Women in STEM: Influence of Parenthood on Gender Imbalance

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor
The vitality of the US workforce in the various science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is threatened by a persistent gender imbalance, with women noticeably underrepresented especially at higher ranks of the career trajectory. Gender imbalance persists despite considerable research dedicated to understand its underlying contributing factors, and despite efforts by US institutions to attract and retain women in STEM.
During the past several years, research has focused on differences typically reported by young women and men when they describe their experiences in STEM education, or while transitioning from school to work in STEM fields. Now, a recent study that instead focuses on full-time STEM professionals provides new insight on factors responsible for the underrepresentation of women.
To carry out the study (The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM), published a few weeks ago in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers used a nationally representative 8-year longitudinal sample of US STEM professionals to examine the career trajectories of new parents after the birth or adoption of their first child. In their paper, the researchers point out that the professionals they examined were rich in human capital, having successfully completed college and being employed in a STEM field, or having completed graduate-level training and being employed in a STEM field.

Photo credit: Amplitude Magazin on Unsplash.

The study is based on data from the National Science Foundation’s Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), which contains surveys of the US STEM workforce carried out every two to three years. For the study, researchers compared the career trajectories of 629 men and 212 women who were full-time STEM professionals in 2003 and became first-time parents before 2006, when the next SESTAT data collection cycle was performed. Of the new parents, about 12% held doctorate degrees, 26% master’s degrees, and 62% bachelor’s degrees. They were employed in different settings, including academia, industry, government, and more. The career trajectories of these first time parents where then compared to those of 3,365 scientists who remained nonparents through 2010.
The study results show that parenthood is a major driver of gender imbalance in STEM employment. Specifically, the study shows that 43% of women and 23 % of men leave their STEM careers within four to seven years from the birth or adoption of their first child. Thus, the proportion of new mothers who leave STEM is nearly double that of new fathers who do the same. For the study, researchers tracked multiple paths of attrition from STEM, including transitioning into a part-time STEM career, transitioning into a full-time or part-time career outside of STEM, and leaving the workforce entirely. They found that new mothers are more likely than new fathers to leave STEM, to switch to part-time work, and to exit the labor altogether. These gender differences exist independent of discipline, race, and other demographic factors.
In their paper, the researchers eloquently describe some of the persistent features of STEM fields. “STEM fields are some of the most male-dominated professions in the US and have diversified more slowly than other fields. Cultural expectations of intensive hours and the rapid pace of STEM innovation may be particularly difficult to meet for new parents with family responsibilities. Early in their training, aspiring STEM professionals encounter cultural beliefs that families are supposed to support their work, not the other way around. This may be especially true for mothers in STEM. Women with children are less likely to be employed full time in science and engineering fields than similar men with children, and employed mothers are often viewed as less valuable STEM professionals than their colleagues without children. As such, new mothers may confront more obstacles than new fathers to their continuation in full-time STEM employment.”
Erin Cech, the study’s lead author, said in a press release: “Not only is parenthood an important driver of gender imbalance in STEM employment, both mothers and fathers appear to encounter difficulties reconciling caregiving with STEM careers.”

Photo credit: Natalya Zaritskaya, on Unsplash.

Notably, a significantly greater proportion of new parents in the group who left to work full-time outside of STEM (38% of new fathers and 71% of new mothers) reported they left for family-related reasons. In contrast, only 4% of nonparent men and 5% of nonparent women indicated they left the STEM field for family-related reasons.
Imbalance is also high in the “female-friendly” life sciences STEM disciplines—biomedical sciences and biology, for example. Women in the life sciences and engineering or computer science leave at about the same high rate.
In the press release, Cech added: “These findings point to the importance of cultural shifts within STEM to value the contributions of STEM professionals with children and the need for creative organizational solutions to help these skilled STEM professionals navigate new caregiving responsibilities alongside their STEM work.”
Indeed, in their paper the researchers emphasize that: “Turnover of such highly skilled, college-educated professionals is costly and disruptive for organizations; in the long run, it may be more efficient for organizations to set up policies that allow the STEM professionals already on staff to more easily manage their caregiving responsibilities than to recruit and train replacements.”
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  1. I thought that this was a really great article because it talked about something that I have been thinking about for years now. I know that I may be 20 years old, but the best time to think about your future is now. Throughout my school career, one of the things that I struggled with was, “how I was going to balance being in the STEM field, in the Air Force, and starting my own family?”. I still struggle with this question because there isn’t a lot of programs in place where that I can have a highly successful career and be able to spend enough time with my kids and husband, without making anyone feel left out. I’m not saying that it is impossible, but I am saying that it is much harder than it needs to be, especially for us women. I completely agree that more programs should be put in place to be able to let these people be able to do what that love by also making time who they love. I believe that the STEM community is missing out on some brilliant minds who could be making tremendous strides in the science world, but since they don’t have the necessary accommodations that they need, they would sacrifice it all for their family even though they should not have to do that.

