Why We Leave STEM Careers

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Several attempts and proposals have been made by our government and other entities to prevent women from leaving the workplace. In a speech our president gave awhile ago, he focused on the cost of childcare. His solution was seemingly simple.  Let the government provide free childcare.  I’m pretty sure this will not address the issue of women leaving the workplace.  I really only want the government to do one thing with regards to childcare costs: Give me a dollar for dollar tax credit on the childcare I pay for.  When I was working, the maximum pretax dollars I could use to pay for son’s daycare was $5000.  I always thought that the cap was $5000 per child.  When I started understanding how this would affect my family after baby #2 I found out that $5000 was TOTAL, not per kid.  So even though I was going to be paying more than double for two in daycare, the max the government was willing to not take taxes out of was $5000.  I spoke about the cost of daycare in my previous post “Why I Chose to Stay at Home”, where I estimated our annual cost of daycare to be $30,000.  So while the $5000 was nice and all, it was only 20% of my costs.

To say that the cost of childcare is the reason women are leaving the workplace, and specifically STEM careers, neglects the other factors that, as a society, we need to address:

1. Allowing the excuse of “Men just being men”:  I once sat through a 5 hour drive where I listened to one of my coworkers rate the women in the office according to how attractive they were.  It was lots of fun, let me tell you.  And then there was the time we received a new intern and several of the men took turns stopping by to check out her out.  Then there’s the countless times I had business lunches and dinners at the various “breastaurants” available.  During my 10 years working as an engineer, there were many of these annoying “characteristics” of some of the men I worked with I had to ignore because “that’s just how men are”.  These kinds of statements are not only tolerated, but excused because “that is just who they are”.  The problem is, these kinds of statements are symptoms of a greater issue, which is the lack of respect these men have for women.  Respect for the women they speak of, and lack of respect for the women who have to sit through and listen. 

2.  “You are not committed to the company enough”:  During a weekly meeting with my boss, he informed me he was considering me for the management program, but was concerned because I had a focus on family.  This statement confused me at the time because I didn’t see how one affected the other.  At the time I was handling the most projects on our team, and was the “senior” engineer.  While I left work earlier than most, I usually worked through lunch, and after my kid was in bed every night.  But during my tenure as an engineer I noticed that it wasn’t so much about the work I did, but the perception of the commitment I had.  Since I was not working when others could see me (ie. in the office), it was as if I was not working at all. 

3.  The Boys Club:  I’ve sat and listened on more than one occasion to  people complain about how its “easier” for a woman to get a job as an engineer.  And I agree with this statement.  Many companies have great initiatives to hire more women in the technical jobs.  So, as the argument goes, if you have equally qualified candidates, and one is a male and the other is a woman, the woman will be hired over the man.  I also agree this is what happens.  I then listen to them complain about how this is not fair, but I question them on why.  During one instance, I listened to a coworker carry on about how its easier for women because of initiatives, as he was also planning to go on his second hunting trip alone with my boss.  I let him finish what he was saying, and then asked him ” but would it be ok if I wen  on this weekend hunting trip with our boss alone?  Would it be acceptable to his wife  Would rumors about me and our boss start around the office because it was our second trip alone together that year?”  This stopped his complaints.  Our society has created some great programs to encourage women to enter into STEM fields, but the truth still remains that Engineering is still male dominated.  It will continue to be easier for my male counterparts to develop relationships with upper management purely on the fact that they are the same gender.

4.  She fills a quota:  An unfortunate backlash of all the initiatives to encourage minorities  into Engineering field is that some have the opinion that the only reason I do well or am hired is because I fulfill a required minority quota.  This mentality does not help establish or build your reputation in the workplace.

5.  Flexible work:  As I considered my different options after the birth of my first son, I realized that other professions (such as the medical fields) have options for part time positions.  I started to look into this possibility for engineering and found ZERO opportunities.  I understand that engineering is a collaborative field, but do believe there are opportunities companies could find to work with the different phases in an employee’s life. 

6.  Maternity Leave:  Many companies have maternity or short term disability leave for mothers, which has been hailed as a sign that the company is accommodating to new mothers.  But to be honest, the six or eight semi-paid leave I’ve received was definitely not very helpful.  Without going into a dissertation of what all happens to a woman’s body while pregnant, in labor, delivery, and, in my case, cesarean, eight weeks is just NOT enough time for a woman’s body to heal, develop a bond with their child, and establish a schedule that guarantees mommy is rested and ready for work.  To be honest, I feel like modern maternity leave was a decision made by someone who never  bore a child, gave birth, and then had to care for the child.  A newborn is not sleeping well at eight weeks, which means mommy is not sleeping well, especially if she is nursing.  I think there are transitional positions companies could create that would help the company and make the woman feel like they have another option other than leaving their field entirely.  A temporary position would allow the mother to transition back into a full-time engineering job easier, when her family life allows it. This could also increase company loyalty as employees see the company truly help the employee find a work-life balance during all phases of life.

Changing the behavior and mentality of our culture to be more inviting to women in STEM fields will help address the significant amount of women leaving the field.  But there is a significant difference between women and men that is a factor that can not be changed:  Motherhood.  Motherhood changes the priorities of most women.  Motherhood made traveling jobs of no interest to me.  Motherhood made long hours in the office a no deal.  Motherhood changed my focus to my time on the job to my time after work.  Once I had a child, I no longer worked for my own gratification, but to support my child.  Once my job started demanding that I spend more time away from my child, I was willing to put my career aside and stay home.  There was really nothing anyone could do to change my mind.  The work place is no match for a mother’s devotion to her family.