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Survey: Impact of Parenthood on Career Progression in STEMM

October 12, 2020
Image: Tatiana Syrikova / Pexels

Motherhood is a determinant factor driving women away from their career track, yet few interventions or policies address the career obstacles faced by mothers, such as motherhood discrimination, a chronic lack of affordable childcare, and unequal sharing of childcare and housework. Our team at Mothers in Science is leading an international research project aimed at understanding how parenthood affects the career advancement of people working or studying in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine) fields.


There is wide evidence that gender discrimination and implicit bias are important barriers to career progression in STEM, especially for people from ethnical minorities, but few reports address motherhood as a major contributing factor. A recent study showed that 42% of mothers and 15% of fathers in the US leave full-time STEM employment within three years of having children. The situation is even bleaker for academics. Women who have children soon after their PhD are less likely to get tenure than their male counterparts, and female PhD holders may suffer a pay penalty after having a child (‘motherhood penalty’), while fathers see no decline in their earnings. It is then not surprising that, on average, female academics have fewer children than women in other professional sectors, and that nearly twice as many women as men report having fewer children than desired because they pursued a STEM career. Yet, not enough attention is paid to motherhood as a critical factor contributing to gender imbalance in STEM, and even less is known about the specific career obstacles faced by parents.

Despite these alarming statistics, few interventions to close the gender gap in STEM address the obstacles faced by women with children, such as pregnancy/motherhood bias and discrimination, and a chronic lack of childcare support and family-friendly work policies, among others. In fact, although research shows that motherhood is an important driver of gender imbalance in many professional sectors including STEM (Cech and Blair-Loy, 2019), discussions around this topic rarely reach the wider public or decision-makers. As a result, some of the underlying causes driving women with children away from their STEM careers remain systemic problems.

Click to read a recent post by Mothers in Science about the effects of COVID on working mothers

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only served to exacerbate the inequalities and career obstacles encountered by mothers and minorities in STEM fields. Approximately 60% of the jobs eliminated in the first wave of the pandemic were held by women, and single moms have been particularly hard hit by this crisis. Mothers have historically shouldered the burden of childcare and left the workforce when domestic responsibilities increased. During this ongoing pandemic, working mothers are facing the additional strain of caring for their children full-time and homeschooling while trying to keep up with the demands of their jobs. Surveys show that mothers are already taking pay cuts, scaling back to part-time work, and putting career progression on hold while fathers continue to work at pre-pandemic levels. As Rolling Stone Magazine rightly said in a recent article, COVID is killing the working mother.

Now is the time to take action – to raise awareness of these inequalities and to search for long-term solutions to eradicate the systemic barriers preventing mothers from using their talents and fulfilling their potential, and ultimately damaging our economy and stalling scientific and technological progress.


We want to start these discussions and help build a society in which all parents can thrive in their careers while equally sharing family responsibilities. Among other projects, the team at Mothers in Science has recently launched the first global survey to address the inequalities and career obstacles faced by parents in STEMM around the world.


The results of this study will be used for advising the development of interventions and policies for increasing the retention of women in STEMM fields, and for ensuring that parents and people with caregiving responsibilities have equal opportunities for career advancement.

Who should take the survey?

People of any gender, with or without children, who are working or studying in any professional sector in STEMM, at any career stage. We encourage fathers to also take the survey we want to listen to you, please use this opportunity to speak up!

This survey is being conducted in partnership with Washington University in St. Louis, 500 Women Scientists, Parent in Science, Femmes & Sciences, and the International Network of Women in Engineering and Sciences.

About Mothers in Science

Mothers in Science is an international non-profit organization founded by Isabel Torres and Sonal Bhadane in 2019, with an international team of nine STEMM professionals based around the world. We are the only international organization devoted exclusively to advocating for equity and inclusion of parents and people with family responsibilities in STEM, with the ultimate goal of increasing the participation and retention of women in this career sector.

You can find out more about us at, and on Twitter @mothersinsci and Instagram at @mothersinscience!

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