  2. I absolutely agree that companies should have cultures that make having a family more manageable. Companies can offer more flexible times, and more options to work from home. I agree with having a paid paternity leave for BOTH parents. It could change the idea that the women alone need to be there for a newborn baby. It emphasizes the fathers’ role in child raising. If both parents can have even distribution in their work schedule, the women don’t have to bear the burden alone and can continue a career in the STEM field while raising a child. If companies can create cultures and policies that support child raising, it can be very beneficial.

  3. The article surveys a prominent issue in terms of retaining women in the STEM workforce (and ultimately skewing the gender balance). Time and time again, videos, surveys, and articles showcase how motherhood and the ability for mothers to stay in their science occupations are difficult (if not impossible) to balance. I do agree with the end of the article, in that if women AND men are leaving their jobs in order to keep up with their families, and this is costly for companies and industries that have to attract and train new employees, shouldn’t more just be done to give these parents the flexibility they need to stay in their jobs? Is paid maternity leave so hard employ for the United States? I think that provided the extensive schooling, training, preparation, and knowledge that goes into molding our modern scientists, it’s not too much to ask for that employees receive some sort of assistance when they are building a family. Additionally, allowing a company’s employees to fulfill their life goals while being able to stay and pursue their “work goals” would mean they probably would feel more fulfilled overall. Increasing job satisfaction among women in STEM would probably attract more women to STEM. I think that there lies one root of the problem: the reputation of STEM to be so unwelcoming to women causes girls to fall out of the “STEM pipeline”. Improving upon job satisfaction of women already in STEM would be a great place to start to bring in more girls and combat the gender imbalance.

  4. I think this article was pretty interesting to see and just love the fact that its back up with data of a particular group of people in STEM careers. They analyzed a set of data by following men and women in the STEM field and collected data for the same group of people in 3 years. Almost 50% of women leave from STEM careers after their first kid while about 25% of men leave from STEM careers.
    I feel that yes, parenthood might cause gender imbalances in STEM careers, but there also might be other limitations for women like not having the financial resources to get into STEM careers.
    I also believe that we live in a biased world, where not only women should leave after having their first child, but men can also partake in parenthood. However, this decision is amongst their own family on what choices they want to make in their career life. For example, my male professor took a break from his job to take care of his first child, while his wife continued to work. His wife was content in their decision they’ve made since she had recently entered into her job profession. However, there might be other women who might just stop their careers because they want to be housewives and focus on just raising their children. Some women want to have the nurturing relationship with their kids 24/7. There will always be different situations on why these gender imbalances can occur in STEM careers.

  5. The basis of gender imbalances for women in STEM careers because there are discriminatory institutional practices in place that make it challenging for new parents. Institutions in all sectors should input policies that provide support to men and women that are interested in taking leave to get accommodated with having new children or caring for a sick child. For example, my principal investigator in the Neuroscience Institute is pregnant, and she plans to take maternity leave for three months. Additionally, Georgia State has a child daycare in place for faculty that have small children. This is a great system because it provides support to faculty and staff members in balancing a work and family life. If there were more institutions with these policies and accommodations, more women would be able to stay within the STEM workforce.

  6. I think one reason that nearly twice as many women leave the STEM field after having children compared to men is that women are under more scrutiny when they come back from maternity leave. There is the pressure to perform at work while also juggling the new responsibility of raising a child. Our patriarchal society does not cater to the working woman. If anything, it works against her by forcing her to constantly prove herself. Women may feel compelled to step down from a role rather than ask for lenience. It reminds me of something one of our speakers said about how a man will apply for a job if he meets half the requirements, while a woman will not apply unless she meets them all. We internalize the pressure that other people put on us.
    Also, the article says “employed mothers are often viewed as less valuable STEM professionals than their colleagues without children” which further highlights the biases women are subjected to.

    • As much as I hate to admit it, I completely agree with this comment. I hate that women are so often forced into having to choose between working and their family. While there are many ways to combat this, one of the most effective ways I believe would be to inact less stigmatism against men pulling back from work as well to help with the raising of children. An idea that’s been pushed around lately (and by lately I mean the past couple of years) is paid maternity and paternity leave from work. This would give both parents more time to be with their children. This could then lead to the parents returning to their jobs more rejuvenated and ready to get back to work.

