COVID Has Laid Bare the Inequities That Face Mothers in STEM

COVID Has Laid Bare the Inequities That Face Mothers in STEM
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More women than ever before are earning Ph.D.s and pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), yet they remain largely underrepresented in senior positions—especially women of color and other ethnic minorities. In STEM academia, women receive about half of doctoral degrees, but only a third become full professors. Evidence collected over past decades shows that gender bias partially explains this gender imbalance in STEM, but another contributing factor has received less attention: motherhood.

The bottleneck in the leaky STEM pipeline occurs after women complete their education—for academics, typically a few years after finishing the Ph.D. However, while it seems obvious that this massive exit of women from the STEM workforce coincides with the time when they’re starting a family, motherhood is rarely at the center of discussions or initiatives to close the gender gap in STEM.  

Motherhood has always been the elephant in the room, until now; COVID-19 has laid bare the many inequalities that silently push women away from their career track.  

Lockdowns imposed in many countries to contain the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated systemic barriers that working mothers have been enduring for a very long time. Mothers have been disproportionately affected by this pandemic, with many forced to quit their jobs or reduce working hours to juggle homeschooling and caregiving. In STEM, the pandemic has taken an uneven toll on the scientific productivity and mental health of women scientists.

This unprecedented crisis has unveiled only one side of the story though, albeit an important one: women shoulder most of the childcare and housework burden, which affects their productivity at work. Globally, women spend on average over twice more time than men on childcare and domestic chores, even in households where the woman is the main breadwinner. Academics are no exception. Female scientists, including those in dual-academic couples, do nearly twice as much housework as their partners, even though they also work up to 60 hours a week. The “second shift” is a huge barrier for working mothers, but it is far from being the only one. 

MOTHERHOOD AND CAREER PROGRESSION IN STEM

A recent study showed that 42 percent of mothers and 15 percent of fathers in the U.S. leave full-time STEM employment within three years of having children. And while most of these fathers change career sector and continue employed full-time, mothers move to part-time work or become stay-at-home parents. The situation is even bleaker for academics. Women who have children soon after their Ph.D. are less likely to get tenure than men and suffer a salary penalty. On average, female academics have fewer children than their male counterparts. In the U.S., about half of women in tenure-track positions have children, compared to over 70 percent of men, and twice as many women as men say that “issues related to children” comprise one of the main reasons for not pursuing an academic career after the Ph.D. 

Besides facing many obstacles for being women, mothers encounter a lesser-known but widespread form of gender discrimination: the maternal wall. Mothers earn lower salaries than fathers and childless women, are less likely to be hired or promoted and are perceived as less competent or committed to work. Exclusion is another massive obstacle. Women with children may be removed from projects or even fired during their parental leave, and after returning to work they often report feeling “invisible” or “inadequate” because they’re left out of career advancement opportunities like conferences and networking events.

“I started missing out on opportunities because people were deciding on my behalf that I would not have any time or interest in my career now that I was a parent. They didn’t even let me make the decision for myself.”—Anonymous respondent to the Mothers in Science survey, a 35-year-old mother from the Netherlands

At the root of these inequities is a “breadwinner-homemaker” model based on obsolete gender norms. Women have deeply internalized societal pressures to be the primary caregiver and to prioritize family over career. More recently, the “intensive mothering” trend has increased pressure on women to be “perfect” mothers, while the bar is set much lower for fathers. These unrealistic expectations are incompatible with an inflexible and inhospitable male-dominated academic system designed for the “ideal worker,” someone available around-the-clock. To avoid burnout, or simply because women are socialized to find self-fulfillment in motherhood and marriage, mothers opt to work part-time, move to a career sector that offers more flexibility, or abandon their careers to devote themselves exclusively to the family.

In STEM academia, it’s been proposed that men publish more papers than women, which could explain why women struggle to climb the academic ladder. For example, a study following the careers of over 6,000 scientists estimated that a combination of lower publication rates and gender bias explained why fewer women than men secured principal investigator positions. A few intranational studies have attempted to figure out whether motherhood may be driving gender differences in academic productivity, but there’s still no scientific consensus on this highly debated topic.

Our own preliminary data from an ongoing global survey (Take the survey) support the idea that, after having children, women start publishing at lower rates than men, and this trend persists for several years. Lower productivity resulting from the lack of “extra” time (evening/weekends) to devote to research was one of the main reasons mentioned by mothers in our data set to explain why parenthood negatively affected their career, and the top reason for fathers. (Note that these are unpublished data based on self-report. Number of respondents: 3,522. These preliminary results may change after analysis of the complete data set.)

