Investing In Women In STEM: Because Girls Grow Up

America has a plumbing problem. We are investing heavily in attracting more women and girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs, but all along their career pipeline, from the start of college until retirement, they seep out.
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Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

America has a plumbing problem. We are investing heavily in attracting more women and girls to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) jobs, but all along their career pipeline, from the start of college until retirement, they seep out. You wouldn't try to fix a leak by pouring more fluid down a drain. Likewise, we can't presume that pushing more girls down STEM career paths will fix the endemic problems that cause women to leave. It's not just that we don't have enough girls going in STEM fields like engineering and computer science where women's representation remains low; it's that they are going into a broken system, one based on a paradigm from the 1950s where men with stay-at-homes wives are most likely to succeed. This isn't just an issue affecting women and girls; it is part of a much bigger concern about meeting the future needs of our workforce.

Part of why we encourage women and girls to go into STEM jobs is because they confer greater economic security. However, while the wage gap between men and women isn't quite as wide as it is for non-STEM employees, women in STEM still make about 14% less than men on average. One of the best ways to retain women is to pay them what they are worth. The motto should not be "Women in STEM: like men, but cheaper." Today is Equal Pay Day. This provides an opportunity to highlight these disparities and explain how this one solution fits into the bigger picture of the costs associated with failing to retain women in academia and industry.

Some of the 14% wage gap comes from women not realizing they are being paid less. However, asking others what they are being paid is still grounds for termination in half of all companies. The Paycheck Fairness Act would allow employees to share information about their salaries without fear of retaliation. Others discredit the gap in earnings by pointing out different choices made between men and women based on fields of study, child bearing, and career trajectory. A recent study shows that even directly out of college, women in engineering and computer science are earning 12% less than men. The new Fair Pay Act would guarantee equal pay for equal work when men and women have the same skills, knowledge and training. Passage of both of these bills would go a long way towards closing the gender- and ethnicity-based wage gap and would strengthen the workforce with more equal opportunities for everyone. Why would any person want to stay in a job where they are underpaid and undervalued if there are other jobs which will better reward their hard work?

Opportunity Cost. Averaged over the last 40 years, 42% of all STEM degrees went to women. However, women only make up 27% of the STEM workforce. This failure to retain women comes at a cost for the taxpayers in this country. As a nation, we invest in the training of our scientists and engineers from the Ph.D. level on up.

  • We invest about $200-250K per Ph.D. student over the course of graduate school training (which includes tuition, stipend, health insurance, and the cost of things like reagents and equipment), which currently averages more than 6 years
  • The head of a lab budgets about $100,000 annually per post-doctoral fellow
  • A postdoc's training generally occurs in their early to mid-30's, lasts 3-5 years on average, and their take-home pay is often less than $40K annually (with no guarantee of any subsequent job in industry or academia)

For both of these training levels, the tax payer gets a good return on their investment in terms of productivity. However, the postdoctoral and assistant faculty stage occurs when women are in their peak childbearing years. Many wind up leaving the STEM workforce because small things, like an absence of places to pump breast-milk or being unable to take a day to care for a sick child, add up to persistent big problems. At that point, a minimum of $1,000,000 has been invested in her education, training, and hiring. If she leaves to stay home because she can't find a job that can accommodate both child rearing and working or takes a job outside of science in an industry that offers better work-life opportunities, we are no longer getting a return on a major investment in intellectual capital.

Workforce matters. If the economic argument alone is not sufficient, the need for able body workers should be. In 2008, the US had 4.7 workers for every retired citizen. In 2050, we are projected to have only 2.6 workers for every retiree. That is a potential crisis for our nation. Further evidence that a broad allocation of people is significant for economic growth comes from a recent study out of the University of Chicago and Stanford. The economists that performed the study estimate that 15-20% of our national productivity has come from people going into professions which were previously inaccessible due to gender or ethnicity. As both women and underrepresented minorities make up small numbers in the highest tiers on these fields, just think of the possible growth if we had greater diversity in these areas. Lastly, we know that groups with more diverse composition make better decisions than ones where everyone comes from the same background. We know that companies that have women on their boards make more money. We know that keeping women at the table is crucial to national economic success.

