Happy International Women and Girls in Science Day!

I bet you didn’t know that today, February 11, is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Neither did I, until my daughter (a scientist) told me about it.

While women make up about 50% of the population, we don’t make up 50% of the STEM workforce (science, technology, engineering, and math), and that has everything to do with the lack of support working parents receive in the US. This isn’t a gender issue – men are, after all, parents, too. Or is it?

In other parts of the world, women and girls continue to be excluded from science-related careers through lack of educational opportunities, cultural biases, and outright discrimination.

In the US, the situation is a different. Women here receive more than half of the undergraduate degrees in science. (They earn 43.6 percent of the master’s degrees and 44 percent of PhDs.) However, after they are employed in STEM jobs, more women leave their jobs than men do. That means women don’t advance as quickly (if at all), and so there are few women are in senior or leadership positions in the STEM workforce.

While the reasons for this are complex, let’s focus on one important aspect: balancing career and family. Women working in science careers identify the need to balance career and family as one of the key barriers to career advancement. In the STEM field, like in the workforce overall, women with children under age 18 were about three times as likely as fathers to say that being a working parent made it harder for them to advance in their job or career (51% vs. 16%).

The solution to this problem is pretty clear, but somehow we just never seem to get there: support for working parents in the form of paid family leave, accessible and affordable childcare, and a cultural shift so that men accept family responsibilities on equal footing with women. This would give women a chance to focus on both their careers and their families, just like men do now.

You have to wonder why developing policies to support working parents remains elusive, year after year. Maybe it’s because we still don’t have enough women in decision-making positions to force the issue. I just don’t understand, though, why men aren’t as invested in supporting working parents as women are. So, maybe it is a gender issue after all.

Alison Webb

About Alison Webb

Alison Webb is a public health consultant with over 20 years experience in community outreach, grassroots organizing, implementing and evaluating evidence-based programs, and advocating for healthy policies at the Maine State Legislature. Alison is especially interested in what science tells us about promoting health and wellness and how we can apply that to live well in Maine. The blog describes recent public health research and give readers insights into how to use that knowledge to lead healthy lives.