April 19th, 2012 | 1:00 pm

STEM Fields: Something’s Gotta Give

filed under Work-Life

iStock_000017448696XSmallBy Tina Vasquez (Los Angeles)

We hear it all the time: why are women still so underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematical (STEM) fields? There are scientific fields in which women are plentiful, such as medicine, and though it’s true that women remain grossly under-represented in engineering and computing, things are changing – perhaps more rapidly than we’ve been led to believe.

The Why So Few? report released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found that at the top level of math abilities, where boys are overrepresented, the gender gap is rapidly shrinking. Among sixth and seventh graders who score more than 700 on the math SAT, 30 years ago boys outnumbered girls 13 to one, but only about three to one now.

Plus, women, who aren’t socialized to pursue careers in STEM fields, must sometimes combat outright discrimination if they do pursue careers in these fields. That was made especially clear when Harvard’s former president and the current director of the National Economic Council for the Obama administration, Lawrence H. Summers, made some highly offensive remarks several years ago, implying that women might lack an intrinsic aptitude for math and science – which we know is not true.

It’s offensive that women’s abilities are still being called into question, requiring scientific tests to prove they’re just as capable of excelling in fields and subjects historically dominated by men. This discriminatory attitude lives on the culture of STEM – and it’s embarrassing that it continues today. But discrimination is only part of the problem when it comes to the lack of women in these fields. The other half the equation, according to a new study by the Association of Women in Science (AWIS), is the work life challenges associated with careers in STEM.

Severe Work-Life Balance Issues

The Work Life Integration Overload [PDF], a new study from the Association of Women in Science, found that attracting female and male workers to STEM fields will be increasingly difficult if severe work-life balance issues continue to plague these fields.

AWIS’s study drew data from 4,225 publishing scientists and researchers worldwide, finding that lack of flexibility in the workplace, dissatisfaction with career development opportunities, and low salaries are driving both men and women to re-consider their profession.

More than 54 percent of all scientists and researchers said that work demands conflict with their personal lives at least 2-3 times per week and only a third of researchers said they work for family-friendly institutions. Just 52 percent of women reported that they are happy with their work-life integration, compared with 61 percent of men.

Thirty-seven percent of women say that ensuring good work-life integration has negatively impacted their careers, with 30 percent of men reporting the same. For those researchers with dependent children, 36 percent reported career problems.

The study also found that 40 percent of women respondents have actually delayed having children because of their careers. A number of women mentioned waiting until they had a permanent position to get pregnant or noted that they could not afford to start a family on their wages. Essentially, these are women who have put in the time and effort, obtaining PhDs, only to find themselves in the position of not being able to afford having children.

It was also found that one in 10 researchers expect to leave their current job within the next year and of those intending to leave, females were twice as likely to cite a spouse’s job offer or relocation as the reason. Of researchers intending to leave, 9 percent indicated it was because they were unable to balance work and life.

AWIS’s study is important in the way that it does something so few studies on work-life balance manage to: it frames the issue as something that affects both men and women, pinpointing the ways that STEM fields are seemingly digging their own graves by being incredibly unwelcoming. According to Dr. Joan Herbers, former AWIS president and current professor at Ohio State, a mass exodus from these fields has far bigger repercussions than many realize.

“Something’s got to give. If STEM fields can’t figure out how to make life more reasonable for those who want to be scientists, our country is going to be in real trouble. The United States needs people in these crucial fields, we need researchers and scientists and innovators and there’s no verbalizing how adversely it will affect us if the number of scientists coming out of the U.S. continues to decline,” Herbers said.

Work-Life Satisfaction

Based on her own experience, Herbers says that it’s a daunting process to be a scientist if you’re at all concerned with “getting on in life.”

“The two aren’t very compatible,” Herbers said. “It’s the tenure clock vs. the biological clock and though the study found that these balance issues are affecting both men and women, it’s crucial to point out how different the family backgrounds are for men and women in STEM fields. Research has shown that women in these fields are less likely to have a partner, while men are more likely to be married and have a stay-at-home spouse.”

By definition, STEM fields are difficult to attain work-life balance in. AWIS’s study mostly focused on researchers and scientists and with this type of work, it doesn’t really matter how “family-friendly” your workplace is because a majority of your work simply cannot be done at home. Work in these fields is, as Herbers said, “place-bound.” Conducting research and experiments usually requires spending an inordinate amount of time in the lab.

