Getting there and staying there: How we can improve retention rates for female-identifying people in STEM

Sarah Edwards

One of the greatest struggles in the push for gender equity in STEM is the ongoing attempt to fix the “leaky pipeline.” For newcomers to the area, the leaky pipeline refers to the alarmingly low retention rates of female-identifying people as they advance through the levels of academia and industry achievement- or, more precisely, as they don’t.

Studies into the field have overwhelmingly returned results which indicate that STEM not only has a lower number of female-identifying people entering the field as undergraduate students or as new graduates entering the workforce, but also a far lower retention rate than other skilled professional areas. In particular, the rate at which women leave STEM to pursue careers in totally different areas is alarmingly high, and it never slows down over the course of their careers.

Dr Fiona Beck from the College of Engineering and Computer Science considers many of the barriers to female continuity in STEM careers to be related to a systemic mishandling of what she calls “the biology issue.”

“There’s this period in the middle [of a career trajectory] between the late twenties to early forties, where you work and work and work, and that’s just what’s expected of you. If you try and have children at the same time, something’s got to give.” The reason she specifically considers this to be a biological issue and not a family one, though, is very simple- “It’s not a children thing. Men can go off and have children without it affecting their careers the same way.”  She argues that STEM could begin to solve its problems by implementing more adaptive policies and procedures designed to allow women to continue to work in their area of specialisation throughout the early years of child-rearing.

Family dynamics, childbirth and maternity are of course all issues which affect women’s careers in all fields, not just in STEM. However, research indicates that while women in other highly-skilled professional fields might take some time off work, or alter their hours during the early years of motherhood, women in STEM are more likely to leave the field entirely in favour of other work. In fact, women are 395% more likely to leave work in STEM after their second child, compared to only a 147% increase for women in non-STEM fields.

What is it, then, that leads women away from STEM at such alarming rates? In a 2013 study into the issue, US researchers found that while a high level of education and experience in a field usually correlates with a lower attrition rate for women in that field, the same was not true of STEM. No amount of time and effort expended in the field, no amount of experience or long-term commitment seems to have any impact on keeping women in STEM. The concluding remarks of that study suggest that STEM fields are particularly hostile to female-identifying people, and that a perceived inability to progress in either academic or industrial career paths leads many to seek out greener pastures.

Internationally, there are of course a few differences. In a 2012 survey of women’s participation in STEM, Brazil was found to have the highest levels of gender equity in science education and research, largely due to their state-funded tuition programs. The European Union ranked first in overall levels of gender equity, including access to healthcare and basic income. While these findings may be interpreted differently, it seems clear that if we are to see real progress in Australia, we may need to take a leaf out of the EU’s book.

Could the European approach be applied in Australia? Maybe, says Dr Beck. From her experience as a researcher in Barcelona and as a student in Glasgow, she found that policies promoting gender equity in STEM were bolder and more overt than she has yet seen in Australia. Specifically, women-only appointments and explicit safety requirements for pregnant women in research labs were both influential on Dr Beck’s perceptions of equity policy, regardless of whether or not she personally had need of them. Within an Australian context, however, she sees the potential for such policies to go wrong. “It’s almost like a bit of the tall poppy syndrome- as soon as you favour anyone in any particular way, the Aussie spirit is just like ‘nah. It’s not fair.”’

Reflecting on the environments that she has worked in, Dr Beck notes that attitudes to women in STEM remain problematic. “For example, I’m not on a women-only appointment, but there are several comments that have been made to me […] and implicitly stated, in certain environments, that I got the job because I’m a woman, and they want to increase the number of women.” Far from turning her away from the idea of equitable access schemes, however, this attitude has only reaffirmed Dr Beck’s commitment to such policies. “I think, in certain cases, if women are going to be accused of this anyway, then make women-only appointments!”

Perhaps, in years to come, STEM fields in Australia will begin to implement some of the apparently effective policies put in place by other countries, or perhaps we will find our own style. One thing is certain, though- the way forward involves diversity, equity, and change.