STUDY: Women leaving STEM due to depression, unhappiness

A new study has discovered that depression, rather than sexism or discrimination, is driving women’s desire to leave STEM fields.

“In terms of reported work engagement, depression, perfectionistic discrepancy, and stigma consciousness were significant negative predictors, while having perfectionistic high standards positively predicted work engagement,” the abstract reports, adding that “for work engagement, lack of comparable pay was a nonsignificant predictor.”

The study led by Department of Veteran Affairs Researcher Erin Reilly, “The Relationship Among Stigma, Consciousness, Perfectionism, and Mental Health in Retaining Women in STEM,” was published in the newest issue of the Journal of Career Development.

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The work sought to shed light on the mass exodus of women from STEM. As Reilly and her team note, previous research has shown that 52 percent of women leave STEM mid-career to stay at home or to join other fields. 

“[I]n the [United States] alone, approximately 3,000 PhD-trained women leaving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) result in an economic loss of US$1.5 billion per year,” the researchers note.

To investigate this, Reilly and her team collected data from 249 women working in STEM who had spent nearly 12 years in the field, on average.

Interviewees were then asked to gauge their satisfaction working in STEM, whether they had any intention to leave the field, and if they felt signs of depression, which the researchers hypothesized would have a strong impact on their intent to leave. 

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Though the researchers acknowledge that they could not clinically diagnose any interviewees with depression, respondents were asked whether they “felt nervous, felt so down nothing could cheer them up…[or] felt downhearted and blue” during the preceding month. 

After analysing the data, researchers concluded that “women with higher levels of depression and perfectionistic discrepancy reported greater levels of intent to leave their current job,” adding that “depression was a consistent predictor of job outcome variables.” 

More research is necessary to parse out why so many women in STEM are depressed, the authors say, speculating that stereotype threat and stigma could be contributing factors.

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A recent study by Colorado School of Mines professor Greg Rulifson tracked 21 female students who started out as STEM majors in college, finding that one-third left STEM to major in fields that involve more “social responsibility.” 

“Women in engineering are more motivated by helping others, and engineering education needs to provide more examples of engineering as a helping profession,” Rulifson recommended.

Stuart Reges—the UW-Seattle professor who penned “Why Women Don’t Code” for Quillette—advised caution to anyone who might take the new study at face value, highlighting the need for quality research on the issue. 

“It is unclear how useful the analysis can be when the women are drawn from such a broad range of jobs such as science, technology, engineering, and math, and when no comparison is made to the experiences of men in those fields,” Reges told Campus Reform

“You can say that a lot of women in tech are depressed, but if you have no stats about how many men in tech are depressed, then you don’t really know if you’ve found something that can explain the different outcomes,” he added.

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He also suggested that the ex-Google employee James Damore—author of the controversial memo about gender differences in tech—could have predicted a similar finding. 

“It is worth noting that Damore was pilloried for noting that women tend to score higher on the Big Five personality trait known as neuroticism even though that difference predicts that women are more likely to experience depression and stereotype threat,” Reges said. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @Toni_Airaksinen