When it comes to navigating around balance issues in STEM fields, Herbers recommends that women learn how to say no. The biggest obstacle for women in highly competitive fields is figuring out what’s good enough; figuring out how to let others know and how to make peace with what’s good enough.

“I much prefer ‘work-life satisfaction’ over ‘work-life balance,’” Herbers said. “You have to figure out what’s most satisfying and important. Of all the things you want, what can you actually have? Scientists aren’t good at this kind of introspection; we like numbers, not feelings. But at the end of the day women have to stop putting themselves last or else any field they enter is going to feel grueling.”

Making Trade-Offs

Anandi Raman Creath is an IT operations project manager for a major software company and she’s best described as gutsy, the kind who goes after exactly what she wants, even if it requires setting off on an entirely new and unfamiliar path. While pursuing a PhD in Molecular biology, it suddenly occurred to her that the path she was on wasn’t what she wanted.

“I looked at my options and things felt very bleak,” Creath said. “It was so competitive and my classmates were investing so much into their careers. After graduation it was a race to obtain a position at a university or to find a coveted job doing research for a company and both of those things took a great deal of time. It wasn’t about work-life balance; it was about not wanting to put my life on hold and be 32 before I obtained a ‘real’ job. You really have to love what you’re doing in these fields and when I was honest with myself, I knew I didn’t love it.”

It only took two months for Creath to get on a new track. She quit grad school, got a job in technology consulting despite having no experience to speak of in the field, and she ditched her partner at the time only to spark up a friendship with her future husband. Creath is currently pregnant with their second child and she says, with no hint of sarcasm, that she is living the dream.

When Creath became pregnant with her first child, she knew she wouldn’t be able to sustain the amount of work she was doing and, frankly, she didn’t want to. It was very important to her that her baby was not in daycare full-time, so she did the thing that professional women are told not to do: she asked to work part-time. Her husband even took on a compressed work schedule so that they could share the responsibilities surrounding their daughter.

“When I asked for part-time my boss didn’t even want to consider it,” Creath said. “Part of the problem was that very few people were working part-time, so when it came time for a performance review there would be no one to compare me to; I’d be compared to people working full-time.”

Her boss eventually gave in and, though Creath contends that her part-time schedule has drastically affected the projects she’s assigned, she’s ok with that as long as the work she is assigned in interesting. Creath is also honest about the fact that a woman who is incredibly ambitious and eager to move up in the company most likely cannot make the move to part-time work.

“If it’s your number one goal to move up in the company, you can’t do this,” Creath said. “What I’m doing now would be a significant hit to your career. I knew going into this field that it wasn’t my goal to eventually become vice president or CEO. I think for women with those types of goals, making these tradeoffs will be hard. I know what I’ve given up to have this schedule, but I’m ok with that because I love my job and I love that it enables me to actually spend time with my family.”

For women who can’t take on a part-time schedule because of financial reasons or for those who are looking to move up in the company, Creath says the first step you should make towards attaining more work/life balance is setting personal boundaries. The project manager says there’s a false expectation that people need to be on and accessible all of the time, but that it’s actually not true. Creating your own personal cut-off time, like deciding not to answer any work-related e-mails or phone calls after 9 p.m., will largely go unnoticed.

“If you put these boundaries in place without making a big production of it, without announcing it, chances are no one from work is going to call you into their office to tell you that they’ve noticed that you no longer respond to e-mails after 9:01 p.m. That’s just not going to happen,” Creath said.

Creath also jokes that there’s never going to come a time when your boss tells you you’re working too hard, so, as Herbers said, you have to know when good enough is, well, good enough. Creath says that paying attention to your schedule and how you spend time can shed light on responsibilities that can be eliminated during the day, enabling you to unburden yourself from unnecessary tasks while still being productive and effective.

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  1. THIBAUX

    Another angle to see this problem is to pay attention to the distribution of boys in “filières”. I take the example of France at the stage where girls and boys choose an orientation : 40% girls go to STEM filières, 32% in economic, 28 % in literature, languages and social filieres, boys stand at 69% in STEM, 24% in economic and only 7% in literature, languages and social… The question is less how to attract women in STEM fields than how to attract boys in all filières, especially social ones in which there are so much needs and too few valorization (because this filiere is 98% feminine)