Study Finds Women Leave Math and Science Fields Voluntarily to Have Children

A study by two scholars at Cornell University finds that the primary reason that large numbers of women do not advance to leadership positions in STEM fields in the academic world is because they voluntarily drop out to raise their families. The study found no evidence women in these fields were leaving because they believed that their work was not valued. Nor did they find widespread discrimination in the hiring or promotion process.

The study, published in the journal American Scientist, was co-authored by Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci, professors of human development at Cornell.

The authors note that women in mathematics and science fields face their most important academic hurdles at a time that coincides with their peak childbearing years. Their data showed that women in these fields who did not have children were just as likely to advance and gain tenure as men. But women in these fields who had children and stayed in academia were not as successful.

Wendy Williams

The authors conclude, “Motherhood — and the policies that make it incompatible with a tenure-track research career — take a toll on women that is detrimental to their professional lives. Even just the plan to have children in the future is associated with women exiting the research fast-track at a rate twice that of men.”

They recommend that universities reexamine their policies relating to women during their childbearing years. Possible remedies include “stopping the tenure clock” for parents who are raising young children, establishing part-time tenure or tenure-track positions to allow women to teach and raise their children, offering on-campus child care services, and reducing teaching loads for faculty with newborn children.

Professor Williams is a magna cum laude graduate of Columbia University. She holds two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in psychology from Yale University.

Filed Under: Research/StudySTEM Fields


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