Ways to Patch the Leaking Pipeline

We need more university role models. One of the most important factors that register subconsciously when undergraduates consider careers is what the person at the front of the room looks like. Women and underrepresented minorities visibly perceive their low numbers in fields like engineering and physical sciences. While women have been earning a high percentage of STEM degrees for some time, their levels drop off by about a quarter between each rung of promotion through the academic system. In science and engineering, women make up half of all graduate students and post-doctoral fellows, 41% of the assistant professors (pre-tenure), 34% of associate professors (post-tenure), and less than 20% of full professors. Women comprise only 8% of engineering professors. Even in fields like psychology, where women have earned more than half of the Ph.D.s for the last several decades, they only make up 37% of tenured professors. At the department head and dean level, the numbers are even smaller. Women still only make up 13% of medical school deans as of 2010. A failure to retain and promote women at the highest levels is having a significant impact on the retention of women overall. This problem is not limited to academic science, of course; women currently make up only 4% of all Fortune 500 CEOs, 15% of equity partners in law firms, and 18.5% of members of Congress.

Improve Family Leave and Childcare Availability. When men leave a job, they usually cite reasons related to salary. Women, however, generally leave because of caretaking conflicts or hostile workplace climate. Women are in their key childbearing years at the same time they are trying to advance their career under the current "publish or perish" paradigm of academia and trying to climb the corporate ladder in industry. Industry is realizing the high cost of attrition in terms of recruitment, training, and lost productivity when women don't return after childbearing, whether due to the high cost of child care or inflexible schedules. It's not surprising that of Fortune Magazine's Best Companies to Work For, most have some combination of policies like paid maternity leave, company-sponsored childcare, flexible scheduling, family healthcare benefits, and paternity leave, while growing their business and making money.

Academia frequently doesn't count postdocs as "employees" meaning they can be exempt from Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) coverage, which allows 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personnel who have been with the company (of more than 50 employees) for more than a year to bond with newborn or adopted children as well as for serious health conditions or caretaking for sick family. While having a child is usually a choice, making it prohibitively expensive for both parents to work and afford childcare means we have more women who are underemployed or unemployed with STEM degrees. And if it is prohibitively expensive to have kids, many will opt not to until some later point, when it may no longer be possible, meaning fewer new workers in the next generation, further shifting the balance between workers and retirees towards the latter. It makes sense to get a meaningful return on the tax dollars we have invested as a nation to train and support these workers by developing affordable child care options and a tax code that meaningfully addresses the needs of middle class citizens.

While industry has been more invested in developing female-friendly policies due to their interest in attracting the best possible employees, universities tend to have particularly bad options and opportunities for women after childbearing. Married women with children and a Ph.D. are 35% less likely than a married man with kids to get tenure, and 28% less likely than women without kids to get tenure. While postdocs are looked at as transient and thus not worth investing in, one would expect universities to have a better attitude toward their professors. That does not, however, appear to be the case. Results from a study performed last year by AWIS and the Elsevier Foundation, in which more than 4,000 scientists were surveyed worldwide, found that a third of all participants, men and women alike, experienced problems with work-life integration, and many were contemplating a career change as a consequence. Men continue to take on more responsibility for child care and household management as the majority of couples are in dual-income households. It is reasonable to anticipate that they will become increasingly dissatisfied with this arrangement too. The best and the brightest are going to go where the jobs are that can give them what they need in return for their work. Failing to retain them is a failure to keep the most qualified people for the jobs we need filled. It also leads departments to expend more on high cost start-up packages for new faculty as well as recruitment and hiring of replacements, not an particularly efficient use of tax dollars. If universities put more family-friendly options in place, they would probably see a higher rate of return on that investment in terms of retention for both men and women. This isn't a problem that is going to just go away so schools would do well to address it now before they start losing a competitive recruiting edge.

