Around the world, girls consistently outperform boys academically at higher secondary levels. In 2019, data from the Joint Council for Qualifications revealed that in the U.K., for the first time, more girls than boys had signed up to take their science A-level examinations. Traditionally, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have been seen as professions better suited for men. But, the trend seems to be shifting towards a better balance.
Over the last few decades, we’ve witnessed a shift of women who are moving into the STEM field. Women were awarded 50.3% of undergraduate degrees in STEM fields in the U.S. in 2010 as compared to 37% in 1980, revealing a gradual climb. Data also indicates that traditionally male-dominated subjects like computer science now have over 45% female students in countries like India.
While a change may be occurring in terms of education, it is not translating into how many women are in related jobs with female workers constituting only 28% of the science and engineering workforce in the United States. Girls in Tech, a study conducted by Mastercard, revealed that 46% of women in STEM believe that men are paid more for performing the same role, while 39% feel that their gender will make it tougher for them to advance in the field.
From prioritizing their family’s needs to sexual harassment and discriminatory hiring practices in the workplace, on International Day of Women and Girls in Science, women share why they moved out of STEM careers.
Tanisha Rao, a 25-year-old Mumbai-based development researcher, wanted to turn her love for nature and conservation into a career so she pursued a bachelor’s in zoology and botany. She told Re:Set that while other science classes had roughly 40% female students, the zoology and botany classes had a majority of women resulting in even male professors joking about how it was “a soft science that was better suited for women.”
“When a woman makes a mistake, it’s immediately seen as an affirmation of [the] misogynistic belief that women can’t cut it in STEM research jobs.”
Rao reflected that during her time on the field, working in small, rural spaces with more men than women proved to be a challenge. She believes that the skewed sex ratio, along with having only male bosses, enabled her male colleagues to create a toxic environment, rampant with sexist remarks and “boys’ club” behaviour. Her male colleagues would openly discuss topics like porn and make plans to go drinking, poking fun at Rao for not joining in. Being excluded from these dynamics meant that opportunities were handed to her male peers, even when she had more experience, she said.
“When a woman makes a mistake, it’s immediately seen as an affirmation of [the] misogynistic belief that women can’t cut it in STEM research jobs,” Rao told Re:Set. She has now chosen to move to the social sector where she works as a developmental researcher, “I’d rather use that energy to work harder at a job that respects my presence and my experiences.”
33-year-old Jeni (name changed to protect her privacy) was always sure she wanted to be in the science field. So she gave both her medical and engineering entrance examinations. She decided on the latter after realizing that pursuing medicine for years could delay her marriage. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in computer science engineering, she worked for seven years in the IT industry before quitting in 2015 because she was pregnant. The lack of good childcare facilities, coupled with the responsibilities of having to care for her aging in-laws contributed to this decision.
“Even though there were fixed timings, we were overworked.”
During her time as a software engineer, she primarily worked in male-dominated workplaces where inflexible rules made it difficult for her to balance her responsibilities at home. “Even though there were fixed timings, we were overworked. I would be exhausted mentally and physically,” Jeni said, adding that her family does not encourage or support her decision to return to work. In a constantly evolving field like engineering, Jeni feels like she is not technically adept to return to the field and wants to continue her education in finance before returning to work full-time. She currently works as a freelance writer.
60-year-old Kamala, who asked us to change her name to protect her privacy, was a bright student and completed her Ph.D. in microbiology. Around 20 years ago, she was offered a competitive job in her area of interest which she turned down because it meant long working hours, intensive travel and prolonged periods away from her young children.
She noted that even the company offering her the job was not very keen on her taking up their offer because it entailed traveling to remote areas and they were concerned about her ability to balance work with her responsibilities at home. She did not push very hard for the job because it involved relocating and disrupting her family’s lives, Kamala told Re:Set. The now Chennai-based editor later shifted gears and started working in the science publishing industry because she felt that working remotely would let her play a bigger role in her children’s lives.
Rao noted that the journey for women in STEM is arduous right from the get-go and problems like sexual harassment in the workplace are just the tip of the iceberg. Research confirms that in the U.S, teachers favour boys in STEM education as early as primary school due to inherent gender biases. In the classroom too, male peers would constantly take jabs at women for having bigger ambitions than them, Rao reflected. “[We reach a workplace], where it should feel like we’ve finally done enough to earn respect and equal opportunities, only to find out that it’s still a boys’ club and we’re still last in line to be picked.”