of men who studied the field. That is to say, fields other than science and engineering with a high proportion of male students also experienced a high rate of losing women after graduation. This finding implied that the male dominance of science and engineering is what caused the women’s dissatisfaction over opportunities for pay and promotion.

Hunt concluded that the way to keep more women in science and engineering is to focus on the immediate effects of gender imbalance and the perception of limited opportunities for earnings and advancement. Specifically, offer women in these careers better mentoring and networking opportunities; commit to a visible campaign against discrimination by male supervisors and co-workers. And extend these reforms to all other male-dominated fields.

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