Isolation, Hostility and Other Challenges Force Women from STEM Careers

Grit, perseverance, networking can help them thrive, experts say

Aliah D. Wright By Aliah D. Wright October 26, 2017
Isolation, Hostility and Other Challenges Force Women from STEM Careers

​More than half of women who work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) quit their jobs because they feel unsupported and marginalized, according to speakers at the 2017 National Diversity Women's Business Leadership Conference held recently at National Harbor, Md.

There are 6 million open technology jobs in the United States—2 million of them in cybersecurity, said Edie Fraser, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based consultancy STEMconnector.

"The opportunities are tremendous. The challenges are real. The need is great," Pamela McCauley, Ph.D., professor and director of the Ergonomics Lab at the University of Central Florida, told attendees.

Yet when they are in those jobs, "women feel frustrated, isolated and alone," McCauley said. That's why "56 percent of women in [STEM] fields quit their jobs" at the midway point (10-20 years) of their careers, she said, citing statistics from researchers at the Center for Talent Innovation in New York City.

McCauley said women leave the tech industry because of "workplace hostility, a sense of isolation, and a disconnect between [their] preferred work rhythms, extreme work schedules and challenges balancing family responsibilities." 

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Staffing Technology Professionals]

Although women hold 57 percent of all professional jobs, they hold only 26 percent of all computing jobs, according to figures from the National Center for Women & Information Technology. What's more, less than 10 percent of those jobs are held by women of color.

Female leaders in male-founded tech companies are more likely to be in charge of HR, rather than operational or technology departments, as SHRM Online reported recently.

Women can take matters into their own hands by networking among their peers at companies nationwide, finding both male and female mentors within their organizations, and solving problems within their businesses or pointing out how their skills can improve the bottom line.

"The answer is personal career innovation," McCauley said. "We have resources, networks, relationships" that can be tapped into. "Corporations are more receptive to you doing your career in an innovative way if you can add to the bottom line." Once you do, "you can have a lot more conversations" about settling into a leadership role, she added.

Mentoring others so they can improve helps diversity, too.

That's what Rebecca Garcia has done. The former program manager at Microsoft is co-founder of CoderDojo NYC and founder of a site that encourages girls to code, GeekGirlWeb

CoderDojo NYC is a nonprofit that teaches children ages 7-17 how to program computers. There are 100 chapters in 70 countries.

A self-taught developer who does not hold a STEM degree, she said women must advocate for themselves.

"I wasn't waiting for a specific degree … or for a certification" to move ahead, she said. "I bootstrapped … my initiatives from the ground up. Don't wait."

One of the initiatives she worked on through Microsoft helped train others without college degrees to improve their standard of living.

"We managed a program for underserved people in New York City. We were able to have them go from earning $20,000 to $30,000 [annually] to $50,000 to $60,000 with just four months of training."

Surprisingly, she said, "it wasn't the technical training that was important. It wasn't the people with the tech savvy who did really well. It was the people who had the most grit, the most perseverance, those who were willing to adapt."

Women need to apply those same principles, she said.


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SHRM's Employee Engagement Survey service focuses on more than 50 aspects of job satisfaction and engagement commonly linked to performance.

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