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Why Are Women in STEM Fields Leaving in Greater Numbers?

Posted August 21, 2014 & filed under Job Search, Uncategorized

Why Are Women in STEM Fields Leaving in Greater Numbers?

High schools and universities have long been criticized for not engaging more women in STEM disciplines. Now, studies show that once they graduate, a large portion of women who graduate with engineering and computer science degrees leave their fields. What’s causing them to emigrate from STEM fields and what can your company do to retain talented women?

The STEM shortage that only gets worse

The number of women who graduated with STEM diplomas over the last two decades is slim. On average, only 20% of engineering graduates are women. The lowest point in recent years was 18% in 2012. Computer science isn’t much different. There have been towering peaks (the late 1980s saw highs of 37%), but between 2008 and 2011, only 18% of computer science graduates were female. And after both groups walk across the stage at graduation, percentages plummet further.

Nadya Fouad, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, looks at the disparity of women in STEM fields and found an unequivocal drop in female engineers after graduation. The demographics show that on average, women only constitute 11% of all engineers. That’s a stark gender imbalance. Though it’s not the case across all disciplines, (22% of chemical engineers are women), the overall lack of parity is distressing.

Information technology percentages prove to be more ambiguous. The National Center for Women & Information Technology reports that 26% of all computing jobs are worked by women. That’s better, but Silicon Valley drags the average lower than it could be. Long time considered to be a boys’ club, the notorious Southern California tech enclave only manages to place women in 16% of their technical positions.

As women in STEM programs receive the same education as men and are equally qualified, are women not getting hired or are they choosing to leave? In a large part, it seems to be the latter.

Male-dominated cultures, the “Glass Ceiling,” and other road blocks

Nadya Fuoad and other researchers have been drawn to why women leave STEM fields. Fouad surveyed 5,300 women, all of who graduated with engineering degrees, to explore what compelled some to permanently switch to non-engineering fields. Of those she surveyed, 38% of female engineering graduates had never entered the field, left five years ago, or left in the last five years.

Their reasons were varied ranging from disinterest in the industry to a negative working culture. One woman said she interviewed with a company where, “there were no women, no minorities,” and she would have been the only person her age on the team. Others cited a dismal network where you had to “learn to be ‘one of the guys’ or blaze the trail yourself” or a hostile male-dominated culture.

A similar study conducted by other researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee asked 1,000 women who vacated the tech sector why they left. There answers were pretty similar:

  • 30% left because of low wages, elongated hours, and limited opportunities for advancement.
  • 27% left because of a non-existent work-life balance.
  • 22% left because of boring daily duties.
  • 17% left because their boss, their coworkers, or the company culture made them unhappy.

Women in Silicon Valley have also substantiated the claims of a hostile male-dominated culture where filters are off and women are expected to “take a joke.” When they speak out, they are shamed and blocked from advancing up the ladder.

So, what keeps women in STEM jobs?

Yet not all women are pushed out of STEM positions. Fuoad’s study found that the women who remained in engineering stayed because the right culture existed:

  • Bosses and coworkers supported their actions and their personal work-life balance.
  • The organization recognized their contributions and actively focused on their well-being.
  • There’s transparency and a clear path to grow.

In summary, they stayed because of a positive work environment where growth was clear and their work was valued. These are the basics that every employee wants.

The study brings up some great questions and it’s clear that more research needs to be done into why women leave and stay in the STEM disciplines. That being said, organizational change can be made now to create a healthy atmosphere for women and the general workforce.

by James Walsh

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