An astonishing 43 percent of new mothers and 23 percent of new fathers who work in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) switch careers, transition to part-time work, or leave the workforce entirely after having a baby, according to a new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“The sheer magnitude of the departure was startling,” said Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and lead author of the study in a February 18 Science Magazine article.
“Parenthood in STEM is not just a mothers’ issue; it’s a worker issue,” Cech said in the Science article, adding that she hopes the findings “might motivate changes,” such as more paid parental leave and flexible and part-time work.
For the study, Cech and University of California, San Diego sociologist Mary Blair-Loy used data from surveys of US STEM workers housed in the Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System, a database provided by the US National Science Foundation.
Cech and Blair-Loy picked child-free scientists in full-time employment from 2003 surveys and tracked their familial status and careers between 2003 and 2010.
According to the data, 841 became parents, and 3,365 remained childless throughout. By 2010, 23% of men and 43% of women who had children during the period studied left full-time STEM employment by moving to part time, switching to non-STEM careers or leaving the workforce altogether, as compared to 16% of child-free men and 24% of child-free women. Researchers controlled for potential confounding differences between people with and without children.
Additionally, around half of the new parents who left science completely cited family-related reasons, compared with just 4% of people without children, according to the study.
These findings suggest that parenthood is an important driver of gender imbalance in STEM employment, the researchers said in a February 19 Nature article.
But this isn’t just a mothers’ issue, Cech said in the Nature article. Having a baby has significant impact on fathers’ careers as well.
“STEM work is often culturally less tolerant and supportive of caregiving responsibilities than other occupations,” said Cech in the Nature article. “So mothers—and fathers—may feel squeezed out of STEM work and pulled into full-time work in non-STEM fields.”