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Paid Family Leave Can Strengthen the STEM Field by Strengthening the STEM Workforce

As the Senate considers the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act Of 2021, we want to highlight a critically important but little noticed provision addressing the challenge of work/life balance faced by the STEM workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted a pre-existing weakness in today’s economy, namely the difficulty working parents, particularly women, have in managing professional and family life. Even before the pandemic, this predicament had been particularly troublesome in the professional field STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), where women have been historically underrepresented.

The provision in the legislation requires the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and relevant federal agencies to issue guidance that prohibits discrimination in the awarding and administering of research grants due to an applicant having a newborn child, newly adopted child, or caregiving responsibilities for an immediate family member with a severe illness. The legislation further requires that such grants be flexible to accommodate for caregiving needs, including extensions and supplemental funding as necessary. In other words, a researcher cannot be discriminated against for taking family leave.

As STEM businesses and policymakers seek answers to grow and strengthen the STEM workforce, consider this: A report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) notes that among new mothers working in STEM, over 4 in 10 leave full-time employment after having their first child, nearly double the rate of new fathers. The authors note:

Even mothers who remain in the professional workforce full-time encounter stereotypes painting them as less competent than equally qualified men and childless women (33), and face salary penalties and career barriers even while contributing the same dedicated work (34–36). In addition, unlike most working fathers, many professional working mothers confront dominant cultural expectations that their children deserve their single-minded devotion—devotion presumed to be incompatible with the work dedication expected of professionals (37). As such, what may appear as professional women’s unconstrained personal choice to leave their careers to care for family is often the outcome of overdetermined, socially patterned expectations that constrain mothers more frequently than fathers (32, 38, 39).

The report also adds:

Importantly, our results also show that parenthood in STEM is not solely a “mother’s issue.” Both new mothers and new fathers are significantly more likely to leave full-time STEM work than their similar childless peers. Seventy percent of new mothers and 95% of new fathers continued working full-time in 2010, yet a sizeable proportion of these new parents left STEM for a full-time job elsewhere. This suggests that it is not necessarily full-time work per se, but full-time work in STEM fields particularly, that is difficult for new parents to combine with childcare responsibilities.

Of course, the solution is not to encourage STEM professionals to avoid parenthood altogether or to advise young adults with family plans to avoid STEM careers. Rather, the concerning levels of attrition of new fathers and mothers mandates the need for legislative, organizational, and cultural changes.

This is solid advice, and consistent with a recent Morning Consult -BPC poll that found strong evidence that paid family leave benefits can make the U.S. workforce both larger and more durable. Further, it has been found that paid leave policies reduced the departure of female employees by 20% in the first year after childbirth and up to 50% after 5 years in states that have implemented paid family leave policies.

The troubles facing women in the STEM workforce is systemic, however, and stretches so far and in so many directions that it is not difficult to see the uphill battle women face and why they are so underrepresented in the field. A 2020 article published in MIT’s Science and Policy Review, titled ‘Reducing gender bias in STEM’, notes that the structural design of the STEM field extends all the way into access to STEM research grants:

In STEM, gender discrimination is just as rampant. Grant eligibility is often determined from years since receiving a PhD degree, but that grant schedule rarely accounts for time off on maternity leave [43]. Pregnant graduate students and postdocs often face blatant discrimination from their professors, who hold the power to cut funding and jobs if having a child is viewed as “slacking off” [44]. While universities have Title IX offices to protect the victim in such cases, these university offices and programs can only go so far if those in power do not interpret such actions as discrimination.

The anti-discrimination language in the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act could have an effect beyond STEM research grantees in that it would send a message to the entire STEM community (and those considering careers in STEM) that this form of discrimination is no longer acceptable. We can hope that the current conversation and provisions such as this will empower women to stay in STEM careers and allow all of us, including the industry, to reap the benefits.

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