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Why is Retaining Women in STEM Careers so Challenging? A Closer Look at Women's Insights and Experiences in STEM Fields

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Women in Engineering Division Technical Session 9

Tagged Division

Women in Engineering

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Paper Authors


Megan O. Conrad University of Detroit Mercy Orcid 16x16

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Megan Conrad is the Clare Boothe Luce Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University of Detroit Mercy. She received her PhD in Biomedical Engineering from Marquette University in 2009. Her research interests include applying principles of biomechanics, neuromechanics and ergonomics to assess human performance in healthy and disabled populations as it pertains to therapy, work and product design.

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Alexa Rihana Abdallah University of Detroit Mercy

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Alexa Rihana Abdallah is a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Detroit Mercy. She received her PhD in Environmental Engineering from the University of Michigan.

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Lauren Ross University of Detroit Mercy

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Lauren Ross is an undergraduate research assistant working in the Assistive Technologies Laboratory at University of Detroit Mercy majoring in Mechanical Engineering.

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Each year, nearly twice the number of STEM degrees are conferred upon male students as their female counterparts despite females significantly outnumbering males in obtaining bachelor’s degrees in all fields combined. As a result, the relatively fewer number of women entering STEM careers often express feeling unrepresented and discouraged at work.

Thus, this study aimed to provide researchers insight into the experiences of women in STEM careers. Participant recruitment for the IRB approved 25-question survey was conducted via e-mail and social media postings to STEM support groups for women. In addition to demographic data, the survey assessed respondents’ career satisfaction/challenges, opinion of necessary support systems, feelings of representation within their field, and perceived incidence of institutional/cultural barriers for various subcategories of women.

In total, 112 women currently working in STEM (Academia 24%, Consulting 8%, Healthcare 17%, Industry 41%) completed the survey. Results indicate women choose to pursue STEM careers due to, (1) an interest in the field and, (2) a natural talent/aptitude (72.7% and 57.6% of respondents, respectively). Respondents overwhelmingly (91.1%) agree that women experience more institutional/cultural barriers than men within their profession. The top 3 challenges reported include difficulty finding work/life balance (69.6%), gender-bias or other discrimination (56.3%) and high stress levels (50.9%). Desired support systems include flexible work schedules (77.7%), childcare assistance (59.8%), and workplace accommodations (nursing rooms, etc.; 57.1%). While most women (>60%) report primarily seeking support from family, friends and coworkers as they navigate their careers, several also look to managers (42.0%) or mentors (37.5%). Furthermore, respondents agree women of color, with disabilities, and who identify as LGBTQ experience additional cultural barriers/stigma.

Results of this study provide insight into best practices and resources employers and academia can adopt to support women in STEM. Ultimately, insight can lead to improved retention rates for women in related STEM careers.

Conrad, M. O., & Rihana Abdallah, A., & Ross, L. (2021, July), Why is Retaining Women in STEM Careers so Challenging? A Closer Look at Women's Insights and Experiences in STEM Fields Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference. 10.18260/1-2--38060

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