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Work Life Challenges Combine with Discrimination in Keeping Women Out of STEM

By Tina Vasquez

We hear it all the time: why are women still so underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields? There are scientific fields in which women are plentiful, such as medicine, and though it’s true that women remain grossly under-represented in engineering and computing, things are changing.

Even still, women must often combat outright discrimination if they do pursue careers in these fields. That was made especially clear when Harvard’s former president and the current director of the National Economic Council for the Obama administration, Lawrence H. Summers, made some highly offensive remarks several years ago, implying that women might lack an intrinsic aptitude for math and science – which we know is not true.

It’s offensive that women’s abilities are still being called into question, requiring scientific tests to prove they’re just as capable of excelling in fields and subjects historically dominated by men. This discriminatory attitude lives on the culture of STEM – and it’s embarrassing that it continues today.

But discrimination is only part of the problem when it comes to the lack of women in these fields. The other half the equation, according to a new study by the Association of Women in Science (AWIS), is the work life challenges associated with careers in STEM.

Severe Work-Life Balance Issues

The Work Life Integration Overload, a new study from the Association of Women in Science, found that attracting female and male workers to STEM fields will be increasingly difficult if severe work-life balance issues continue to plague these fields.

AWIS’s study drew data from 4,225 publishing scientists and researchers worldwide, finding that lack of flexibility in the workplace, dissatisfaction with career development opportunities, and low salaries are driving both men and women to re-consider their profession.

More than 54 percent of all scientists and researchers said that work demands conflict with their personal lives at least 2-3 times per week and only a third of researchers said they work for family-friendly institutions. Just 52 percent of women reported that they are happy with their work-life integration, compared with 61 percent of men.

Thirty-seven percent of women say that ensuring good work-life integration has negatively impacted their careers, with 30 percent of men reporting the same. For those researchers with dependent children, 36 percent reported career problems.

The study also found that 40 percent of women respondents have actually delayed having children because of their careers. A number of women mentioned waiting until they had a permanent position to get pregnant or noted that they could not afford to start a family on their wages. Essentially, these are women who have put in the time and effort, obtaining

PhD’s, only to find themselves in the position of not being able to afford having children.

It was also found that one in 10 researchers expect to leave their current job within the next year and of those intending to leave, females were twice as likely to cite a spouse’s job offer or relocation as the reason. Of researchers intending to leave, 9 percent indicated it was because they were unable to balance work and life.

Work Life Challenges

AWIS’ study is important in the way that it does something so few studies on work-life balance manage to: it frames the issue as something that affects both men and women, pinpointing the ways that STEM fields are seemingly digging their own graves by being incredibly unwelcoming. According to Dr. Joan Herbers, former AWIS president and current professor at Ohio State, a mass exodus from these fields has far bigger repercussions than many realize.

“Something’s got to give. If STEM fields can’t figure out how to make life more reasonable for those who want to be scientists, our country is going to be in real trouble. The United States needs people in these crucial fields, we need researchers and scientists and innovators and there’s no verbalizing how adversely it will affect us if the number of scientists coming out of the U.S. continues to decline,” Herbers said.

Based on her own experience, Herbers says that it’s a daunting process to be a scientist if you’re at all concerned with ‘getting on in life.’

“The two aren’t very compatible,” Herbers said. “It’s the tenure clock vs. the biological clock and though the study found that these balance issues are affecting both men and women, it’s crucial to point out how different the family backgrounds are for men and women in STEM fields. Research has shown that women in these fields are less likely to have a partner, while men are more likely to be married and have a stay-at-home spouse.”

By definition, STEM fields are difficult to attain work-life balance in. AWIS’s study mostly focused on researchers and scientists and with this type of work, it doesn’t really matter how ‘family-friendly’ your workplace is because a majority of your work simply cannot be done at home. Work in these fields is, as Herbers said, “place-bound.” Conducting research and experiments usually requires spending an inordinate amount of time in the lab.

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