What Can the Effects of COVID Reveal About Lingering Obstacles to Retention for Women in STEM?

Leanne H. Roulson | AFS President. Email: [email protected]

We are all tired of COVID-19. The shift to virtual work and increased stress from worry about our families, friends, and events affecting people we may not even know has affected everyone. However, it has also uncovered lingering obstacles for women in our workforce. Data on representation of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and other college-dependent degree programs from the early 2000s were encouraging, but the effects of COVID have shown that translating those degrees into lasting careers is still problematic. Women’s attrition is often blamed on the “leaky pipeline” in STEM. This metaphor imagines women and other underrepresented groups slowly dropping out throughout their careers. Cornell University held a webinar in 2021 that used a slightly different metaphor to describe what happens in this transition from degree to career. The speaker asked us to imagine a colander and stated that some outdated career expectations, like a colander, are designed to retain some people and accelerate the loss of others (Cornell University 2021). As professionals in a STEM field, it’s important to examine these expectations and address them.

Pandemic-era data on job loss and rates of return to work for the United States suggest that women’s careers continue to be disrupted by childcare responsibilities more than men’s careers (these data are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics [www.bls.gov] and reflect self-reported parental and gender status. The author acknowledges that the choices provided by the Bureau for self-reporting in 2019 and 2020 do not reflect the full spectrum of gender or parental roles). For parents of children under 5 years of age, 2.9% more female parents and 3.4% more male parents left the workforce in April 2020 compared to 2019 rates (Boesch et al. 2021). However, by November 2020, male parents had largely returned to work (difference of less than 0.8%) while female parents had not (remained at 2.8%; Boesch et al. 2021). This parental demographic underscores childcare needs, since most states do not have public pre-kindergarten. Therefore, children under 5 years require childcare services if parents wish to work. The data cover all levels of education, but even though men and women with 4-year degrees fared better, mothers disproportionately lost jobs and have not returned (Boesch et al. 2021). COVID presents a unique control in these data. Everyone is dealing with the pandemic, so why does the caregiving expectation colander seem to retain men while women pass on through and out of the workforce? I would argue that we need to acknowledge that STEM professionals make assumptions in our job and tenure expectations that either ignore persistent gender roles with respect to parenting and caregiving or make their discussion taboo at work.

I was very fortunate when deciding to have kids. Due to a mystical alignment, there were no less than six children born among my coworkers in about 3 years’ time. Pretty much everyone in my office of eight adults, moms and dads alike, was thinking about childcare. As a result, our office regularly talked about childcare challenges and options. We adapted our work expectations so that if someone was out because of a sick child (or lack of childcare), we adjusted workloads, encouraged working from home, and followed up on projects for each other. This was in no way seamless, but our collaborative solutions reduced stress, and our office functioned better and was more productive. Unfortunately, I am also aware of peers who were not as fortunate. I know of at least two female colleagues who, after having children, were told that they could either meet the full-time field schedule or leave their positions. Others reported being relegated to desk duties after becoming a mother without being involved in the discussion. I also am aware of female researchers who had to choose between publishing and keeping their jobs or parenting and losing their place on a team or tenure track. I personally know many women who left fish and wildlife careers specifically because of childcare responsibilities and a lack of career support. During my address at the AFS Annual Meeting in Baltimore, I talked about how colleagues and clients would noticeably downgrade how they viewed me as a professional if I mentioned I was a mother. I believe it is important to talk openly about my parental role and how it affected my career so these discussions will cease to be viewed as out-of-the-ordinary. My perspective is as a white, cis-gendered, two-parent family mother. My experience had challenges, but it was probably about as easy as most could hope for. However, any person should be able to talk about their family responsibilities at work and how they can adapt their schedule or responsibilities to meet them. I hope my kids will remember their trips in the field and to AFS meetings with me as their mom “being a full person” as described by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (2017) rather than a shortcoming.

COVID has forced pretty much everyone to make adaptations in how they work. As we look at some of the changes the pandemic has required, it is a good time to reflect on how adaptations like split schedules and virtual meetings may actually increase productivity. When COVID practices subside, continuing to provide resources and support during life changes including caregiving is an investment in retaining talent. It is not enough to recruit diverse talent into STEM degree programs. We must continue support efforts as students become professionals. Mentorship, employee resource groups, and support for professional networking, such as membership in AFS, are examples of best practices for employee retention for all underrepresented groups (IWGIS 2021). This column has focused on one inclusion issue I have experienced personally and have seen evolve somewhat over my career. However, the data show we still have a long way to go to overcome several outdated gender-associated obstacles. Perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on how our work has adapted over the past year or two, challenge our assumptions about what personnel should or can do at different life stages, and resolve to establish regular, open conversations on options before assuming individual preferences or capabilities.