What Energy Professionals Need to Know About the STEM Gender Crisis

Written by:

Jen Simpson

Career path advancement has always been an issue for women. McKinsey pointed the finger at the “broken rung” last fall and, in the energy sector, it’s been referred to as the “leaky pipeline.” Women drop off at every stage, and attrition rates are much deeper than anyone is willing to admit. Suffice it to say, if you’re a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), particularly in energy, you’ve defied the odds, and if your company has equal gender representation, it’s more or less a unicorn.

Statistically, though, chances of you working for or operating one of these unicorn companies is slim-to-none, which is a shame because that means your company is less productive, struggles with employee motivation and retention, plus is less innovative. That’s the business case, of course. The human element—doing the right thing—matters too.

But, to understand where the sector, and STEM professions specifically, are going so horribly awry, we have to start at the beginning.

Girls Love STEM

The drive to get more girls interested in STEM begins early, and for a good reason. Research consistently demonstrates there are no disparities in gender representation within high-level mathematics courses during early schooling. However, what’s perhaps more interesting is that girls often outnumber boys in science classes. Black girls, for example, outnumber boys in advanced science classes (18% versus 9%). Female students, in general, outnumber boys in advanced biology classes too (13% versus 10%), and although girls are slightly less likely to enroll in advanced physics, they’re not far behind.

But Women Don’t Choose STEM Majors

Clearly, the talent exists at an early age, but when focal points for education are hammered out, girls start shifting away. For example, males dominate advanced computer science programs (77% vs 23%) and engineering (21% versus 8%).

Female STEM Majors Switch Programs More Than Male STEM Majors Too

Researchers find that receiving negative feedback or poor grades increases the odds that a person will change majors. That’s probably no surprise and explains why men and women tend to abandon their major at equal rates when they hit these issues. That is, unless they’re STEM majors, an area in which 60% of those departing under these circumstances are female. To be clear, this isn’t seen in any other male-dominated field; only STEM.

Experts think it comes down to stigma. Girls learn STEM is for boys and men. Many pursue STEM anyway, but when they reach a second barrier, be it a dropping GPA or harsh words from a professor, it solidifies the message they don’t belong.

Gender Representation is Lacking in STEM Careers

Women account for 47% of the workforce but comprise just 43% of chemists and materials scientists. Less than 16% of engineers are female, and within certain groups, such as chemical engineers (14%) and electrical engineers (12%), representation is utterly dismal. For industries like oil and gas, where the entire female workforce makes up just 22% of all employees, representation dwindles further. Nearly half of those women are working in administrative positions, which is commendable but doesn’t address the disparities in STEM.

Half of All Women Leave STEM Careers within a Decade

Of the few women who defy the odds and eventually make it into STEM careers, half will be gone within a decade. The vast majority will continue working but will select an alternate field.

Parenthood Sends STEM Professionals Packing

A recent study found that men and women leave STEM careers at alarming rates following the birth or adoption of their first child. For men, it’s roughly 23%. For women, it’s 43%. Considering that 90% of people become parents at some point, it’s a major issue. However, women don’t simply up and leave out of lack of commitment. Quite the opposite. Researchers tie it back to four pain points:

  • Lack of workplace flexibility
  • Presumptions from colleagues and bosses that mothers are less committed to their work
  • Stereotypes that mothers are less competent than childless women and men
  • Salary penalties and career barriers despite maintaining dedication and contributions

Unnecessary Barriers Are a Huge Issue Too

Research examining engineers specifically found that men and women take issue with the same aspects of their careers—lack of work/ life balance among the top—but women come up against challenges their male peers don’t. The disparities become the proverbial straws that break the camel’s back.

“Women are not interested in being painted as victims,” says Beth A. Michaels, who worked with the Society of Women Engineers on a study exploring why women leave the field.

“That's why accountability is so resonant. It's saying, ‘You do your part and I'll do my part. And if you're not going to do your part, then I will fight the good fight for only so long, and then I'm going to go somewhere else.’”

Their research found that needs related to comfort (activity, independence, variety, compensation, security, and working conditions) dominated the list of issues female engineers cited as reasons for leaving the field. Safety, being able to use their abilities, and ability to advance or gain recognition round out the top four.

A Change is Underway

These concerns are universal and there’s a whole lot in the works to address them. Here at Pink Petro, our members unite in a peer network, offering help and support. Our corporate members, as part of their commitment to diversity, work through the Global Community Council (GCC) to get to the heart of the issue, identify ways to shift, share best practices, and enact change. The Energy Workforce of the Future is a part of this, with 78 companies and 10 leading affinity groups coming together to establish four concerns hampering energy workforce diversity today and exploring how to address them in the coming months.

Be Part of the Shift

On February 20, 2020, our monthly Coach’s Corner session will be addressing how people can get back into energy after time away. We’ll have experts on both sides with best practices from company leaders who are actively eliminating obstacles and breaking down the barriers through returnship programs as well as those who help individuals carve their own returnship paths. Details will be added to our events calendar soon, so save the date.

You can also become a Pink Petro member as a company or an individual to support this important work and tap into community resources.

Feature image credit: Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels.

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