Study claiming gender equity in science, technology, maths doesn’t reflect real life

Is hiring bias the reason women leave STEM careers? Flazingo/flickr, CC BY-NC

You may have heard about a study released last week with headlines like, “Study finds, surprisingly, that women are favored for jobs in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics (STEM),” or “Women best men in STEM faculty hiring study.”

As has been previously pointed, out, this research may not be relevant in Australia. Further, the study’s methods have been pointed out as flawed for, among other things, the people who undertook the survey, its hypothetical nature and its controlling for bias.

The study, looking at hiring preferences for researchers applying for tenure-track assistant professorships across a variety of disciplines, found:

a 2:1 preference for women by faculty of both genders across both math-intensive and non–math-intensive fields, with the single exception of male economists, who showed no gender preference. Women preferred divorced mothers to married fathers; men preferred mothers who took leave to mothers who did not.

This study doesn’t represent what happens in the real world. Rather, it’s what a self-selecting group of faculty who took the survey would do if they had the opportunity. In a perfect world, we would all hire the best candidate; unfortunately, that’s not the world we’re working in, and there is always a committee with which to contend.

What the gender breakdown really looks like

Although undergraduate and early-career researchers are reaching gender equity in the biological and health sciences, math-intensive fields like chemistry, engineering and physics lag behind.

Nearly 40% of women engineers in the United States leave the field after earning an engineering degree; a survey in the UK showed only 12% of women chemists want a career in research after earning a PhD in chemistry.

Another study showed 60% of women engineers leave the field because they are dissatisfied with pay and promotion.

Women in science, engineering, and technology (SET) love their work and are eager to get to the top, but face challenges along the way. Center for Talent Innovation

The loss of women employees at high levels in the corporate world has been well demonstrated, too. Between 80–93% of women in science, engineering and technology working in Brazil, China, India and the US say they love their work, but 20–32% say they are likely to quit within a year. Why is this?

We can’t seem to identify the problem. In one article, choosing motherhood is the reason there aren’t more women in math-intensive fields. Research administrators are convinced it’s gender bias. It could be the stereotypes about women in STEM careers. Maybe it’s the lack of incentives, which reduces field commitment. This latest study is pointing the finger at hiring preferences.

2:1 for what?

A 2012 study showed that when asked to hire a student for a laboratory manager position, both male and female faculty would hire the male student – and, they would pay him significantly more. All this, despite that fact that faculty of both genders, all ages and tenure status “liked” the female applicant more than the male.

So this new study should really read: “some good news for mothers who have taken parental leave, who also have jobs in STEM fields when more men are on your hiring committee”. Even then, the parental leave was taken while a graduate student — not an employee, so the hiring committee might assume the child is now old enough to be in school.

Or maybe they read the 2014 study that said that married women economy academics with children are more productive.

In a 2010 paper, the same authors of this new study made the argument that sex discrimination wasn’t causing problems with hiring and that focusing on this “costly, misplaced effort” was a waste because it’s a problem of the past. In the author’s words:

the primary factors in women’s underrepresentation [in math-intensive fields] are preferences and choices – both freely made and constrained.

These choices were broken down into three categories: fertility/lifestyle choices (also read as work-life balance), career preferences and ability differences.

Equity is good for everyone

The bottom line is policies that increase equity are often good for everyone. Not scheduling meetings before 9am or after 5pm, not expecting 60-hour work weeks when we’re contracted (and paid) for 40 hours, and a modicum of understanding with respect to caregiving responsibilities isn’t outrageous.

Most people in the workforce have caregiving responsibilities of one kind or another, be they for young children, elderly parents, or ill family members.

Over 40% of highly qualified women with children leave careers temporarily or permanently; we also know that women who are allocated maternity leave are less likely to leave their jobs.

Attrition rates from STEM. American Institutes for Research

The problem is magnified for researchers from traditionally underrepresented groups. The National Science Foundation in the US has recently released a report outlining plans to broaden participation in the STEM workforce, and particular support for early-career researchers is needed.

We need to take steps to ensure equity in how researchers are mentored, to increase their professional networks and to prepare candidates for promotion. One low-cost option would be to have a one-year promotion preparation program.

Many research institutes already have similar support programs on an ad hoc basis, but institutionalising and tracking early-career researchers could be much more beneficial.

If anything, this new paper reinforces the need for studying women in STEM at different career stages differently, and determining what factors cause women scientists to leave before reaching the pinnacle of their career.

Some excellent resources are available for models of best practice. The Science in Australia Gender Equity Forum (SAGE) is working on the problem locally, and the National Health and Medical Research Council has announced a gender equity policy this year.

The Athena SWAN Charter has made significant progress towards equity in the UK.

Of course, the United States (where the survey was conducted) is the only country that offers no paid parental leave among the 37 countries in the OECD.

A comparison of maternity leave policies worldwide. ThinkProgress

The reality is, there probably is no one reason for the number of women who leave careers in STEM. Although this new paper adds to the conversation, it doesn’t close the book on gender equity for researchers.