• Mel Butcher

Two Leaky Pipelines for Women in STEM?

Updated: Jan 16, 2021

large pipe leaking water at joint

Like many of you, I'm familiar with what the Society of Women Engineers refers to the "leaky pipeline" - the fact that even after we get a cohort of women to earn engineering degrees, they exit the profession at a higher rate than their male-counterparts. The Society helped lead a study to gain insights into why these women were leaving. There wasn't one answer, but it is noteworthy that a large percentage sited "workplace climate." Clearly, we still have work to do even after getting women into the field. (See also: The Society of Women Engineers National Survey About Engineering; How can we STEM the tide of women graduates leaving science? by WEF; Stemming the Tide research conducted by a team at UW Milwaukee)

Recently, I learned that the term "leaky pipeline" is also used to refer to the girls who never even make it into a STEM field to begin with. While it can be easy to get disheartened looking at information like this, I believe we must acknowledge that there are multiple places where there's work to do, and then focus on an area near you where you can make a difference, no matter the size.

What do we know about *this leaky pipeline? Well, according to research by Microsoft, "While the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that technology professionals will experience the highest growth in job numbers between now and 2030, only a fraction of girls and women are likely to pursue degrees that enable them to fulfill these news jobs."

Reasons identified from the study included peer pressure, lack of role models, lack of support from parents or teachers, and misconceptions about what STEM careers look like in real life. Thankfully, this work also uncovered some recommendations to better support young women in STEM studies and, ultimately, careers. No surprises here, the concepts recommended include: creating hands on experiences, providing role-models, ensuring there is encouragement of interesting and cultivating the bravery to try things students may not yet have confidence in.

What can I do?

You can do a lot! Here are a few resources to start you off...

For Young Students

I'm not a parent and, let's face it, there is an ever growing library of STEM resources for young students. Here are a few to get you started:

Women in STEM and their allies:

Are you a man working in a STEM field? Congratulations, there's a lot you can do to help your female colleagues! From small things, such as sharing salary information with women colleagues to help ensure they get equitable pay for their work and standing up for women who share ideas in meetings... all the way to big stuff, like sponsoring a woman colleague that shows potential *even if she does so in a way that's not like you, and taking parental leave to normalize both the breaks themselves and successful return from family breaks.

*Note that research shows that men are more effective sponsors than women, regardless of the gender of the person being sponsored. This means you (men) cannot leave all of the work of advancing women to the few women executives who have made it. We need you to chip in.

Women in STEM, I know you are strong and intelligent. We all need support in different ways at different points in our life. Here are a few of the resources I have found most helpful:

  • A Career That Soars! [Disclosure- I am a partner of this organization]: This is a personal leadership and career development resource for career-motivated women led by Susan Colantuono and Michelle Redfern. If you're an emerging or experienced woman leader working inside an organization *and you have ambition to advance... ACtS! is for you. This is a distraction-free (i.e. non-social-media) place to converse, network, and learn from other successful, ambitious women. I'm a regular contributor in this space and would *love to see you there.

  • Self Care: We see this topic a lot these days, which is great. What's important is that you give yourself the care that's right for *you. A couple resources for you: (1) Erika Jefferson, founding leader of Black Women in Science and Engineering (BWiSE), hosts discussions on this topic for Black Women every Sunday. Follow her on LinkedIn or check out BWiSE here. (2) Rebekah Mechtenseimer of Empowering Women in Industry spoke on this several times recently (2020); check her out here.




We have our work cut out for us. Step by step we go. Don't feel alone. Find a network of support that works for you; ACtS! does it for me, but there are many resources that are just a few clicks away...

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