The real reason women drop out of STEM fields

Monique Morrow

Why do women keep dropping out of STEM fields and what can we do about it? We put the question to one of Europe’s leading advocates for women in technology, Monique Morrow, who says workplaces need to start looking at themselves — instead of thinking the problem is the women.

Morrow is the CTO Evangelist for New Frontiers & Engineering at Cisco. With nine patents to her name, she leads a major team across Asia Pacific and was strategic in pivoting Cisco to the Internet of Things and Cloud Computing. She is also leading a global collaborative movement called the ‘Internet of Women’ to help develop a new social science for women in technology to sustainably transform the industry together.

Recently in Canberra to give a lecture at ANU where she met with Professor Elanor Huntington, one of the world’s few female Deans of Engineering and Computer Science, she took some time out to answer some questions from Women’s Agenda.

What are some of the key reasons why women drop out of STEM fields?

This is a multi-loaded question. I believe, and evidence suggests, that something happens after ten years, whether it’s having children or suddenly becoming the carer for an elderly parent, and the workplace environment is no longer conducive for them to come back. It also seems it’s not a question about women, but instead about the nature of work.

We don’t want to make women the victim here, that is extremely important. They drop out because of the nature of working environments – they are not flexible. As a result many women drop out for good and give up their career entirely so we have to analyse this and correlate a loss of talent when that happens.

The call to action here is looking at the workplaces themselves. The workplace is evolving and the nature of work is evolving. We have to point to that level of conversation and I would argue that it is going to be more problematic if we don’t address it straight away for more members of the population, not just women.

There are also other factors, such as toxic behaviour; both men and women need to call it out when they see it in the workplace and we should have a zero tolerance for toxicity – there should be no losers in the workplace.

I’d encourage women and men to read the book I co-edited called The Internet of Women: Accelerating Culture Change. It contains many inspirational narratives that suggest that changes are happening in spite of what we hear.

Do you believe Australian organisations are doing enough to address the issue? Are they aware of it? Do they care?

There is work in progress to address the issue, for example, mentoring and capacity building activities, however people and organisations can always do more.

By no means am I suggesting a quota system, I am suggesting there needs to be a level of accountability and goals that are set. You start with what your aspirations are as an organisation and how you are measuring your aspirations.

There is always room for more. Just walk into any technical course, whether you’re in high school or college, and when we start see a reflection of the population we live in, that’s the measure, then you can start to believe we are progressing.

We need to pose the question of “do they care?” to the organisations themselves. I think maybe it’s a question that some of them aren’t thinking about. I also think it’s a question we need to also pose to the public. Are you watching this? Are you tracking progress? Does it matter to you as individuals?

What would you like to see more Australian organisations doing to prevent the drop off?

That’s a huge global question and I would reverse it to say’ ‘what is the picture of success’? The answer is when we don’t need to be having this conversation, or, when it doesn’t sit at a UN level as a gender equality goal.

What needs to be discussed is whether we are doing that extra bit more to progress towards that picture of success? Can we do better? Students should be asking themselves this too, not just organisations. Change doesn’t just happen from the top down, change needs to happen from the bottom up too.

We’re in the twenty first century and we are still talking about it. We’re not quite there.

What is reverse coaching, how is it helping you?

Reverse coaching, or mentoring, is when a millennial might have a baby boomer as a coach and a baby boomer has a millennial as a coach. I have a coach in the millennial category, however she will never look at it as ‘reverse’, she simply views her role as my coach.

I can pick up the phone at any time – or What’s App, we use What’s App – and converse; a life conversation about issues, whether they’re personal or professional. She has my back and I have her back. That’s really what it is.

Traditionally, people look for someone with experience as a coach. I would suggest that we live in a world where we need multigenerational teaming and that’s the big ‘and’ in our society and there is a big benefit for both worlds in different ways, learning from one another.

What have you discussed in your ANU lecture? 

I had an extraordinary visit to Canberra and a wonderful time at ANU, especially getting the opportunity to meet Professor Elanor Huntington, ANU’s first female Dean of Engineering and Computer Science.

There are very few female Deans of Engineering around the world, I can count them on one hand, yet she has extraordinary vision globally and is impactful on both a national and global level – something I believe Australia should celebrate.

I chose not to present during the ANU lecture; I didn’t use powerpoint, and I had a great interaction with the audience. We were talking about all types of topics: the future of work,  whether technology disrupts or enables work, what needs to be done in terms of having an inclusive society, are we doing better with women, multigenerational teaming, ethics and intelligent systems. The view doesn’t need to be dystopian, it can be positive.

This article was originally published on Women’s Agenda. 

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  • Whatthetechh

    This is such an important issue to focus on because it’s not only about enough to simply get women in to STEM fields, but also ensure that there is the right culture for them to feel safe and equal to their male counterparts. Retention is so important to the future of women in STEM as it is an essential step in showing younger generations that there are females like them that they can look up to in that field. Thank you to Professor Elanor Huntington, for being just one of many trail blazers in this field, and keep fighting the good fight.

  • clive

    Maybe the same reason males are dropping out – have you looked at the graduate unemployment rates ?

