Co-founder, Mothers in Science
Despite continued efforts to increase participation of women in STEM, gender differences in career progression remain mostly unchanged. Is motherhood a major factor contributing to the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields?
Women remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and the gender gap widens as they climb the career ladder.
This so-called ‘leaky pipeline’ can start even before undergraduate studies, but the bottleneck occurs after women complete their education and enter the STEM workforce.
In STEM academic research, more women are earning PhDs than ever before, reaching parity or even outnumbering men in some STEM disciplines, yet the number of female tenured professors remains stubbornly low.
Gender discrimination and implicit bias are widely studied mechanisms driving the gender gap in STEM, but less attention is paid to motherhood as a contributor factor.
Why is it important to speak about motherhood?
The career paths of women and men diverge in opposite directions soon after having children, with fathers being unaffected or receiving a career boost, while mothers may move to part-time employment, change career path, stay in a lower-responsibility role, or exit the labour force altogether.
Mothers not only have to face challenges for being women, but they also encounter additional obstacles – pregnancy and motherhood bias and discrimination, also known as ‘maternal wall’.
Nearly twice as many women as men report having fewer children than desired because they pursued a STEM career.
This widespread form of gender discrimination affects the career trajectories of women across most professional sectors, including STEM.
A recent study showed that 42% of mothers and 15% of fathers in the US leave full-time STEM employment within three years of having children.
Female academics have fewer children than women in other professional sectors, and women who have children soon after their PhD are much less likely to get tenure than their male counterparts. Is motherhood driving women away from their STEM careers?
Mothers frequently earn less than childless women and fathers
There is ample evidence that mothers in every professional sector earn lower salaries than childless women and fathers (called ‘motherhood penalty’).
In STEM, a US study found that female PhD holders suffered an 11% pay penalty after having a child, while fathers saw no decline in their earnings.
Women with children are also less likely to be hired or promoted than fathers and childless women and are perceived as less competent by their employers.
42% of mothers and 15% of fathers in the US leave full-time STEM employment within three years of having children.
Assumptions that mothers are less available because of family responsibilities means they are often excluded from career advancement opportunities like conferences and out-of-office hours meetings.
Social expectations based on gender stereotypes put pressure on women to be primary caregivers and prioritise family over career.
Women carry most of the childcare and housework burden, and this is an enormous disadvantage in male-dominated STEM fields, which have an inflexible work culture that demands long working hours and round-the-clock availability.
Lack of affordable childcare also pushes women into part-time roles or out of STEM employment- again due to internalised social expectations that women should be primary caregivers.
Can women have it all? How to eradicate the motherhood stigma
Career progression divergencies between women and men after childbirth are often explained by differences in personal choice and ‘biology’ – and these motherhood myths conceal the real underlying causes.
A large body of evidence clearly shows that normalised discrimination and subtle bias against women with children, combined with internalised gender stereotypes and an inflexible, family-unfriendly work culture, are the invisible forces putting pressure on women to step back from their career track.
Mothers in Science is a non-profit organisation that aims to advocate for workplace equality in STEM and raise awareness of the barriers preventing women with children from progressing in their STEM careers.
Among other initiatives, we have created an online community where young mothers in STEM can find relatable role models and share their experiences juggling motherhood and a STEM career, and we are conducting a global survey to study the impact of parenthood on scientific productivity and career choices in STEM.