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Blog – Motherhood and Career Progression in STEM

By Dr Isabel Torres

Gender differences in career progression after women or 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 [1]. In contrast, men’s careers are typically unaffected or may even receive a boost after they have children. Besides facing bias and discrimination for being women, mothers encounter additional obstacles to career advancement. Indeed, research [2, 3] across many sectors shows that discrimination and subtle bias against women with children (known as ‘maternal wall’), combined with internalised gender stereotypes, lack of affordable childcare and a family-unfriendly work culture, are some of the invisible forces putting pressure on women to step back from their career track.

In STEM, a recent study [4] showed that 42% of mothers and 15% of fathers in the US leave full-time STEM employment within three years of having children. 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 (‘motherhood penalty’), while fathers see no decline in their earnings. On average, female academics have fewer children than their male counterparts and women in other professional sectors. For instance, in the US only about half of women in tenure-track positions have children, compared to over 70% of men [5].

Mothers in Science (www.mothersinscience.com) is a non-profit organisation that aims to advocate for workplace equality and inclusion in STEM and to raise awareness of the barriers preventing women with children from progressing in their STEM careers. Mothers in Science are conducting a global survey in collaboration with other organisations to study the inequalities and career obstacles affecting parents in STEMM (STEM+ medicine). The data collected will be instrumental for raising awareness of these barriers and to help advise the development of interventions and policies for increasing the retention of women in STEM employment.

Take the survey here: https://www.mothersinscience.com/survey

Contact: Isabel Torres, co-founder
isabel.torres@mothersinscience.com

 

References:

[1] Harkness, S., Borkowska, M. and Pelikh, A. Employment pathways and occupational change after childbirth; UK Government Equalities Office (2019)

[2] Eg. Corell, S., Bernard, S., and Paik, I. Getting a job: Is there a Motherhood Penalty? American Journal of Sociology (2007)

[3] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/early-childhood/reports/2019/03/28/467488/child-care-crisis-keeping-women-workforce/ (US)

[4] Cech, E. and Blair-Loy, M. The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM. PNAS (2019)

[5] Mason, M., Wolfinger, N. and Goulden, M. Do babies matter? Gender and family in the ivory tower. Rutgers University Press, NJ (2013).

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