Expert Commentary

Women and STEM occupations: Retention rates and reasons for leaving

2013 paper from U.T. Austin and Cornell University in Social Forces comparing the retention of women working in STEM-related fields to those in non-STEM work.


According to a 2011 U.S. Department of Commerce report, one in 18 workers in the United States was employed in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (known collectively as the STEM fields) in 2010,  and STEM jobs were being created three times faster than non-STEM positions. A 2013 Brookings Institution report finds that up to 20% of all U.S. jobs require a high level of STEM knowledge.

Despite the demand for STEM professionals, research by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee indicates that workers with STEM skills aren’t being trained quickly enough. The White House has stated that women’s participation in STEM fields is particularly important to meet this shortfall. Women accounted for 55% of university graduates ages 25 to 29 but only 31% of STEM graduates. They make up 50% of the overall U.S. workforce but only account for 25% of STEM workers. In recent months, various Silicon Valley firms have come under scrutiny in the media for the continuing lack of gender diversity.

In addition to women having a relatively low rate of participation in science, technology, engineering or mathematics jobs, there is concern that those who do choose STEM fields tend to leave early. In a 2012 article for American Scientist, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci of Cornell University suggests that STEM employment is less conducive to family-building than other fields. A 2010 paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the gender-retention gap is driven more by women’s dissatisfaction with pay and promotion opportunities — potentially related to the glass ceiling and glass cliff effects. Research at the University of Delaware suggests that “stereotype threat” could be a factor, where negative images of women’s STEM skills could inhibit their performance.

A 2013 paper published in Social Forces, “What’s So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women’s Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations” compares the retention of women in STEM fields to those in non-STEM fields. The researchers — Jennifer Glass of the University of Texas, Austin, and Sharon Sassler, Yael Levitte and Katherine Michelmore of Cornell University — used data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Survey of Youth to track 1,258 women with four-year college degrees. They found few differences between the two groups of women in demographics and family size, or work characteristics such as hours, job satisfaction and job flexibility. Yet they find significant differences in labor-force retention between women working in STEM and non-STEM fields.

The study’s findings include:

  • Women working in STEM fields are far more likely to leave their jobs than women working in other professional fields. After about 12 years, 50% of women who originally worked in STEM have left, compared to only 20% of professional women. The majority of moves out of STEM occurred in the first five years.
  • Movements out of the labor force are roughly equal across both STEM and non-STEM fields, but women in STEM are much more likely to switch into different fields than women in non-STEM jobs. “The disparity in retention between STEM and non-STEM professionals is almost entirely due to STEM women switching out of STEM fields but not out of the labor force.”
  • Women in STEM are 165% more likely to leave STEM if they have an advanced degree, a factor which does not affect non-STEM professional women’s exit decisions.
  • While greater age and higher job satisfaction significantly reduce the number of professional women leaving their field, these factors have no effect on women in STEM. “The fact that advanced training, increasing job tenure, job satisfaction and aging do not deepen commitment to STEM fields as they do for most other workers in most other fields is particularly troubling,” the authors state.
  • Marriage and child-bearing are much more likely to propel women out of STEM careers than professional non-STEM careers. STEM women are 84% more likely to leave the field upon marriage (although 70% less likely to leave the field if their spouse is also employed in STEM). Neither marriage nor spouse choice are significant for non-STEM women.

“We suspect that the retention deficit in STEM may be due to the team organization of scientific work combined with the attitudes and expectations of co-workers and supervisors who hold more traditional beliefs about the competencies of women in these rapidly changing fields,” the authors conclude. The results imply that STEM jobs may have certain features that are difficult to combine with family life, and that these are exacerbated the farther one advances up the skill hierarchy.

“What seems to differentiate the two groups of women are investments and job rewards,” said study author Sharon Sassler in a 2013 interview with the Association of Computing Machinery. “While in other professions pursuing an advanced degree and viewing one’s job as rewarding tend to increase retention, such investments made by women in STEM do not seem to stimulate commitment to STEM in the same way.”

A related 2012 study published in Sociology, “The Dimensions of Occupational Gender Segregation in Industrial Countries,” examines why some jobs may be filled more by men or women, be it by choice, obligation or exclusion. Among the findings are that women tend to outperform men in the general desirability of occupations: “[Such] occupations do not merely provide economic rewards, but also are highly significant in the structuring of social space and can create or obstruct pathways to social networks and opportunities.” If STEM jobs are perceived by women as not providing such opportunities and rewards, that could be a contributing reason for their exiting them.

Keywords: women and work

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