Why Do Women Leave Science and Engineering?

The research suggests it’s all about pay and promotion opportunities, or lack thereof.

Lab-BeakersAmerican policy analysts are concerned about the declining U.S. share in world patenting and scientific publishing. Many trace this to the perceived failure of the U.S. to educate as many scientists and engineers as “competitor” countries.

One possible solution to this problem is to increase the number of immigrants skilled in science and engineering. An alternative is to increase the number of natives skilled in these fields, with the underrepresented groups of women and minorities as obvious targets.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, coauthor of the report “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering, and Technology,” emphasizes yet another strategy: increased retention of women. The 2008 report identifies the major reasons why women leave science and engineering at a higher rate than men–from lack of a buddy network to outright sexual harassment–and proposes ways to make science and engineering careers more “friendly” to women, such as sponsorship arrangements with senior executives and clear paths into the management pipeline.

Are females exiting from science and engineering disproportionately? And if so, is this exodus simply a hallmark of male-dominated fields in general, or is it specific to science and engineering?

The considerable literature on women leaving science and engineering highlights the difficulty of balancing long work hours and family, the isolation of being a minority and the associated lack of mentoring and networks, as well as the risk-taking environment and “hostile macho culture.”

To see the limitations of such a focus, consider a common explanation for women quitting science and engineering: long work hours. Long days in the office or lab may indeed disproportionately lead women rather than men to leave science and engineering, but long work hours may also disproportionately lead skilled women to leave other fields.

Women may simply seek out jobs with optimal work hours more than men do. Thus, while it may be worthwhile for science and engineering employers to implement Hewlett’s prescription of more flexible working time, if other employers implement and benefit from similar policies, any science and engineering-specific disadvantage in retaining women will persist.

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Source: Forbes