  • Robert Bray

    I’m going to apologise if this seems a bit disjointed. This post wasn’t really written in order.

    Opinions here are from my experiences as a Linux Sysadmin and career in general, in areas ranging from being junior in small ISPs and tech companies to being reasonably senior in banks and one of the largest IT companies in the world. Most of my career has been in Brisbane, Australia, with a few years in Cambridge, UK

    When I was studying Computer Science at uni (2007-2010), I’d normally only have one female in any given class. And it was the same person, we happened to be friends.

    When an opportunity to go to India came up, she couldn’t go due to work commitments. The lecturer who was organising it was a bit concerned at sending over four males. However, there was no-one else who was remotely eligible. So in that case… What do you do?

    Now beyond that, from this:

    For IT in particular, a major problem is apparently more that when a man is rejected, he gets up and tries again. When a woman is rejected, there’s a much higher chance that she won’t.

    Once this higher tendency to drop out is taken into account, you need about three times as many women as men actually starting in the field to get parity.

    I’ve interviewed for fairly senior IT roles before. The CVs that come in are almost purely male. (Ten or so years ago I was interviewing for junior IT roles. I’m not sure I saw a single CV come from a woman)

    Wanting a work environment in which they feel safe is all well and good (personally I can’t see what’s unsafe about being around a bunch of geeks. Unpleasant, by all means, particularly when you’ve got those for whom there’s a very good reason they’re in IT, but not unsafe)

    For equality… I can’t speak for the junior grades, because it simply was all male, but I’ve yet to see any sign of the opinion or actions of women in the teams I’ve worked in being undervalued. Same with female managers. This being said, it’s probably at least partially a cultural thing. Female geeks and technical (non-HR) managers tend to be Asian or Indian. I’ve actually noticed that Indian teams I’ve been kinda-sorta in charge of had a much higher tendency to have women in them. European ones just don’t apply.

    However, if the problem is entry: Rejection is going to happen. I’ve been rejected many, many times. I’ve been offered jobs I couldn’t even remember interviewing for and my current job is for a company I was just proud to be considered for. I interviewed without any realistic expectation of actually getting the position.

    Also, once in, particularly at a senior role, there is no question of a work-life balance. People who want a work life balance will not do well in IT. It’s really that simple. Once you’re utterly fantastic, no longer care about money and can charge a princely sum for deigning to consider a problem for five minutes, you can have a work life balance. Not really before. Obviously, getting to that stage is brutal.

    Now, this all being said, the desire to get more women in IT is sincere. It’s not an acted-out sham, IT companies, particularly IT companies that are large enough to care (A two man team isn’t a problem, a twenty man team starts to look a bit… male), really want someone.

    So… I guess to sum up, I’ve got a three year old daughter. I’d like her to follow in my footsteps, because there’s serious cash in this industry and that cash is not going to decline.

    There’s also seriously bad training, because… Well…. Anyone who’s qualified to be a really good IT teacher can earn more in better working conditions in the industry. I’ve noticed that things are improving, but that more seems to be from groups of teenage geeks getting together and being themselves. This means demand increases, but competition is limited (you might say outsourced, but outsourcing things that actually need skill has a tendency to end badly. For whatever reason, producing highly skilled and flexible IT workers is a European cultural thing. Before anyone says China, Japan or India, just…….. No. A Chinese, Japanese or Indian worker in a Western country who’s used to the cultural differences is easily as good as a local. On their home turf…… No.) My personal belief is it’s a high vs low context language thing and the repercussions of that (Europeans have a tendency to have low context languages. The result of this is that there’s a bigger focus on the individual and there’s an acceptance that if things go badly, no-one is going to help you. At least not without serious evidence you’ve tried to help yourself. High context relies on the group. High context views low context as unhelpful, low context views high context as overly dependent on help)

    To this end, and from looking at what’s been written on the subject, I’d say the major things I need her to do to help break through are:

    1. Accept not being the best in a team. If you’re the best in a team, it’s time to look for a higher paying job (I understand one of the bigger reasons for women being put off at an early age is they go from being the best in school to fairly average in the workforce and can’t handle it. I went into my first job thinking I was top. This was demolished very quickly. After a few years and bucketloads of experience, I went into my second job thinking I was top. Again, this was demolished very quickly. Haven’t made that mistake since.)

    2. Deal with rejection and disappointment. There’s going to be a lot of it. It’s normal. Again, I’ve been offered jobs by companies I didn’t even remember applying or interviewing for.

    3. While the rewards are great, they’re paid for with blood, sweat and tears. If you want to do well, you really do need to put the job before everything else. This includes family, health and sanity. Especially health and sanity. Remember you’re competing with people who are working in the industry because of a genuine childhood love of things with flashing lights on them. People who do well in IT aren’t just passionate, they’re obsessed. Work has a strong tendency to be what they’d happily do for free, but with bigger toys.

    4. She’s female and half Asian. If she can earn more money and advance her career by helping a company tick off two diversity boxes for the price of one, then she should do so without a hesitation. She’s there for her own benefit, not the benefit of others.