The motherhood penalty in STEM
While initiatives like Girls in Science and the L’Oréal-UNESCO foundation For Women in Science have sought to increase the number of women and girls studying and working in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) fields, they remain underrepresented, particularly in physics, maths, and computing, which are driving digital transformation. In part this is due to ingrained bias in the education system about teaching girls STEM subjects, for which there is ample anecdotal evidence. Take the case of a female university graduate in Life Sciences at ETH in Switzerland. Based on her experience in high school as one of only three girls in a class of 24 studying maths and physics, she says, “Even today, science and maths are still seen as male subjects.”
The issue is similar for women pursuing careers in fields as diverse as law, medicine, business, and C-suite executive roles.
To address the detrimental effects of the maternal wall, individuals, communities, and companies need to #BreakTheBias. This starts at home and at school where the education system has a responsibility to discuss and challenge gender roles. Yet beyond bias, there are systemic issues that need attention. The often-quoted African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child”, emphasizes that it takes a whole community to nurture new generations and also suggests that, in addition to women and men, the community and the working environment must adapt certain priorities.
If parents are to avoid having to trade their careers for caregiving roles, states must provide adequate caregiving services for both pre-school age children and the elderly. The provision of such services is currently uneven across communities, reflecting not only income constraints but also cultural beliefs and “motherhood myths”. In the EU, research shows that almost half (47%) the children aged three or younger were cared for exclusively by their parents in 2019. This unequal division of caregiving tasks factor can explain lower female employment levels compared to that of men. In EU member states the number of children cared for exclusively by a parent ranges from 21% in the Netherlands, 23% in Portugal and 30% in Luxembourg to 64% in Latvia and 70% in Bulgaria.
Companies also have three important means to address the issue of the maternal wall.