STEM and the ‘leaky pipeline’ syndrome

Growing up in India, I always had a fascination with science and technology. My father, a physicist, taught me to appreciate the awe and wonder of science. He instilled in me a belief that science and technology would transform India and lead to progress in society. Today, as I witness how technology is transforming lives in India, I can’t help but reflect on the continued lack of representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, especially in leadership positions. Obviously, this trend is not limited to Indian or South Asian women alone. Even though an increasing number of women are entering STEM careers, almost as many women are leaving STEM careers[MOU1] . Why? What is at the root of this “leaky pipeline”  syndrome? 

As Patricia Fara, president of the British Society for the History of Science and a fellow at Clare College, Cambridge, U.K., writes in an NPR opinion column. “Today, the greatest single obstacle preventing talented, qualified women from obtaining top positions is the cost of bringing up a family.” Fara mentions a 2018 U.K. study that found retention rates were much better at universities with generous maternity leave programs. Time and again, studies have shown that the ability to have [MOU2] flexible work environments and generous maternity — and paternity — leave policies helps stem the tide of the leaky pipeline by simply alleviating the pressure of choosing between family and work responsibilities. These types of policies, combined with on-site child care, have helped many companies gain high, and in some cases, even 100% retention rates for mothers.

Nilanjana Dasgupta and Jane Stout conducted a more in-depth study of the leaky pipeline and found that gender gap issues in STEM fields are improving, but even as the pipeline is getting filled with more women, leaks develop in the pipeline throughout the stages of a woman’s educational development. It can start in early childhood, with stereotypes of science as a male-dominated field; and then, as young children, peer pressure and other influences play a role in reinforcing stereotypes about STEM. Later, as young adults, they may experience a lack of “belonging,” the study authors say, and in the case of STEM, this can be further reinforced by the lack of female role models and mentors in STEM. Finally, at the professional stages, they may face gender bias in hiring, promotion and pay, all of which lead to women leaving the STEM fields.

So, why does it matter? It matters because our future growth, competitiveness, health and progress as a society depend on scientific and technological advances, and so ensuring an adequate supply of STEM talent and women among that STEM talent is critical. If we are to meet the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, then a robust pipeline of STEM talent will be key, and achieving gender parity will be a game changer.