    • The gender bias for men and women in the workforce is REAL. Parenthood is simply one of the ways that it manifests and is disclosed to the external society. However, the real problem here is that despite being aware of this prejudice, there are not enough measures taken to resolve this issue. In addition to societal pressure, this type of negligence by institutions can affect a women’s self-confidence which is why we uphold ourselves to such high standards like trying to meet all the requirement before applying for a job or sacrificing our STEM professions for our personal responsibilities. I believe that its high time that women are respected and accommodated for their biological role of a mother as well as their professional roles.

  7. I think parenthood can cause a gender imbalance in not just the STEM field but other career fields as well. Seeing the statistic about more women leaving the STEM field whether having children or family-related reasons is surprising. Women have a more difficult time and more obstacles to go through. Women shouldn’t have to be the one who feels like they have to leave their full time jobs, men should also consider that option for themselves to help support their families. Reading this blog post made me realize how real the gender imbalance is.

    • You have a very valid point about how women have to work even harder to get into the STEM field, but then end up leaving because it is challengning to stay as a parent. The fight never seems to end which is very unfortunate. Having a more diverse work environment (gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation) brings a lot more opinions to the table which can help solve problems faster. However, once the women leave then the diversity shrinks leading to potentially less creative possibilites.

  8. I found this article to be very relevant as a soon-to-be graduate entering the field. I am extremely passionate about my STEM area and I want to have a family when I am older. Knowing that 43% of women leave the field for part-time work or altogether is scary in a sense. I find joy in my subject area and have big plans to contribute to it throughout a large portion of my life, so I am hoping not to be another statistic. One factor that will influence where I work will be how they treat working mothers. I will do my best to find a place that is flexible and does not demand a crazy amount of hours in the office. Standing up and fighting for what I believe in will be vital. This will be more significant if many women do it, too. With more people fighting for better working conditions, change is more likely to happen.

    • I completely agree. This article also made me more aware of the fact that when looking for a job in the future, how the employer and filed treat new mothers is a factor I really have to consider. As you mentioned, women’s statement is only as strong as how united they are in their actions, and the more women stop being afraid of demanding proper working conditions to be able to keep having a career after having their first child, the faster and better our progress will be. Your comment also reminded me a part from Sheryl Sandberg’s book, “Lean In”, where she raised a really good point about the biases our society holds for both men and women in the duties of raising a child while working. In the same way women are always expected to be the ones taking care of their children in addition to working, men are not taken seriously as equal partners in the house hold. I think this goes both ways when women are held to an unrealistic standard of being able to “have it all”, both a career and a family, whereas men are also discouraged from having an equal share in the household duties and child-raising. I think women will start to get more courage to stay in STEM after the birth of their first child when men start to get more support in their competence in raising their child. As it looks like women are held back more by biases, we must not forget that part of it is because men experience limiting biases as well.

    • I completely agree with your statement. This article is very relevant considering I aspire to be in this field in the future. This articles proves that women face more of a disadvantage when entering a STEM field job and eventually wanting to start a family. I feel not only in STEM fields this is an issue but in almost all job fields this can be a factor. It makes me want to stride harder once I get into the field because I know that they tend to replace the women who have kids rather than compromise for them to stay in their job. I also agree with you when you stated you wanted to find a job that is flexible and does not require a crazy amount of hours because that is vital in my opinion. If we as women in STEM fields work together we may be able to change this outcome in the future.

  9. I think that the article is very convincing and is very well backed up by solid data. The study was done by following up the same people throughout their careers and having a big sample size of people. I was very surprised that about half of the women in STEM dial down their careers or quit completely soon after the birth of their first child. In a way, I always expected the results to show more women than men giving up on their careers, especially in high-demanding fields such as STEM. However, it was still striking to see that high percentage of women having to stop their science-related work once a child comes. I was also surprised to see that about 1/4 of men in STEM are forced to give up their science work after the birth of their first child, which also shows that having both a career in STEM and time for family is not only demanding for women but also for men. I think that the STEM fields are different from any other areas in that not only it includes working long and unpredictable hours, but also having your mind completely free to focus on your scientific work. Consequently, when you have growing family responsibilities such as a toddler to raise- it might be something that starts to become extremely difficult to keep up with. I would like to point out however, that from my experience in the lab I work in, science seems to me like a field that actually supports starting a family. I have seen not once, that researchers who become mothers actually enjoy the fact that science can be done in weird hours at night and on the weekends; coming into the lab and completing procedures in the evenings helped one of my colleagues to get back to work much faster after giving birth because she would be able to leave her baby with her husband after he came back from work. Not many jobs give you that kind of flexibility, and unlike in other fields, in science- as long as the work is getting done and the data is being collected- it doesn’t matter what time you are coming into the lab.

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