Flexible schedule for mothers working in STEM fields — Friend or Foe?

by Marine Da Silva, Business Development Associate, MITACS

Marine Da Silva

Working in the STEM field is quite a challenge for women.

It is well documented that women are underrepresented in the STEM field. Data from Statistics Canada (2016)showed that only 28 percent of workers aged 25 to 64 in scientific occupations are women and that women accounted for just 30 percent of research chairs at universities.

Moreover, a recent study revealed that funding is less likely to be awarded to female health scientists if those rewarding the grants know who is the lead scientist. Women are also more likely to leave their roles in the STEM field, as they may not feel as valued as men. Finally, according to the National Household Survey(NHS), women that graduated in STEM have a higher unemployment rate and a lower wage compared to men. However, another understudied but central mechanism contributing to the underrepresentation of women in STEM employment may be parenthood.

Having children often represents a big change in a woman’s life. As it can be challenging to balance parenthood with a successful professional career, many mothers choose to quit their career and head home. This is particularly the case for women working in STEM fields. The statistics are troubling: According to a US study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 43 percent of new mothers leave full-time STEM employment after having children. Parenthood is not just a “mother’s problem”; as 23 percent of new fathers also leave STEM after their first child. The difficulty of combining STEM work with caregiving responsibilities is often cited as a reason for leaving. In addition, many mothers feel pushed out of professional careers by the lack of flexibility in workplaces and by colleagues’ and bosses’ presumptions that mothers are less committed to their work after having children.

Being allowed to partially work from home and offering a flexible schedule are solutions that help mothers maintain a good work-life balance, at least in theory. In practice, many mothers are working in the evenings and during the weekend, because they feel guilty about not having worked hard enough during the week. Which begs the question: are flexible schedule and telecommuting really compatible with a successful STEM career for working mums?

A study from the University of Kent has found that flexible schedules cause part-time working mothers to work longer without pay. In another study, the same authors reported that more than half of mothers who have worked part-time believe that it has had a negative impact on their career progression. Moreover, there can be a negative association with asking for work flexibility since it is seen as someone not wanting to work as hard, especially for women in STEM field. Furthermore, there may be a gender bias when it comes to asking for work flexibility. Christin Munsch, a sociology professor at Furman University, did a survey of almost 700 people regarding work flexibility and the underlying stigmas attached to it. Munsch found that men who requested flex twice a week were deemed to be more committed to their work, more promotable, and more likeable than their female colleagues who also asked for work flexibility.

In the STEM field, there are still strong cultural expectations of intensive hours and that the scientific experiment matters more than anything else, including family. Although there is a drive to get more young girls and women interested in STEM careers, we also must get rid of stigmas around work flexibility and cultural beliefs in the STEM fields, to allow women to choose a STEM career. Indeed, 21st-century workplaces already understood that; as more and more new start-ups now offer perks such as work flexibility, unlimited vacation, and on-site daycare, especially in the Mathematics, Computer Science and Physical Sciences fields.