Increase on ramping opportunities and outreach. One of the most frequently repeated myths is that if people leave these highly competitive fields, they cannot come back. The knowledge and analytical skills honed during academic training last a lifetime; they don't evaporate over a few years off in a different career or caretaking for elderly family or children. On ramping is the process of re-entering the workforce after time away from that field, for women it is often after taking a year or two off to raise children. The lack of on ramping training opportunities at universities and in industry suggest a serious disconnect between expectations for cheap labor and the real work force that is underemployed or that has left because they have been told they can't come back. The lack of meaningful investment in the effort to attract the many women who have left industry is particularly shocking when one then hears many of those same companies that have little to no on ramping programs lobbying hard for more H-IB visas claiming they don't have enough workers. There are lots of workers out there, but industry has failed to reach out to them. Many of those companies would be well served by looking at what practices currently in place resulted in their failure to retain their female employees. Nearly a third of the women that earned bachelor's degrees in engineering during the last few decades are in other fields now or out of the workforce, nearly 100,000 engineers. It would be great to see Congress require that these companies meaningfully prove they had tried to hire domestic workers before claiming we need visas for foreigners who will work for less pay or offshore.

Change the way scientists and engineers are portrayed. Women are still heavily underrepresented as lead characters in movies and TV shows. Negative stereotypes about what it means to be a woman in science, medicine, or engineering abound. Think of all the characters portrayed as socially awkward nerds, people devoted only to their jobs with no outside hobbies or interests (romantic or otherwise), frumpy, or just neurotic that are scientists or doctors. These are stereotypes perpetuated by the media that make it seem awful to be a woman in science. Few people would be motivated anyone to pursue a line of work if they expected all of their coworkers to be isolated introverts. Furthermore, women's achievements in science still tend to be qualified. The recent New York Times obituary debacle, wherein the article began by stating that Dr. Yvonne Brill made great beef stroganoff, just reinforces how "surprising" it is that a woman can simultaneously be an innovative rocket scientist and a good mother. The writer may have been trying to demonstrate that she lived a well-rounded life. However, Dr. Brill warranted an obituary in one of the most important newspapers in the world because she was an amazing scientist, not because her son thought she was "the world's greatest mom." Yet that is the norm for most articles highlighting the achievements of women, qualifying their breakthroughs as a "woman scientist" or a "woman engineer." Men are not described as a "successful male CEO" or an "entrepreneurial man" because it is implied. As a culture we still condition people to associate science and technical expertise with men and that unconscious bias pervades every aspect of the STEM pipeline, including hiring, grants, promotions, recognition, and mentoring. That has to change and Hollywood could play a big part in helping portray scientists and engineers as what they actually are: family, neighbors, and citizens engaged in the pursuit of individual happiness, just like everyone else.

Between the chilly work environments, unconscious bias, wage gap, and a lack of policies to support work and family needs, the current practices in this country make STEM careers seem like a more questionable path for women than ought to be the case. STEM careers provide incredible opportunities to explore interesting and relevant questions as well as to creatively solve an enormous range of problems to help society. It is the kind of job that should be ideal for anyone with an inquiring mind. The fact that the infrastructure currently in place makes it less desirable means changes need to be made, otherwise we as a nation are going to be left behind. When you consider that China offers a 14 week maternity leave with a paid allowance, we obviously have room to improve if we want to remain competitive. But mostly ponder the point of investing millions of dollars recruiting and training women only to force them out several years later. As an economic policy, how does that make any sense for our country, now as well as for our future?

Erin Cadwalader, Ph.D., is currently the Phoebe S. Leboy public policy fellow at AWIS where she serves as the government affairs liaison and advocate for women in STEM. Prior to AWIS, she was a science policy fellow at Research!America. She has a doctoral degree from the University of Utah in neurobiology and earned her bachelor of science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studied biochemistry.

Janet Bandows Koster is the C.E.O. and Executive Director of AWIS responsible for the day-to-day management of the national membership organization. She is also the Principal Investigator and Co-Principal Investigator on several grants and a member of the American Society of Association Executives and the Council of Engineering and Scientific Society Executives. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Society of Women Engineers.

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