Women B̶u̶r̶n̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶O̶u̶t̶ In STEM

At a time when women are no longer underrepresented in careers, we must stop explicitly promoting high-intensity fields for women at the expense of their own energy, sanity, and often their true interests.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Ever since I was a child, my grandma would encourage me to explore my scientific curiosity. She would buy beef hearts for me to dissect and teach lessons in my elementary school classes about crabs or algae, and she would always have a rational explanation for any of my scientific dilemmas. My grandmother was a chemist. Throughout her career, she worked her way up in the face of rampant sexism to become one of the leaders in her field at a time when few women were even working. As much as I admire my grandmother for her many achievements, times have changed. Women are no longer underrepresented in STEM fields but are still facing rampant sexism and burnout. It’s time that we stop explicitly promoting high-intensity fields for women at the expense of their own energy, sanity, and often their true interests.

While women had been underrepresented in STEM fields in the past, that number is constantly changing, with rates of women and men entering the industry currently comparable. In 2017, 49 percent of bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering were awarded to women, as well as a majority of degrees in biology, psychology, and social science—62 percent, 78 percent, and 61 percent, respectively. However, women are not staying in these fields, which points to the root of the problem: they are burning out. On average, women in STEM fields are twice as likely to consider leaving their jobs compared to women in other fields (humanities, business, law, etc.), with 32 percent of respondents pointing to stress or burnout as the reason for their departure. Women are also less likely to pursue higher education in STEM fields—while 37.4 percent of STEM bachelor degrees were earned by women in 2020, this decreased to 35.8 percent of master’s degrees and 34.4 percent of PhDs. This serves as yet another example of the effect of burnout on the retention of women in STEM. While burnout is not a problem unique to women, it is particularly prevalent among them. Women are less likely to be promoted than men but more likely to head single-parent families or take on unequal amounts of work-home responsibilities. In other words, women work twice as hard as men with nothing to show for it. As a result, even though women are entering the STEM workforce at around the same rates as men, they currently make up only 28 percent of the workplace in STEM careers, proving that they are systematically being driven out of these industries. Though it would be ideal to equalize leadership in STEM professions, the fact is that forcing women into a stagnantly sexist industry without taking action to reduce instances of burnout doesn’t actually address issues in the industry; rather, it leaves them jaded after years of working harder, longer, and more intensely than any of their male peers. In order to change the industry, it has to start from the top down. Companies need to begin prioritizing policies that protect the mental health of their employees as well as policies that remove promotion bias and allow women to succeed just as easily as men. Before that day, STEM careers cannot be explicitly targeted at women without fully disclosing the challenges and flaws of the industry.

When STEM fields (or any high-intensity corporate fields) are promoted, a new generation of people enters these careers, unaware of the potential challenges. And the media isn’t helping. When 8.5 million people tune in to season 18 of Grey’s Anatomy, or young girls are inspired by Legally Blonde to join a high-profile law firm, or Disney puts out a million-and-one shows highlighting women in STEM, women are not being empowered; rather, they are being fed an illusion—one that is clearly working. Fifty-eight percent of people are inspired by some form of media to choose their job, indicating that even those who believe themselves to be going into STEM fields out of their own will are often still basing expectations of the industry off unrealistic depictions. The high levels of burnout in these industries clearly prove that this is a problem. If women disproportionately feel great stress in STEM industries, then these industries should not be overly promoted, as those entering these industries based on media portrayals are likely to burn out because of this false reality. The problem with these types of media isn’t that they don’t represent struggles—it’s that they don’t represent failure. The ultimate purpose of these movies or television shows is to promote the idea of “You can do anything!” but as blunt as it sounds, that’s just not always the case. When someone enters any competitive career, they should expect that their path will be difficult and be able to understand and accept failure.

Additionally, it’s important to show that there’s not only one way to be in a certain field and not only one job that can spark joy and excitement. It is inevitable that different careers be represented in media, but there should be a more nuanced depiction of the different types of careers and ways to pursue interests. In the example of law, television shows or movies should represent more women working at nonprofits or consulting, rather than working in criminal law or the frequently depicted law firm. Not only would this give women a better idea of the different paths their careers could take, but it would also be a more accurate depiction of the industry, as the average tenure at a law firm is only 5.4 years. Likewise, if companies want to promote STEM careers, they should promote all STEM fields, not only the ones that are high-profile or well-paying. The gender makeup for mechanics, for example, is only 4.5 percent female, so if the ultimate goal is creating representation, women should be encouraged to be car mechanics the same way they’re encouraged to be a doctor or chemist.

Likewise, students should understand that even careers that are not necessarily the most well-paying or popular should still be considered if they would be the most fulfilling. English majors, for example, have been constantly ridiculed, leading many students to choose the standard STEM pathway rather than the literature classes their hearts truly desire. Justin Kovach, for example, a student at Arizona State University, “loved to write and always had.” Kovach was obsessed with literature, easily getting through enormous classics. And yet, due to financial pressure, he chose to major in computer science, then math, then astrophysics, none of which brought him as much fulfillment as majoring in English could have. For anyone facing the same dilemma, I beg of you: choose the English major. Choose the path that makes you the happiest because success is never guaranteed.

Kovach’s case thus brings up another issue: that of monetary influence. Millions of parents encourage their children to enter STEM fields—because if we’re being honest, the pay is better—but they fail to recognize that money itself cannot bring fulfillment, and solely entering a career path will not necessarily breed success. Had Kovach only studied English, he would’ve not only found a career that he enjoyed, but he also would undoubtedly be more successful than whatever resulted from his jumping from STEM major to STEM major. Had the thousands of women who left their jobs due to burnout only found a more supportive work environment, they would have found more success and fulfillment. Currently, financial stability will always be important, but it most definitely will not come from forcing yourself into a career in which you don’t have the energy, drive, or interest to reap that success.

When I was younger, I used to always listen to the album Free to Be You and Me to fall asleep. This album was a ‘70s staple and preached the message of becoming whoever you want to be. In this vein, you can be a “rancher or poetry maker, [a] doctor or teacher, or cleaner or baker.” You can “drive taxis, or sing on TV.” You can pursue a STEM career, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult or that it’s necessarily the right choice for you, and it certainly doesn’t mean we need STEM and other high-intensity industries to be so popularized today. You can “be almost anything [you] want to be,” but take the time for yourself to figure out what that exactly is.