Women are leaving STEM in droves. We should talk about why.

In between semesters at Carnegie Mellon University, engineering student Heather Thompson took a summer position in the algorithm department of an aerospace engineering firm. She was thrilled to be there; she’d spent the previous summer enduring comments about her hair and being called “sweetheart” by factory workers during her internship at an aluminum processing plant in rural Indiana, so the idea of working in an office environment appealed to her. Unfortunately, the sexist comments seemed to follow her no matter where she went — in one of the examples she shared with me, a male supervisor told her she was popular around the office, but he “wasn’t allowed to talk about why.”

After a summer of hard work, Thompson sat across a table from that same supervisor for a review, which, again, did not go as expected.

“He basically told me I don’t have it in me to work in this field and that he thought I would make a good pencil pusher,” she says.

Disillusioned, Thompson took a job in business consulting after she graduated with her Bachelor of Science in Engineering, effectively leaving the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) field before she could even get started.


Women quit jobs in tech at twice the rate that men do.


Thompson isn’t alone — far from it. It’s estimated that 40 percent of women who study engineering either leave the field or never enter it at all, and women quit jobs in tech at twice the rate that men do.

We hear all the time that there are so few women in STEM fields because, as children, girls are socialized to lean toward the arts and softer sciences, while boys are encouraged to study science and math. I experienced this dichotomy in my own life: Halfway through earning my journalism degree, I was surprised (like, genuinely surprised) to discover that I was good at math and had an affinity for stats and economics. Throughout high school I had barely scraped by to meet minimum math requirements, and it had literally never occurred to me that I could do any better.

From coding camps for girls to toys like Goldieblox, we’re seeing a surge of programs meant to bolster female interest in STEM from a young age and expand the pipeline from school to the field. This is amazing, and anything we can do to encourage young girls to explore the full range of their skills and abilities earns my enthusiastic support. But what if the pipeline isn’t the problem? What if, after arriving, it’s just too unbearable for women to stay in the water?


What if the pipeline isn’t the problem? What if, after arriving, it’s just too unbearable for women to stay in the water?


“At CMU, my class was made up of 40 percent or 50 percent women, but in real life, that just didn’t translate.” Thomspon says. “I just didn’t love the work enough to tolerate all of those microagressions.”

Bethanye Blount, Co-founder and CEO of Silicon Valley tech company Cathy Labs, told The Atlantic she’s spent a quarter century navigating sexist slights, harassing behavior, and awkward silences when she approaches a group of male coworkers. Decades later, Blount says she still has to warn younger women to keep their drinks covered at tech conferences, which are “breeding grounds for unwanted sexual advances and assaults.”

“I am angry that things are no better for a 22-year-old at the beginning of her career than they were for me 25 years ago when I was just starting out,” she said.

In a study aptly titled “The Elephant in the Valley,” researchers polled more than 200 women in top positions at Silicon Valley tech firms. Nearly all of them reported sexist interactions — in fact, 87 percent received demeaning comments from male colleagues, 84 percent were told they were too aggressive, and 90 percent witnessed sexist or abusive behavior at industry events. Beyond the demeaning comments and critiques are the 60 percent of women in tech who have received unwanted sexual advances from coworkers or superiors, with one in three (one in three!) women having felt afraid for their personal safety in a work environment.

There are a dizzying number of factors forcing American women in all professions out of the workforce: Problems such as no paid maternity leave and the still-there-even-though-its-2017 wage gap are just the tip of the iceberg. Funnily enough, tech and other STEM-related companies are typically at the forefront of challenging these sexist social norms, from offering accommodating benefits for working mothers to enacting salary transparency policies.


Climbing ladders loses its appeal if you’re forced to dodge sexism and harassment the whole way up.


Even with a wave of benefits meant to make the workplace more accessible and equitable for women, we’re still leaving STEM in droves. Climbing ladders loses its appeal if you’re forced to dodge sexism and harassment the whole way up. So what do we do about it?


Push for better training.


“We need better training about microaggressions in the workplace,” Thompson suggested. She recalled the day when, while working at the aerospace engineering firm, the company gathered for a mandatory training on sexual harassment. During the presentation, a disconcerting percentage of male participants failed to even recognize various harassment scenarios as inappropriate.

“The presenter was reading off scenarios like, say, a boss telling his female employee not to drink too much at a company party, or else she’ll start dancing on tables. It was clearly harassment, but so many men in the room just said ‘no, that’s just him looking out for her.’ They clearly aren’t getting it,” she said.


Call out harassment.


The idea that many men — and women — are raised to believe certain forms of harassment “aren’t that bad” is not a new one. David Schwimmer produced a series of videos for Cosmopolitan last month called #ThatsHarassment to shine light on the everyday behaviors women are forced to endure in their personal and professional lives.

It’s not easy to address the situation when a coworker or boss is using harassing behavior, but we have to start somewhere. If someone makes an off-hand sexist comment or uses a less-than-appropriate pet name, politely correct them and don’t hesitate to do it. Be sure to call it out if you see it happening to someone else, as well.


Support the women at your work.


If you’re a woman working or planning to work in STEM, it’s more important than ever to support your female-identifying coworkers. Shine Theory has taught us that the successes of other women don’t inhibit our own goals, but rather elevates them. Team up with the women you work with to adopt amplification strategies, so your ideas aren’t suppressed (or stolen) at work. Believe other women who report instances of harassment or discrimination. Putting conscious effort into making the workplace inviting and enjoyable for the other women around you is a solid way for it to become so for you, too.


Cultural norms shouldn’t stifle your career


I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t know how we will fix this enormous problem. I don’t know how to get companies to implement sexual harassment training that actually works, other than by writing articles like this one so that more people read and talk about it and can demand better of their employers.

All I know is that STEM needs women.


Support the women in your life so they feel less alone pursuing careers in which they are the minority.


So that’s what I’ll do — talk about it. Refuse to be silent about the way I and the women I know are treated in the workplace. Support the women in my life so they feel less alone pursuing careers in which they are the minority.

Are you a woman working in STEM, and have you experienced instances of discrimination or harassment at work? Share your stories and start a discussion in the comments!