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Why Women Are Ditching STEM Careers–And How To Change It

With talented women stuck at lower levels of STEM fields, they’re dropping out earlier. But how can that change?

Why Women Are Ditching STEM Careers–And How To Change It

Since 1990, the number of women entering careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or commonly known as STEM, has basically remained stagnant.

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Today, women make up half of the workforce, attain more college degrees than men, and earn at least half of their family’s income. Technology-related careers are one of the fastest-growing and highest-paying paths and women in STEM jobs earn 33% more than those in non-STEM jobs and enjoy a smaller income gap relative to men, yet companies still can’t quite figure out how to attract and retain more talented women in STEM.

Even when companies are able to attract women, there’s a huge problem retaining them. According to a Harvard Business Review special report led by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 41% of “highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technologists on the lower rungs of corporate career ladders” are female, yet more than 54% if them drop out between their mid-to-late-thirties.

The report says that at this point in their lives, women in STEM careers begin letting go of their aspirations of becoming part of the leadership team, because they don’t want to sacrifice everything else in their lives to get there.

What should companies do differently?

It’s actually very simple and all comes down to the balance between work and personal lives.

“When searching for a company, many women may not consider potential employers who don’t have [family] initiatives in place,” says Emily Cole, the chief science officer at Liquid Light, a startup aimed at developing the science behind a practical and economic way to turn carbon dioxide into commonly used chemicals.

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“The challenge of balancing dual careers within a relationship is common in my field. It has been not only an obstacle in my life, but I see it all around me,” she continues. “It is difficult for two people to align their careers when you have to account for such factors as location of opportunities, travel schedules, work hours, and more. Opportunities in the science world are not as widespread and mobile as other careers, adding another challenge.”

Cole, who was recently named an Innovator Under 35 by MIT Technology Review, belives the exodus of women in STEM in their thirties may have a lot to do with women sacrificing for their families, mainly because of typical gender roles and companies not having adequate family initiatives in place. This is a major mistake on the company’s part. Scientists and engineers often have to solve complex problems and the more diversity they have on their team, the greater the chances of finding innovative solutions that may have been overlooked at one time.

Yet companies are having a hard time thinking this way.

Vanessa Green, CEO and cofounder of FINsix Corporation, which designs and manufactures advanced power electronic systems, also believes that key family policies for men and women are essential when it comes to balance so workers don’t feel like they have to choose one or the other. Green, who started her company in 2010 with a team of MIT graduate students, tells Fast Company it’s crucial that policies extend to male talent since even when there are great maternity policies, this “still puts a lot of the pressure on females to be doing it all,” and women need the support to focus on their careers.

For those who are interested in STEM careers, but are uncertain about the challenges, Cole reminds these women that “gender roles and stigmas should never impact a person’s decisions.”

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“Women who are passionate about STEM should follow their instincts and pursue careers within the different fields,” she says. “Everyone will face hurdles in their careers, no matter what industry they are working in. Passion is what keeps you focused on your goals and in return leads to your success. The more we see women excel in STEM and leading companies, the more other women will be inspired to follow in their footsteps.”

And the more women there are in these industries, the more difficult it will be for companies to ignore them.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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