By: Janice Urbanik
In the last 24 hours I’ve had 2 reminders that it is indeed a mother’s job to worry about her kids. One happened while I was trimming dead limbs from a tree and a mama robin chirped very loudly because I was too close to her nest. The other happened when a friend told me that she had just dropped her son off at the airport for a trip to Florida after wrapping up finals week. While it would be hackneyed for me to say these are both examples of birdies leaving the nest (groans are appropriate now…), it is not trite to think about the impact that children have on women who work.
Can children be an asset vs. a barrier to employment?
Many times, having children is considered a barrier to employment and/or an impediment to advancement – primarily for women, much less so for men. Young single women are sometimes not selected for positions because the hiring manager may think that as soon as she gets married, she’ll start a family, may not return after maternity leave, or if she does, she will not be able to work her full hours when the kids are sick, or their child care falls through, or she has to get them to a soccer game. For advancement, some women land on the “mommy track” where she retains her job, but may not be considered for promotions because of demands on her time for her children. The financial implications of this are large per a recent article in Money Watch by CBS News. In contrast, hiring decisions for men rarely consider their parental status, and in fact, if they choose to leave work early once in a while for their child’s soccer practice, it tends to be viewed positively by their coworkers as a sign of an “involved dad” rather than “there s/he goes again, leaving early and making us pick up the slack”.
So, even though this is 2014 and women have been productive employees for decades, these stereotypes persist. In fact, a recent study showed that the productivity gap for mothers may be a myth – that in some cases, workers with children were more productive than their childless peers (for men and women). So, in those instances, having children is an asset to the company, not a liability or barrier.
But while I can go on about how employers should modify their hiring practices to get more women into good careers, what about the mindset of the women themselves? A recent article in Time asked the question “do women really want equality” when it comes to the workplace? Do they want STEM careers for themselves and/or their children? A study commissioned by Microsoft looked at the perceptions that parents had about STEM careers and found:
- While most parents of K–12 students (93%) believe that STEM education should be a priority in the U.S., only half (49%) agree that it actually is a top priority for this country.
- Parents who feel that STEM should be a priority feel this way because they want to ensure the U.S. remains competitive in the global marketplace (53%) and to produce the next generation of innovators (51%); fewer say it’s to enable students to have well-paying (36%) or fulfilling careers (30%).
- Even though many parents (50%) would like to see their children pursue a STEM career, only 24% are extremely willing to spend extra money helping their children be successful in their math and science classes.
As a female mechanical engineer who graduated when more and more women were entering technical fields, it shocks me that 30 years later when technology is transforming our lives nearly every day more women are not pursuing technical careers for themselves and their children. STEM careers have the potential to provide economic self-sufficiency and career stability that few other fields can offer.
To why more women and parents are not pursuing technical careers, two innovative research programs are being started using design thinking but applied to social or community issues. Per Wikipedia, “design thinking has come to be defined as combining empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality in analyzing and fitting various solutions to the problem context.” These approaches could yield breakthrough results in terms of understanding why years of effort to get more women into non-traditional careers and more kids interested in STEM have basically failed.
With the guidance of Design Impact, and financial support from the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and the Aspen Institute Ascend Network, Partners for a Competitive Workforce (PCW) is starting research into what is needed to get more women into manufacturing and to support getting their children exposed to STEM careers (a 2 generation approach). We are also investigating what can be done to convince parents and their middle and high school students to pursue technical careers. Both of these projects hope to have significant learnings by this fall so we can build those learnings into the adult recruitment, training and support work done by PCW’s partners and the Talent Pipeline work being done by PCW and Strive and the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative.
Wouldn’t it be really cool if we found out how to get moms and their children learning to program robots at the same time? Wouldn’t that be a powerful motivator for each to learn even more and to support each other when some of the work got challenging? Wouldn’t it ease each of their minds that both of them are on good paths that lead to economic self-sufficiency? Maybe then the moms would stop worrying about their kids?
Nah… that’s their job.