For Women in STEM, Motherhood Can Be The Boogeyman

Photo Courtesy of ThisIsEngineering

Eric Kwon

Science & Technology Editor

Gender inequality in the workforce has been a continuous issue, from issues like unequal wages, differing work expectations, and discrimination in hiring processes, among others. The gender distribution in other fields are more balanced, as opposed to the stark difference that is the science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) field. A study conducted by Sarah Thébaud and Catherine Taylor, both UC Santa Barbara (UCSB) associate sociology professors, offers insight into the intricacies of how the gender inequality problem within the workforce and academia is more than a ratio.

Describing the phenomena as “the specter of motherhood,” the researchers propose that gendered expectations of parenthood create significant and perhaps not obvious methods of discrimination. 

Though the researchers conducted this study with women and men that were PhD students and postdoctoral scholars, their results of parental expectations may be present in undergraduate academic environments like UCSB. In UCSB’s engineering department, only 19 percent of graduates were women, though women make up over half of the student population, at 54.8 percent. It is clear that gender inequality in STEM extends beyond just the workforce.

However, there may be more components to the problem of encouraging women to join STEM and retain them in the field. The UCSB study highlights some arguments in which this inequality exists.  

Notably, the described “specter of motherhood” seems to pervade every aspect of these women’s lives. Though women, similar to men, can have children and work simultaneously, the expectations that come with motherhood can bear significant weight that interferes with how women are treated in these fields. 

The study describes how the very idea of motherhood can lead to discrimination against women, even when these women do not have children. Mothers are culturally seen as domestic caregivers, which clashes with the traditional idea of professionalism: a man that only intensely cares for his career. Thus, women have to choose between a double-edged sword — either become a mother and be questioned about their competency and commitment, or choose not to be a mother and be seen as cold and callous. 

It contrasts with the intentions and goals of women-focused STEM programs around the country, which have designed themselves to encourage more women into STEM fields in hopes of balancing out the gender gap. There are large-scale independent programs like the American Association of University Women that seek to integrate more women into STEM, and many like the Women in Engineering ProActive Network that aim to foster positive networks among women in STEM fields, so as to maintain retention. 

The study discusses how motherhood becomes something of a boogeyman to women in STEM. Even young women who do not have children feel obliged to hide any plans of having children and look at the idea of motherhood with disapproval, in order to gain the respect of their overwhelmingly male colleagues. And this discrimination that comes with motherhood can manifest against childless women in STEM, as motherhood is associated with women. 

These coping mechanisms, though harsh, are crucial to women who want to stay in these fields. The ideal worker in the STEM field is overwhelmingly white and male. This disparity in identity affects women, especially women of color, making them suffer from not fitting into this identity mold. This is particularly important to UCSB, where many undergraduate students come from Hispanic, Asian, and international backgrounds.

Especially with results that say that 50 percent of women say that they have experienced gender-related discrimination, women who want to advance their careers in STEM cannot afford to be viewed as any more incompotent, especially when women make less for the same work, are treated with incompetence, face micro-agressions, and receive less support from senior workers

In fact, in the study, only 25 percent of women and 33 percent of men were able to describe a woman in academia that was both successful in academia and in their family lives. Especially with the discrimination that women already face in STEM environments, being a mother on top of everything can become a burden. In contrast, when interviewing men, they rarely brought up any concerns on how having a family or child would affect their career

Thébaud and Taylor bring intriguing points to how even the very idea of motherhood can lead to discrimination against women in STEM. It may point to the impacts of other expectations placed on women, further hindering them from their futures in STEM. Especially at UCSB, where the women population amongst STEM fields remains alarmingly small, these findings can bring up conversations and policy measures to ensure that they feel safe to continue their journey in STEM.