Motherhood and career progression in STEM
Differences in career progression after women and men have children are often anecdotally explained by differences in ‘biology’ or personal choice–and these motherhood myths conceal the real underlying causes driving women away from their career path.
The gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields widens as women climb the career ladder–and is magnified for ethnic-minority women. The bottleneck in the leaky STEM pipeline occurs after women complete their education and enter STEM employment, eventually resulting in an acute underrepresentation of women in leadership positions. There is wide evidence that gender discrimination and implicit bias are important barriers hindering career progression of women in STEM, but could motherhood be playing a critical role?
Soon after having children, many women move to part-time employment, change career sectors, stay “stuck” in a low-responsibility role, or exit the workforce altogether . In contrast, men’s careers are typically unaffected or may even receive a boost. Besides facing many challenges for being women, mothers encounter another widespread form of gender discrimination–the maternal wall [2, 3]. Mothers earn lower salaries than fathers and childless women, are less likely to be hired or promoted, and are perceived as less competent or committed to their work. As the Covid-19 pandemic has revealed, societal expectations based on gender stereotypes put pressure on women to be the primary carer and to prioritise family over career, while men assume the role of “breadwinners”. Globally, women spend over twice more time as men on childcare and domestic chores, with negative effects on their work productivity and mental health.
In STEM, a recent study  showed that 42% of mothers and 15% of fathers in the US leave full-time STEM employment within three years of having children. And while most of these fathers change career sector and continue employed full-time, mothers move to part-time work or become stay-home parents. The situation is even bleaker for academics. Women who have children soon after their PhD are less likely to get tenure than men, and female PhD holders may suffer a pay penalty after having a child, while fathers see no decline in their earnings. On average, female academics have fewer children than their male counterparts. For instance, in the US only about half of women in tenure-track positions have children, compared to over 70% of men .
Mothers in STEM have remained silent because they feel isolated and fear the consequences of speaking out, but the pandemic has exposed the invisible forces putting pressure on them to step back from their career track: motherhood bias and discrimination, internalised gender roles, unequal sharing of childcare and housework, lack of affordable childcare, and an inflexible work culture designed for the “ideal worker”. Now is the time to raise awareness of these barriers and to create actionable solutions to dismantle them.
Take the survey and spread the word! www.mothersinscience.com/survey
Mothers in Science (www.mothersinscience.com) is a non-profit organisation created in 2019 to advocate for equity and inclusion of mothers and caregivers in STEM. We are currently conducting a global survey to study the systemic inequalities and careers obstacles affecting mothers in STEMM (STEM+ medicine). As the Covid-19 pandemic has magnified these deeply rooted problems, the data collected in this survey is needed now more than ever to raise awareness and to create long-lasting solutions and effective policies for increasing the retention of women in STEMM careers.
Contact: Isabel Torres, co-founder
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