Women And Black People With STEM Degrees Are The Most Likely To Leave The Field

CREDIT: Shutterstock

Women and black people with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) are more likely to end up with jobs outside the field than men and people of other racial groups, according to a new study from Lori Turk-Bicakci and Andrea Berger published in the American Institutes for Research.

Overall, one of every six people with a job and a STEM degree work elsewhere. But at least one in five women and black people who got their Ph.D.s in STEM fields between 1959 and 2010 were working in a non-STEM career by October 2010. On the other hand, just 16 percent of white men were working in outside jobs. “Because of this attrition, the STEM community potentially loses contributions to scientific and technological discovery, restricting potential advantages gained from diverse perspectives and the availability of role models for underrepresented groups,” the authors write.

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 2.00.04 PM

CREDIT: Turk-Bicakci/Berger

Women and black people are more likely to work in jobs that are the furthest from their area of study. Overall, 28 percent of those who worked outside of STEM were in other industries, such as the arts, education, and the law. But nearly half of the people who had left STEM for these jobs were white women and about a third were black women and men. On the other hand, less than a quarter of white men ended up in these careers.

Meanwhile, a good number of people who departed STEM jobs ended up in positions that involved research and development (R&D), which “suggest[s] that they were using some of the skills they developed during their doctoral programs in new contexts.” But again, men were more likely to end up in these jobs than women.

Given that in all fields the top jobs are still dominated by men, it may not be surprising that more who left STEM were more likely to end up in top management or administrator positions than women. Women were underrepresented even in middle management. “One potential explanation of this finding, not unique to STEM fields, is that men may tend to be ‘promoted’ out of STEM careers,” the authors note, and women may hit glass ceilings.

But this problem of attrition starts out early on. Progress in increasing the number of women who even get into these jobs has stalled since 1990, as most of the increase happened between then and the 1970s. Women who graduate with a STEM degree are employed in these jobs at half the rate of men. Then one year into a STEM profession, women end up calling it quits 45 percent more often than men.

One thing that may be pushing them out is the difficulty of balancing demanding STEM work with children. Women who stay in STEM are less likely than men to have children at home — those who do have them may end up leaving. Women in the field also face discrimination. One study found that nearly a third of “senior leaders” in STEM think a woman would never be able to reach the top positions at their organizations. Another found that people are twice as likely to hire a man for a math job than a woman when all they know is the gender of the candidates.