Women in STEM Are More Than Twice as Likely to Leave the Workforce — Here's Why

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k
May 25, 2024 at 2:59PM UTC

It’s a well-known fact that women are underrepresented in STEM fields. In fact, according to the NGC Project, women make up only 28% of the STEM workforce. This is not only discouraging — it’s harmful to the fields and the individuals themselves. After all, many of the niches within STEM are vital to our world and our ability to advance and innovate as a society, and in order to do that, we need diverse thoughts, perspectives, backgrounds and, yes, genders.

Now, there’s even more bad news: According to MetLife’s 2022 Women in STEM study, women in STEM industries are nearly twice as likely to consider leaving their jobs right now compared with women in other industries, with 22% of survey respondents saying they are thinking of leaving their field. Meanwhile, 12% of women in other industries said the same.

Why are so many women leaving STEM? And what can be done about it?

Why are so many women leaving STEM?

1. Burnout.

According to the MetLife survey, 32% of women in STEM named stress and/or burnout as the main reason why they planned to quit. This is unsurprising, given that STEM fields are rigorous and high stakes. Add the pandemic on top of that, and people across fields are feeling stressed beyond anything we’ve seen previously.

2. Inequitable promotions.

Twenty-nine percent of survey respondents cited “seeing others getting promoted ahead of them” as a chief motivation for quitting. This suggests that women feel undervalued and are tired of seeing their male counterparts getting promoted ahead of them.

3. Sexism.

Twenty percent of respondents said that a lack of diversity at their companies was a motivation for them to quit their jobs. And it’s not just poor diversity that’s the problem: sexism continues to abound as well, with 70% of women in STEM reporting that they believe their employers value their male colleagues more than them.

What can we do to attract, retain and support women in STEM?

There is some good news: the study finds that two out of three women who left STEM wanted to return.

How can these fields help women come to STEM and stay there? Here are a few ideas.

Start with education — early. 

Encouraging girls and young women to pursue STEM is key to achieving gender equity in the industries. Programs like Girls Who Code are helping girls and nonbinary students explore an interest in tech, and it’s just one example of how early encouragement can make a difference.

Combat stereotypes.

According to Solving the Equation: The Variables for Women’s Success in Engineering and Computing, a report by The American Association of University Women (AAUW), research shows that scientists are more likely to choose a male candidate over an “identical” female candidate for a lab positions, with both female and male scientists offering higher salaries to the male candidate. Another finding: potential employers frequently underestimate women’s mathematical abilities compared with those of men. 

It’s clear that stereotypes and biases still exist, and in order to retain women in STEM, employers must acknowledge and address them through training, education and more.

Improve the environments for women in STEM. 

Women need to feel comfortable in STEM environments, where they are so often a minority. There are several steps organizations can take to help cultivate a sense of belonging and purpose for female employees, such as by establishing Employee Resource Groups (ERGs), groups where employees with shared characteristics can work together, share and advocate for ideas and otherwise connect with one another.

Commit to equitable pay.

Women still earn 82 cents for every dollar men make. It’s become a refrain, but it bears repeating: we must close the gender pay gap. This is especially true in industries where women are dramatically underrepresented, like STEM fields. 

Bringing more women to STEM is imperative. Now that women are leaving these fields at disproportionate rates, this is truer than ever before. Our society depends on innovation from the most creative minds, and diversity is key to helping our planet thrive.

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This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Laura Berlinsky-Schine is an editor and writer based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab-mix Hercules. She primarily focuses on education, technology and career development. She has worked with Penguin Random House, Fairygodboss, CollegeVine, BairesDev and many other publications and organizations. Her humor writing has appeared in the Belladonna, Weekly Humorist, Slackjaw, Little Old Lady Comedy, and Points in Case. She also writes fiction and essays, which have appeared in publications including The Memoirist and The Avalon Literary Review. View her work and get in touch at: www.lauraberlinskyschine.com.

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