COVID Has Laid Naked the Inequities That Face Moms in STEM

More women than ever are pursuing PhDs and careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). However, they are still largely underrepresented in management positions, particularly among women of the same color and other ethnic minorities. In MINT science, women receive around half of the doctorates, but only a third become full professors. Evidence accumulated over the past few decades shows that gender bias partially explains this gender imbalance in STEM, but another contributing factor has received less attention: motherhood.

The bottleneck in the leaky STEM pipeline occurs after women complete their education – typically a few years after graduation for academics. While it is evident that this massive withdrawal of women from the STEM workforce will coincide with the time they are starting a family, motherhood is rarely the focus of discussions or initiatives to close the gender gap in STEM.

Motherhood has always been the elephant in the room until now; COVID-19 has exposed the many inequalities that tacitly divert women from their careers.

Bans in many countries to contain the coronavirus pandemic have tightened the systemic barriers long standing working mothers. Mothers are disproportionately affected by this pandemic, and many are being forced to quit their jobs or cut working hours to juggle homeschooling and nursing. In MINT, the pandemic has unevenly affected the productivity and mental health of women scientists.

However, this unprecedented crisis has revealed only one side of the story, albeit an important one: women carry most of the childcare and housework, which affects their productivity at work. Globally, women spend on average more than twice as much time as men caring for children and doing housework, even in households where women are the main breadwinner. Academics are no exception. Women academics, including those in dual-academic pairs, do almost twice as much housework as their partners, although they also work up to 60 hours a week. The “second shift” is a major obstacle for working mothers, but it is by no means the only one.


A recent study found that 42 percent of mothers and 15 percent of fathers in the United States left full-time STEM employment within three years of having children. And while most of these fathers are switching careers and continuing to work full-time, mothers move in part-time or become parents who stay at home. For academics, the situation is even more bleak. Women who have children shortly after completing their doctorate are less likely than men and will face a wage penalty. Female academics have fewer children on average than their male colleagues. In the US, about half of women in tenure track positions have children, compared with over 70 percent of men, and twice as many women as men say that “child-related issues” is a major reason for not being academic Graduating career after Ph.D.

Not only do mothers face many obstacles for women, but they also encounter a lesser known but widespread form of gender discrimination: the mother wall. Mothers earn less than fathers and childless women, are less likely to be hired or promoted, and are considered less competent or work-oriented. Exclusion is another massive obstacle. Women with children can be removed from projects or even fired during their parental leave. After returning to work, they often feel “invisible” or “inappropriately” because they have no career opportunities such as conferences and networking events.

“I’ve started missing out on opportunities because people decided on my behalf that as a parent I wouldn’t have time or interest in my career. They didn’t even let me make the decision for myself.” – Anonymous respondent to the Mothers in Science survey, a 35 year old mother from the Netherlands

The root of these inequalities is a “breadwinner-housewife” model based on outdated gender norms. Women have deeply internalized the social pressure to be the primary caregiver and to give family priority over career. More recently, the trend towards “intense motherhood” has increased the pressure on women to be “perfect” mothers, while the bar is much lower for fathers. These unrealistic expectations are incompatible with an inflexible and inhospitable, male-dominated academic system designed for the “ideal worker” available 24/7. To avoid burnout, or simply because women are socialized to satisfy themselves in motherhood and marriage, mothers choose to work part-time, switch to a career sector that offers more flexibility, or abandon their careers to be exclusive to dedicate to the family.

It has been suggested in STEM science that men publish more articles than women, which might explain why women have difficulty climbing the academic ladder. For example, a study that tracked the careers of over 6,000 scientists estimated that a combination of lower publication rates and gender bias explained why fewer women than men secured principal researcher positions. Some intranational studies have tried to find out whether motherhood causes gender differences in academic productivity, but there is still no scientific consensus on this highly debated topic.

Our own preliminary data from an ongoing global survey (Take the Survey) supports the idea that women post childbirth at lower rates than men, and this trend has continued for several years. Lower productivity due to the lack of “extra” time (evening / weekend) for research was one of the main reasons mothers cited in our dataset to explain why parenting negatively affected their careers and the main reason for fathers. (Note that this is unpublished data based on a self-report. Number of respondents: 3,522. These preliminary results may change after analyzing the entire data set.)


In addition to these barriers, mothers suffer from chronic guilt. Exhausted mothers are constantly bombarded with simple and unhelpful advice on how to strike a mythical work-life balance. But self-care cannot magically address the social inequalities that marginalize working mothers. “Mothers don’t need balance. They need justice, ”wrote social scientist Caitlyn Collins. Rather than thinking about futile work-life balance debates, we should focus on raising awareness of the systemic barriers that force women to choose between a family or a career – and developing workable solutions around them dismantle.

Politics plays a crucial role here. Workplace policies signal employees what is expected of them, and employees adjust their behavior accordingly. For example, when an employer routinely emails out of office hours, they say to their employees, “You should be available 24/7.” If a government introduces unequal parental leave policies that allow mothers to take months of paid leave Only a few days ago, however, she sends the message to fathers that women should be at home to look after the children, while men should work.

These subliminal messages shape people’s moral judgments, actions and decisions – and strengthen the “breadwinner and housewife” model that punishes working mothers.

Policies that emphasize caring and gender equality can accelerate cultural change. Beginning in 2003, Icelandic mothers and fathers will be able to take three months of paid parental leave (non-transferable) each, in addition to three months that parents share as they choose. In just a few years since this directive was implemented, the average length of paternity leave rose from 14 to 95 days, more women entered the world of work and fewer worked part-time. Organizational guidelines can be effective as well. In fact, a laboratory experiment has shown that explicitly enacting a family-friendly act (US Family and Medical Leave Act) on workplace performance reviews removes bias and pay penalties against mothers.


The invisible forces that press women to step back from their careers are complex and include bias and discrimination in the workplace, inadequate affordable childcare, traditional household chores, unequal parental leave policies, an inflexible work culture, and gender-specific social pressures. The good news is that all of these issues can be fixed!

Change begins with recognizing and recognizing these barriers, talking about them, and believing that another, fairer world is possible – one where employers value caring and where personal life is not incompatible with fulfilling career . Implementing and enforcing policies promoting equity in the workplace and the involvement of mothers and carers is fundamental to change and scientific advancement.

Speaking is also necessary. Mothers have remained silent because they feel isolated and fear the consequences of admitting their struggles. Employers see motherhood as an obligation, while they are mostly indifferent to fatherhood. To address these inequalities and close the gender gap in STEM, we need to normalize care and promote fair family-friendly policies. Let’s keep the conversation moving, amplifying the voices of mothers and caregivers, and taking action to build a better world.

Take the survey and share it with your network: (deadline: December 31, 2020). The survey is open to people of any gender, with or without children, who work or study in any STEMM (science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine) field and at any career level. Mothers in Science conducts this survey in collaboration with 500 female scientists, Femmes & Sciences, Parent in Science, INWES and Washington University St. Louis.

Mothers in Science is a not-for-profit organization founded in 2019 to advocate for equity and inclusion of mothers and caregivers in STEM and to raise awareness of their challenges. As we were preparing to launch an international survey to examine the inequalities and career barriers facing mothers in STEM, we were sadly hit by a pandemic that exposed and exacerbated these deeply rooted problems. We now need to keep the conversation going and take action to create effective and lasting solutions that can increase retention of women in STEM careers.

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