Women who aspired to STEM careers in high school: starting a family and pursuing a STEM career

Year: 2019

Author: Toh, Li, Li

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Gendered participation in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields remains problematic, given the consequences that can follow, such as insufficient workers in STEM fields, inequitable wages and hostile work climates for women. Girls who aspire into STEM careers can find themselves confronted with competing priorities such as starting a family, which may negatively impact their career.

Longitudinal studies linking career aspirations to actual careers are rare. This study will use long-term longitudinal data to investigate how earlier STEM aspirations may be achieved or unfulfilled, in relation to the desire to start a family and family obligations.

The Study of Transitions and Education Pathways (STEPS; Watt, 2004) followed 1,323 participants during secondary school, who were in grades 9/10/11 in 1998. A follow-up online survey was conducted when participants were on average 33.35 years of age (SD = 6.90), during 2015-2019.

150 of the retained participants, who had aspired to mathematically-based careers in 1998 (59 women), were the focus of this study. Actual career outcomes were considered within three groups: low, moderate and highly mathematical careers, according to the O*NETTM 2018: The Occupational Information Network.

The study found that women who had ‘opted out’ from their high school math career occupations were more likely to have children than women in higher math-related occupations. The effect was reversed for men, where men in low math-related occupations at follow-up were less likely to have children than men in higher math-related occupations.

Second, women rated having children as more important than men, and women’s ratings decreased as career math-relatedness increased.

Third, more women who took time off work or study to raise their children were in low math occupations (100%); high proportions still took time off work in moderate (92.3%) and high math careers (88.9%).

Lastly, ANOVA revealed a significant effect of gender on perceptions of how much participants believed a child would affect their career or educational advancement: women perceived having a child would slow down their career to a much greater extent than men - who were close to neutral on the scale.

Findings highlight the centrality of family obligations to women’s career choice pathways. The longitudinal data contributes to research by looking at how life factors after high school can alter their previously chosen career pathways. Further research could investigate more nuanced factors such as life events and reaching personal milestones outside of career-related goals.