BREAKING THE WORK-LIFE BALANCE MYTH 

Adding to these barriers, mothers suffer from chronic guilt. Exhausted mothers are constantly being bombarded by simplistic and unhelpful advice on how to find a mythical work-life balance. But self-care can’t magically fix the social inequities that are pushing working mothers to the edge. “Mothers don’t need balance. They need justice,” wrote social scientist Caitlyn Collins. Rather than lingering over futile work-life balance debates, we should focus on raising awareness of the systemic barriers that force women to choose between having a family or a career—and create actionable solutions to dismantle them. 

This is where policy pays a crucial role. Workplace policies signal to employees what’s expected of them, and people adjust their behavior accordingly. For example, if an employer routinely sends out e-mails during out-of-office hours, they’re saying to their employees “you should be available 24/7.” Likewise, if a government implements unequal parental leave policies allowing mothers to take months of paid leave but fathers just a few days, it’s sending the message that women should be at home looking after the children while men should be working. 

These subliminal messages shape people’s moral judgments, actions and choices–and reinforce the “breadwinner-homemaker” model that penalizes working mothers.

Policies that value caregiving and promote gender equality can speed up cultural change. As of 2003, Icelandic mothers and fathers can take three months of paid parental leave each (nontransferable), in addition to three months shared between parents as they wish. In just a few years since this policy was implemented, the average length of paternity leave increased from 14 to 95 days, more women joined the workforce and fewer were working part-time. Organizational policies can be as effective. In fact, a laboratory experiment showed that making a family-friendly law (the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act) explicit during workplace performance evaluations eliminated bias and salary penalties against mothers. 

CREATING LONG-LASTING CHANGE

The invisible forces putting pressure on women to step back from their career path are complex, and include workplace bias and discrimination, lack of affordable childcare, traditional division of household labor, unequal parental leave policies, an inflexible work culture and gendered societal pressures. The good news is that all these problems are fixable!   

Change starts by seeing and acknowledging these barriers, speaking about them and believing that a different, fairer world is possible–one where employers value caregiving and where having a personal life is not incompatible with pursuing a fulfilling career. Enacting and enforcing policies that promote workplace equity and inclusion of mothers and caregivers is fundamental for change and scientific progress.

Speaking out is also necessary. Mothers have remained silent because they feel isolated and fear the consequences of admitting their struggles. Employers see motherhood as a liability, while they’re mostly indifferent to fatherhood. To repair these inequalities and close the gender gap in STEM, we need to normalize caregiving and promote equitable family-friendly policies. Let’s keep the conversation going, amplify the voices of mothers and caregivers, and take action to build a better world. 

To help us do this, please take the survey and share it among your network: www.mothersinscience.com/survey (Deadline: December 31, 2020). The survey is open to people of any gender, with or without children, working or studying any sector of STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine), and at any career stage. Mothers in Science is conducting this survey in partnership with 500 Women Scientists, Femmes & Sciences, Parent in Science, INWES and Washington University St Louis.

Mothers in Science is a non-profit organization created in 2019 to advocate for equity and inclusion of mothers and caregivers in STEM and to raise awareness of their challenges. Sadly, as we prepared to launch an international survey to study the inequalities and careers obstacles affecting mothers in STEM, we were hit by a pandemic that exposed and magnified these deeply rooted problems. We now need to keep the conversation going and take action to create effective, long-lasting solutions to increase the retention of women in STEM careers.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

Isabel Torres

    Isabel Torres, Ph.D., is a science editor/writer, a science communicator and a solo mom of four based in France. Formerly an academic researcher in cell biology, she is passionate about promoting scientific literacy and advocating for women in STEM and gender equality. She is co-founder and CEO of Mothers in Science.

    Ryan Watkins

      Ryan Watkins, Ph.D., is a research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, U.S., where she uses remote sensing data to study surface properties of the moon and Mercury. She is a mother to three-year-old and one-year-old daughters, and is passionate about advocating for the needs of mothers in the workplace. She is research manager at Mothers in Science.

      Martta Liukkonen

        Martta Liukkonen is a Ph.D. candidate in evolutionary ecology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and has previously gained a M.Sc. in ecology and evolutionary biology. She is a solo mom of a six-year-old girl and has experience from development cooperation and working with girls’ and women’s education development. She is a research officer at Mothers in Science.

        Mei Lin Neo

          Mei Lin Neo, Ph.D., is a senior research fellow at the Tropical Marine Science Institute, in Singapore. A marine ecologist by training, Mei Lin is now also a mother of a two-year-old girl. She found Mothers in Science when she was struggling to find support or a listening ear after giving birth, and now she hopes to help other mothers in science. She is social media manager at Mothers in Science.