What Drives Women Out of STEM Fields?

Many women who start college in STEM disciplines change their major and graduate from colleges with degrees in other non-STEM fields. Data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that 14.2 percent of women who enter bachelor’s degree programs in STEM fields dropout of college and another 32.4 percent switch majors and earn a degree in a non-STEM field. Thus, almost half of women who begin bachelor’s degree programs in STEM disciplines do not complete a degree in a STEM field.

Now a new study by researchers at Cornell University and the University of Texas finds there is a similar attrition for professional women who start out in STEM-related occupations. The data showed that for women who start out in STEM-related jobs, after 12 years 50 percent had moved to non-STEM related jobs. For women who start out in non-STEM related occupations, only 20 percent changed careers over the 30-year span of the study.

The data showed that the attrition from STEM occupations is greater for women with advanced degrees than for women with bachelor’s degrees only. Also women who have husbands who also work in STEM fields were less likely to change careers to a non-STEM related field.

sasslerSharon Sassler, professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell University and a co-author of the study, stated, “A lot of people still think it’s having children that leads to STEM women’s exits. It’s not the family. Women leave before they have children or even get married. Our findings suggest that there is something unique about the STEM climate that results in women leaving.”

One factor that may contribute to women leaving STEM jobs, according to the authors, is that men in STEM fields tends to have more traditional ideas about gender roles than other college-educated men.

Professor Sassler is a graduate of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology from Brown University.

The paper, “What’s So Special about STEM? A Comparison of Women’s Retention in STEM and Professional Occupations,” is published in the December issue of the journal Social Forces. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Research/StudySTEM Fields


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