This week was the 35th annual Freedom to Read Week, an event promoted by the local library to encourage Canadians to reflect on, and reaffirm their commitment to intellectual freedom. At the library, visitors could peruse a list of books that were previously banned throughout history and borrow from that list.

“Where they burn books, they will end up also burning people.” – Heinrich Heine, 1828 (photo: Berlin, 2007)

At work, an article circulated about career attrition in STEM jobs. Using census data which tracked people who became first-time parents between 2003 and 2006, the article cites the finding that more men (78%) were still working in STEM jobs than women (68%) after becoming parents and that women were more likely than men to work part-time (16% vs 2%) or leave the workforce (15% vs 3%) after having a child. It concludes that “even though the attrition rate for fathers is higher than expected, mothers still face particular career challenges” and calls for “major policy implications”.

As a woman working in science, I appreciate that the authors are suggesting that more can be done to retain workers, women in particular, but I find the article lacking.

  • What is the context? Without knowing how the attrition rate in STEM jobs compares to non-STEM jobs for the new parents and whether the gender differences in returning to work also exist in non-STEM jobs (I expect they do), it’s difficult to tell if this story about the realities of balancing work and family, or a story about how staying in a STEM job in particular is challenging for new families. The only comparison made is with childless STEM professionals (hint: more childless professionals work full-time), but for some reason, the percentages of full-time childless professionals is only a prediction.
  • What the numbers don’t say. Do the statistics for leaving the workforce mean the STEM workforce or the workforce in general? It’s unclear from the article if new parents are switching to non-STEM jobs or becoming stay-at-home parents.
  • Correlation vs. Causation. 100% of the population sampled had an university degree. Could the data about leaving the workforce simply suggest that a population able to afford a post-secondary education are more likely to be able to afford choosing to become single-income families? Are the rates for career attrition in a similarly educated non-STEM population the same or different?
  • Are STEM jobs already family-friendly? The article appears to suggest that STEM jobs present unique challenges to raising a family, but there are alternative interpretations of the given statistics. What if the high number of people working part-time is an indicator of how STEM jobs are flexible enough to accommodate part-time work and career breaks for later re-entry into the workforce?
  • Defining STEM. The article identifies the survey participants as scientists and engineers – but are these mostly academics? Working at a university, where staff positions are few and where one is expected to re-locate (sometimes multiple times) to gain post-doctoral experience to get a chance at more stable employment can present unique challenges to starting a family, but that is less about STEM than about academic careers.

As a scientist and a parent, I can identify the challenges of balancing a career with being the mom I want to be. I can also say that working in industry already makes balancing work and family a lot easier than working in academia. But, I compare my experiences with a STEM career with friends who work in other fields and I’m not convinced that the majority of the challenges with being a working parent are unique to STEM fields. I found the context sorely lacking in this article. Without comparison to non-STEM counterparts, I’m not sure what the point of the article really is. At the same time, the diversity of non-STEM professionals (service, education, health, business, legal, and artists, to name a few) is so huge that grouping them in any analysis probably doesn’t do anyone any justice.

Unusually warm weather in Europe this week is an uncomfortable reminder of our changing climate.

I’m always a little amazed at the accuracy of targeted ads, but this one was just amusing. I think I’ve found the perfect Secret Santa gift for someone!

I have mentioned before that if I weren’t a scientist, I would be a filmmaker, and it seems that I’m not alone! An excellent article that debunks the false dichotomy of art and science.