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After a baby, 28% of new parents leave full-time STEM work

Just ask any new parent: Adding a baby to a household can also add stress to a career. Now, a new study backs that up with some startling numbers: After science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) professionals become parents, 43% of women and 23% of men switch fields, transition to part-time work, or leave the workforce entirely. 

Many researchers—and parents—already knew that STEM can be unwelcoming to parents, particularly mothers. But “the sheer magnitude of the departure was startling,” says Erin Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and lead author of the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For both genders, “the proportions were higher than we expected.”

The surprisingly high attrition rate for men also highlights that “parenthood in STEM is not just a mothers’ issue; it’s a worker issue,” Cech says. She hopes that the findings “might motivate changes,” such as more paid parental leave from both government and employers and policies that better support flexible and part-time work. “We are not suggesting that people who want families should avoid STEM; that’s not the solution,” she emphasizes.

The results are based on the career trajectories of 629 men and 212 women who, according to the National Science Foundation’s Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT), were full-time STEM workers in 2003 and became first-time parents before the next SESTAT data collection cycle, in 2006, as compared with more than 3000 STEM workers without children. Of the new parents, about 12% held doctorate degrees, 26% master’s degrees, and 62% bachelor’s degrees, and they were employed in academia, industry, government, and more. 

By 2010, 78% of new fathers were still working in STEM, the vast majority full time. For new mothers, 68% were still in STEM, but only 57% worked full time. For professionals without children, on the other hand, 84% of men and 76% of women were predicted to still be working in STEM full time in 2010. For the new parents across all fields, 16% of women were working part-time and 15% had left the workforce, as compared with just 2% and 3%, respectively, for men. These stark differences make clear that, even though the attrition rate for fathers is higher than expected, mothers still face particular career challenges.

“The results fill a gigantic gap in our understanding [of attrition from STEM], and there are major, major policy implications,” says Anna Kaatz, a data scientist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison who studies diversity in the scientific workforce. She hopes that the results will help trigger interventions to make STEM more welcoming and supportive for parents. “If this was some sort of epidemic killing people off, that’s really a lot of people leaving just because they’re starting a family.”

The gender disparity in STEM fields is well-documented and researchers have mulled over factors including societal expectations and stereotypes, women’s preferences, parenthood, hostile working environments, and outright discrimination. This new study suggests that parenthood does indeed play a role, but it probably acts in concert with other contributors, says Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “Parenthood is part of it, but I think embedded in these data is what type of company you’re working for and the climate within different fields, which may also be affecting these results,” she says. In other words, someone who tolerates a negative work climate before they have children may decide, when they become a parent, that the tradeoff is no longer worth it. But that doesn’t mean that parenthood is the root cause; it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. 

“Is it the full story? Of course it’s not,” Kaatz agrees. “But it’s more information. It leads us to say, ‘OK, let’s challenge academia and other sectors to get some hard numbers about reasons for attrition.’”