Forecasting the Changing Environment of STEM

Dr. Melanie Polkosky

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Women in STEM are barometers.

On the surface, it's a quirky comparison that, admittedly, came as I was writing my recent book. I get sudden jolts of lightning every now and then, so I casually flipped it into the margin of my page and scribbled on. I was far too deep in my train of thought to have it derailed at that particular moment.

Barometers.... barometers. The thought wouldn't let me go. It insisted on dancing around my brain in a chaotic rumba with other thoughts about who we are and why we matter.

I'm a woman in STEM, specifically technology. I left my corporate role. Does this fact really matter beyond... me?

When I came back to it, the startling idea that women - particularly high-achieving, highly educated over-40 professionals - are predicting the future of work began to make a lot of sense. Informally, we've known for a long time that high achieving women don't stay in corporate roles. What we haven't been able to see is what this knowledge predicts.

Women in STEM are barometers.

Barometers measure atmospheric pressure. It's a seemingly simple device - a narrow tube filled with liquid that rises or lowers based on pressure - and it predicts hurricanes as deftly as cloudless sunny skies. However, weather is the result of atmospheric pressure in context. A low pressure trough creates instability in an environment of high pressure.

In STEM, women are an underrepresented minority in an environment of masculine workplace values and behaviors. The match between women and their STEM environments is unstable, more than other industries. As barometers, the message we're sending is that change is in the forecast.

In her provocative book Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg pointed out that 43% of highly qualified women leave their careers for at least some temporary period. But in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), the numbers are more dramatic: over 52% of women leave these fields by their late thirties. Unfortunately, they are less likely to return than in other industries.

What accounts for the larger number of women opting out of STEM?

According to 2008 study The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology, this female brain drain is due to hostile and intolerable work cultures. STEM cultures are characterized by extreme job pressures, such as expectations that employees are available around the clock, work over fifty hours weekly, collaborate with or manage individuals in multiple time zones and put in required, extensive face time. Women in all STEM environments report sexual harassment, unwanted attention to their appearance and a pervasive attitude they are less capable. They report isolation, an unclear career path and few role models, mentors or sponsors.

These findings were confirmed by a second Athena study in 2013, as well as previous research from the Anita Borg Institute and Society for Women Engineers.

At the 2014 annual conference of the American Psychological Association, Distinguished Professor Dr. Nadya Fouad of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee presented results of a three year study of over 5300 female engineers. Her research compared women who stayed in their fields (persisters) and those who left (non-persisters). Fouad found the self-confidence, career outcomes and types of barriers both groups encountered were similar. Instead, persisters and non-persisters differed only in the support they perceived from their manager, training and development opportunities and satisfaction with and commitment to their jobs. She found that women who thought about leaving were responding primarily to climate issues: they perceived a variety of undermining behaviors and incivility at work, inflexible employment policies (excessive face time, taking work home on weekends, long hours) and a lack of advancement opportunities.

But what's all this data telling us, really?

I'd argue that the female brain drain in STEM is a strong predictor of shifting values in the American workforce. As we become more highly educated and our jobs become more cognitively taxing, old paradigms from the manufacturing age no longer apply. The most dramatic mismatch between old mindsets about work and modern employment needs occurs for women in STEM. It's there that workplace beliefs from the past meet our most intelligent, innovative and flexible female thinkers.

We're at an inflection point. As some of the most productive and innovative professionals in the workforce, STEM women have a choice: are we going to march fearlessly toward the future or shrink away from defining the life and career we truly desire?

The future of work for everyone depends on how we choose to direct our energy. How will you use yours?

Dr. Melanie Polkosky is a social-cognitive psychologist, energy leadership coach and author of Uncovering Truffles: The Scarcity and Value of Women in STEM. Her WITI webinar Women as Barometers of a Healthy Workplace: Overcoming Stereotypes in STEM will be held on Thursday, October 22, 2015 12-1pm PT (3-4pm ET).

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