Researchers at the University of Texas-Austin and Cornell University have published a new study examining the factors behind the shortage of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. They find no evidence that women are opting out of the STEM workforce to start families, in contrast to the widespread perception that family factors account for the lack of women in STEM-related careers.
Sharon Sassler, professor in the department of policy analysis and management at Cornell, and co-author of the study, "What's So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women's Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations," says:
"We don't find support for the idea that women are opting out of the labor force to remain home with children, as relatively few departed from the work force completely. Of note is that family factors — such as having one's first child, or having additional children — cannot account for the differential loss of STEM workers compared to other professional workers, because exits from the STEM work force tend to occur before women have begun their marital and childbearing histories.
"What seems to differentiate the two groups of women are investments and job rewards. While in other professions pursuing an advanced degree and viewing one's job as rewarding tend to increase retention, such investments made by women in STEM do not seem to stimulate commitment to STEM in the same way.
"Gender barriers are hindering women from entering into STEM jobs, and even among those women persistent enough to enter the STEM labor force, transitions out of STEM jobs transpire relatively early on in their careers. There is a lot of discussion about solving America's shortage of STEM workers, most of it focused on the need to increase supply. But our work indicates that a substantial proportion of women who are trained in STEM, and begin working in STEM jobs, rapidly exit such jobs. Additional attention is needed to the field of STEM itself to better understand why so many of the highly skilled workers trained — at great expense — for these fields are exiting."
The study is published an early online edition of the journal Social Forces.