STEM Equity | Research

High Career Turnover Rates for Women in STEM Fields: Inhospitable Environment a Factor

Fifty percent of women working in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers leave their field for other occupations in the first 12 years of their career, compared to only 20 percent of professional women in non-STEM fields, according to a new study from researchers at Cornell University and the University of Texas at Austin.

The study, "What's So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women's Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations," uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, which started tracking people who were aged 14 to 22 in 1979 and followed them through to midlife. Using data from the longitudinal survey, the authors of the study compared the career paths of 258 women in STEM occupations with 842 women in other professional and managerial positions.

One of the key findings of the study is that parenthood isn't the main reason for women leaving STEM careers. “A lot of people still think it’s having children that leads to STEM women’s exits,” said Sharon Sassler, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell and one of the authors of the report, in a prepared statement. “It’s not the family. Women leave before they have children or even get married. Our findings suggest that there is something unique about the STEM climate that results in women leaving.”

Other key findings:

  • Women are leaving STEM careers at higher rates than women in other professional and managerial careers, despite typically higher rates of pay and better working conditions in STEM fields;
  • Women with advanced degrees in STEM fields are even more likely to leave the field than women without advanced degrees; and
  • Women married to men who work in STEM fields are more likely to remain in the field.

The researchers said they believe that STEM fields may be less hospitable to women because the men in those fields tend to have more traditional ideas of gender roles and because much of the work is done in teams, where women are often the minority. However, the researchers said that times are changing and that young women earning STEM degrees today may be choosing fields, such as medicine, that are more hospitable to women. The next step to understanding the problem, according to the researchers, is to conduct in-depth interviews with young women who recently received STEM degrees to find out about their job selection, mentoring at school and on the job, and relationships with co-workers.

The study, "What's So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women's Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations," appears in the December issue of the journal, Social Forces.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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