The low numbers of women who work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professions is sometimes explained to as a “pipeline” problem:
- Women don’t study STEM.
- Ergo, they don’t get jobs in STEM.
- To improve the numbers of women in STEM, we need to interest girls more in STEM.
- Then, more of them will study STEM.
- Over time, you’ll see more women working in STEM.
I applaud programs like Girls Who Code or GirlStart that show girls and teenagers that STEM can be interesting and worth studying. And I’m sure that earlier and positive exposure will improve the numbers of women in the STEM pipeline. But this is, by definition, a long-term play at improving gender equality in STEM and assumes that nothing else will derail women working in STEM.
What about women who studied STEM and didn’t go into STEM jobs? Or the women who worked in STEM but left those jobs? My mother is one of the few women engineers of her generation. In her graduating class, she was one of 7 women out of a class of over a hundred men. I’ve always been proud of her for working in such a male-dominated field and as an immigrant in a foreign country, to boot. So I thought about her when I saw these this 2012 study and 2014 presentation on the state of women engineers.
There are many interesting numbers this research, but here are the top 5 reasons women left engineering:
- Loss of interest
- Lack of advancement
- Wanted more time with family
- Didn’t like daily tasks
- Didn’t like culture
Moreover, those who stayed in engineering and left, were almost identical in terms of income levels, industry, and other demographics.
The takeaway: there’s a lot more to do than just earlier education and encouraging women to participate if we want to seriously improve the representation and talent pool for STEM in the United States. Most of these things have to do with changes in the workplace, which are difficult to attack externally. Employees themselves have to try to bring transparency or change. However, without some of those changes, all that investment in STEM education might not end up generating real improvement.