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How to Combat STEM's Retention Issues for Women

STEM fields show high recruitment rates of women but fail to provide ongoing support to ensure retention

Usha Rao, PhD

Usha Rao, PhD, is a researcher, speaker, college professor, and consultant. She is a recipient of the Association for Women in Science’s Zenith award, a lifetime award for achievement, leadership,...

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The significant focus on building a robust STEM pipeline for girls and women through efforts such as targeted STEM camps and books, college scholarships, and high school and undergraduate research experiences has led to resounding success. Due to both large-scale socioeconomic and cultural changes in the US, and concurrent improvements to the college pipeline for girls and women, undergraduate women now outnumber men at American colleges and universities. Women made up 45 percent of STEM majors in 2020, an increase of 10 percent over the previous decade, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System survey.

Yet the workforce remains challenging for many women in STEM fields. The US Census Bureau data show that only 27 percent of STEM workers in 2019 were women. A 15 percent pay gap exists for women compared to men in the same fields within a year of graduation; according to Census data, Black and Hispanic women fare worse. A study of more than 3,000 women found that over half of all highly qualified women working for STEM companies leave, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. This indicates that we are not looking at a pipeline problem, but a STEM workplace culture problem. Women cite lack of flexibility in the workplace, dearth of career advancement opportunities, and low salaries as leading causes of career dissatisfaction in STEM.

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Managers and leaders must work to ensure that female potential does not go unrealized in STEM spaces. Furthermore, solutions that support women in STEM also benefit families, employers, and the workforce. The flexibility to successfully manage the “work/life see-saw” remains a struggle, and laboratory work presents unique challenges to women, such as the need to avoid chemical exposure while trying to conceive or going through pregnancy or breastfeeding. A few life stages that pose particular challenges to women in the workplace are highlighted below, and this is where employers who want to build more inclusive workplaces can focus.

Paid parental leave

Paid parental leave correlates with a decrease in infant mortality, better pre- and post-natal care, and a stronger likelihood of parents staying in the workplace. The US is one of very few countries worldwide without a consistent parental leave policy across states, although 93 percent of Americans consider paid maternity leave a necessity in a survey conducted by Mercer and the HR management association WorldatWork. Providing maternity leave and flexible work options limits mothers’ and infants’ exposure to chemical fumes and reagents during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Mothers who have sufficient leave time can be more motivated and focused employees upon their return after parental leave.

Women cite lack of flexibility in the workplace, dearth of career advancement opportunities, and low salaries as leading causes of career dissatisfaction in STEM.

For countries that lack structured governmental support, organizations and employers must step in to fill the gap in a way that enables women to continue their careers after having children. In light of this, it is unfortunate that many companies are offering less, not more, paid parental leave in 2022, as compared to pre-pandemic years, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.

Childcare options

The lack of safe, inexpensive childcare options is the primary stated reason for women leaving the STEM workforce, reflecting two essential facts: mothers are the primary childcare providers in most households, and childcare is a great financial burden for families. Melinda French Gates has remarked, “We’re sending our daughters into a workplace that was designed for our dads—set up on the assumption that employees had partners who would stay home to do the unpaid work of caring for the family.”

Nearly 40 percent of STEM women report delaying having children and nearly half of all female researchers with children report that having children had negative impacts on their careers. Forty-three percent of US mothers reported leaving the workforce voluntarily in a 2004 survey of highly qualified professional women by the Center for Work-Life Policy. Over the ensuing decades since that survey, we have yet to resolve this problem. In fact, we have seen a disheartening loss of women, women of color, and mothers from the workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic in response to such work/life pressures, potentially undoing decades of progress. Without inexpensive or subsidized on-site childcare, mothers cannot fully participate in the STEM workforce.

Senior workers

Among American women who are caregivers, 48 percent of executives and 46 percent of senior managers were willing to switch jobs if not offered flexibility post-pandemic, according to a 2021 BCG survey. Women in the 41-55 age group, the so-called “Sandwich Generation”, often face the challenge of providing care at both ends of the caregiving spectrum. Raising children and caring for aging parents and in-laws are tasks that fall disproportionately to women. Since these challenges affect more senior women in STEM, employers must make a special effort to retain these experienced workers by offering support and work arrangements (flexibility, hybrid options) that allow for role balance. 

Treatment of women’s health shouldn’t be overlooked or ignored. Menopause is a major life transition for women in their 40s, 50s, and beyond, with eight in 10 women reporting symptoms lasting for years from falling levels of hormones. These include several that disrupt their work lives:  general fatigue, mood alterations including anxiety and depression, poor quality sleep, temperature swings known as hot flashes, and increased stress. Yet, 1.3 million American women enter menopause each year, usually with no support from their employers. For many women, menopause coincides with the time in their lives when they might normally assume leadership roles. The stigma around women’s reproductive health prohibits them from seeking help and in many male-dominated STEM jobs, there may be no one to provide guidance on how to manage symptoms in the workplace. A recent report found that over half of women and transgender men going through menopause were less likely to apply for a promotion because of their symptoms. Helpful workplace policies range from flexible and telework options to flexible uniform and dress codes to cope with hot flashes, temperature-controlled workplaces, and rest areas with chairs and fans.

Flexible and hybrid options for all

The pandemic has clearly indicated that workers, especially from younger generations, demand flexibility and remote work options. Employers will need to create hybrid and flexible options to recruit the talent of tomorrow. This cohort is less motivated by traditional perks such as higher pay and opportunities. This flexibility is particularly necessary to retain female workers of all ages in STEM. 

How can workplaces and employers provide flexibility to retain women in STEM? Employers need to re-envision work as including work-from-home and hybrid options, be willing to move non-urgent deadlines, provide more autonomy to employees over task timelines where possible, and partner with employees to help them build strong and successful careers. While the specific details will differ for each situation and employer, the goal should be to help talented women build long and successful STEM careers.

Employers will need to create hybrid and flexible options to recruit the talent of tomorrow.

Diverse workplaces are better for everyone, with heterogenous leadership teams in particular outperforming homogeneous teams on metrics such as decision-making, innovation, and financial outcomes. A recent study in PNAS even finds that mixed-gender teams of STEM authors had more impactful and novel results, showing that empowering women to reach their professional potential benefits workplaces.

It is not the early part of the STEM pipeline that holds women back, but the dated structures of organizations that have been slow to respond to the influx of women in the workforce. To succeed in gendered STEM spaces, women need the support of the decision-makers in workplaces. In R&D centers and national laboratories, 86 percent of top-level directors and decision-makers are White men. This means the discussion needs to center on what leaders and institutions are doing to promote the participation and success of talented women in STEM. While many women will benefit from career coaching and other strategies that help them thrive in workplaces not originally designed for them, it is the scaffolding of the systems themselves that must change to provide women with the flexibility and support they need as they navigate different life stages while building a career.