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Communications of the ACM

ACM Careers

How to Keep Parents From Fleeing STEM Careers


father works at laptop computer as son watches

Credit: Getty Images

It is no secret that working parents in the United States face hardship. Paid family leave is still rare, the cost of childcare is soaring, school hours don't line up with the workday, and dual-income households are more required than ever as wages stagnate and the cost of living surges. Working parents are often trapped in what feels like a catch-22: To afford to be a parent, you've got to work, but most work requires you to act like you're not a parent.

Parents with careers in science, technology, engineering, and medicine are by no means immune from feeling these pressures. Their jobs are often defined by long hours and an "all or nothing" work ethos. Add on top of that the documented challenges for women in these male-dominated fields, and it may come as no shock that being a mom who works in STEM is difficult. A recent study of STEM workers over an eight-year period shows that 43 percent of women will leave their full-time position after having their first child. But the authors were surprised to find that nearly a quarter of men (23 percent) also leave their full-time STEM jobs after their first child is born.

"Men also are encountering these kinds of challenges when they have caregiving responsibilities. So this suggests that the difficulty of childcare responsibilities in a STEM career is not a motherhood problem but is a STEM workforce problem," says Erin Cech, a sociologist at the University of Michigan and the lead author of "The Changing Career Trajectories of New Parents in STEM," published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

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