Workplace inequity is still impeding women’s progress in the workforce. While many may have believed we’ve overcome the tired myth that biology makes women less-likely to show interest in STEM fields, that battle still isn’t over.
Manglin Pillay, the CEO of the South African Institution of Civil Engineering, sparked massive outrage when he suggested men have more of an "appetite for [the] work load and extreme performance requirements" required of STEM.
While Pillay has since apologized for his careless remarks, his words reveal that an insidious misconception still exists: That the lack of women working in STEM fields is a problem caused by a lack of appetite, not by harmful attitudes and practices held by employers.
However, a recently published study is looking to put a nail in this "women aren't interested in STEM" coffin once and for all. Researchers surveyed 1,464 women engineers who have left the field to find out why they left and if they left prematurely, or before they would've liked.
The women attributed their leaving to three key factors. Most significantly, they were working in unfair conditions. Women were being unequally compensated compared to their male counterparts, and were receiving little support to accommodate work-family balance. They also revealed that they were not receiving deserved recognition or opportunities for advancement.
At the same time, women reported feeling that they were unable to effectively use their math and science skills, often because they were doubted by their superiors or colleagues.
These reasons for leaving the field weren't caused by a preference for stereotypically "creative" roles or nurturing roles, as Pillay suggested. Instead, women are leaving STEM because employers fall short of providing women environments where their scienfitic endeavours can flourish.
There are various corrections companies can make to right this wrong and benefit themselves overall. But one policy change has been proven to save businesses thousands of dollars by aiding higher-level female employee retention rates.
Better maternity leave benefits support work-life balance and keep women in STEM roles. Management consulting company Accenture increased its maternity leave from 8 weeks to 16 weeks, and 40% fewer women left the company within a year. Professional service company KPMG saw similar results when they increased their maternity leave from 8 weeks to 18 weeks. Bettering conditions for women saves tons of money in the long run. For KPMG, paying for an employee to stay at home for an additional 10 weeks is more cost effective than it is to train a new staff member, which costs 78 weeks’ salary.
Another way to retain more women employees is to provide flextime, which Forbes magazine considers to be a non-negotiable circumstance for engineers. By allowing employees to construct their own schedule, companies help them maintain better work-life balance and provide a constructive reason for them to stay despite turbulent life changes or shifting priorities that naturally come with age.
When companies improve working conditions, they improve morale and increase productivity. But fair and flexible working conditions are especially important in retaining talented female employees. Despite misconceptions, they want those STEM jobs.
Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is a contributing writer for Color My Bubble. Her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets anthology.