Young women are studying science, engineering and technology in record numbers. They're excelling in school and outperforming men in the early years of their careers.
But more than half of women - 52 per cent - quit their private-sector jobs in science, engineering and technology, according to a survey of 2,800 women published in the June issue of the Harvard Business Review.
The dropouts aren't disillusioned young women: They're mostly between the ages of 35 and 40.
As the world faces a growing shortage of individuals in these professions - 42 per cent of Canadian manufacturers are struggling with a dearth of scientists, engineers and computer scientists, according to Statistics Canada - the survey's authors say companies should worry less about importing foreign labour and more about holding onto qualified women.
"I've seen many people come and go. It's a big problem," says Karen Webb, an Ontario engineer who is now a vice-president at an insurance company. While she still uses her degree, she says she's found more opportunities in non-engineering fields; she adds she doesn't miss the isolation and subtle sexism she encountered when she was working in construction. Contractors would inundate her - the lone female engineer - with unnecessary change requests and otherwise try to test her.
"Things are getting better, but very slowly," says Ms. Webb, 49, who attended a conference in Guelph, Ont., late last month for Canadian women in sciences, engineering, trades and technology. "I'm shocked to hear from the young engineers and tradespeople here how much of a barrier there is. It's surprising it's still quite that bad."
The new survey, The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology, attributes this female exodus to a wearying atmosphere of sexism in the sciences, along with extreme hours and family responsibilities that tend to ramp up for women around age 35.
In the study, researchers at the Center for Work-Life Policy, a non-profit research organization based in New York, describe the experience of Josephine, a high-tech "hot shot" whose boss once nicknamed her Finn. She found e-mails addressed to Finn were entirely different, and more useful, than the mail she received as Josephine. Some were stupid locker-room jokes, but others contained vital information, from gossip about who was on the outs with the CEO to intelligence on where new investments would be made.
One of the most poignant aspects of the survey is the finding that women in science, engineering and technology are generally happy: 88 per cent of women in science, 75 per cent in engineering and 71 per cent in technology report that they love their work. And they go into the fields for different reasons than men: A majority of women and a minority of men say the ability to contribute to the well-being of society is important to them.
Young women also outperform men in science, engineering and technology jobs: 75 per cent of women aged 25 to 29 are rated superb, excellent or outstanding in their performance reviews, the study says, compared with only 61 per cent of men in the same age range.
But by the time these women reach their late 30s, the shine has started to dull. The report identified five major factors that drive women away: hostile, macho workplace cultures; isolation; mysterious career paths; extreme work pressures, and a culture that rewards risk-taking and last-minute saves over preventing problems.
At the same time, the study says, women disproportionately shoulder family responsibilities. At 35, many women are either having their first child or adding a second child to the family. They are also more likely than men to be the primary caregiver for aging parents.
Women in almost every profession feel the same push-pull forces, but researchers say that in sciences, engineering and technology, the problems are much more intense. For example, technology workers put in a 73-hour week - and that's just the average, says Laura Sherbin, co-author of The Athena Factor. The study found that 63 per cent of women surveyed had been victims of sexual harassment on the job.
"The workplace culture is like a time warp," says Dr. Sherbin, director of research at the Center for Work-Life Policy. "It's 20 to 30 years behind other workplaces."
A significant number of men - 40 per cent - also leave private-sector jobs in science, technology and engineering. But Dr. Sherbin notes that 68 per cent of men who quit stay in the field, either starting up their own company or going into government work, while half of female dropouts leave the field altogether.
Valerie Davidson, a professor of biological engineering at the University of Guelph who helped organize last month's conference, says she's had a great career.
But it was almost nipped in the bud by a high-school counsellor who told her: "Girls don't do that" (engineering).
Later, when she was working in manufacturing, she encountered a "classic bully type" who liked to make comments about how she could keep the factory tidy, she says. He seemed particularly bothered by the fact that she was a woman and had a PhD.
She got her revenge when she performed a test in the factory that he predicted would fail. It did, but Dr. Davidson analyzed the situation and realized a piece of equipment was rotating backward.
"It's not my test, it's your equipment," she told him calmly, and proceeded to fix the problem. "I had to hide my smile," she says.
Good reviews, but a good chance she'll quit
A recent study examined the careers of women with science, engineering and technology (SET) credentials in the private corporate sector. It was found that while young women regularly receive outstanding performance reviews, their drop-out rate is huge due to male-driven factors such as hostile work environments and extreme job pressure.
PERCENTAGE OF YOUNG SET EMPLOYEES (AGE 25-29) WITH ABOVE AVERAGE PERFORMANCE REVIEWS
PERCENTAGE WHO QUIT
TRISH McALASTER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL/SOURCE: HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW.WORKLIFEPOLICY.ORG