This installment will look at how societal norms are playing out for women with STEM careers.
My interviews with the women at work also showed that they are feeling a lot of pressure to juggle the roles of careerist, mom, house manager, social secretary, and wife (or significant other).
The research supports this. A paper out of Penn State states there’s a strong “…influence of cultural attitudes about maternity, childcare, parental care and working outside the home on a woman’s choice of a [STEM] career.”
Societal Norm: Women are the Caregivers
Women are the ones to give birth. That’s a (so far) irrefutable fact.
However, societal norms perpetuate inequality in domestic obligations. When maternity leave is favored over paternity leave, or when women are encouraged to work part-time after the birth of a child while men are not, the social perception that it is more appropriate for women to fulfill the commitment to family responsibilities than for men is reinforced.
My interviews proved this out. Some of the statements I heard:
- ”I feel pressure because I have kids and that’s seen as a negative.”
- My male counterpart doesn’t seem to have dad-guilt, so he doesn’t understand my mommy guilt.”
- ”My experience at work totally depends on my male boss’ home life. If he has kids but a stay-at-home wife, he still doesn’t get it. If he has kids and a working wife, he understands totally.”
Societal Norm: Women are the House Managers
Although women have increased their participation in the workplace over the last few decades, their domestic responsibilities have decreased only marginally. Research shows that the average American woman works 13.2 hours per week on housework, compared to her spouse who works roughly 6.6 hours.
This creates a situation that forces women to choose an unhealthy work life balance in order to pursue their careers.
A woman told me a funny story to drive this point home. She said “I have to remember everything. If we are out of toilet paper, I have to remember to stop on the way home or remember to ask my husband to stop. He’s happy to do it, but he would never even think about the state of toilet paper in our house.”
Societal Norm: Leadership Traits are Masculine Traits
Research consistently demonstrates that society sees leadership traits as closely resembling those which are usually attributed to men.
Women are affectionate, helpful and gentle.
Men are assertive, commanding and controlling.
Professional STEM women are expected to replace warmth for competence based on the norm that women cannot be competent and warm at the same time.
When women reach levels of leadership, they experience complex expectations where they show more male-associated traits as a leader yet female-associated traits of being a woman. These women get criticized for being both too feminine and too masculine. They simply can’t win.
One woman I talked to put it this way. “Our concern for humans is a disadvantage. I’m perceived weaker for it.”
Societal Norms: Is There An Easy Answer?
Unfortunately, there is not. Societal norms take an incredibly long time to shift.
On top of that, the early adopters are often viewed in a very negative light and have to fight the fight every minute of every day.
Doesn’t that sound exhausting?
But it’s a fight worth fighting.
I was lucky; there were a lot of options and role models right in my family.
I have three sisters-in-law who all were professional women when they had their children (three of us are STEM professionals). Incredibly, each of us chose a different path for child rearing.
I stayed working full time. One stayed working full-time but her husband became a stay-at-home dad. One worked only part time after having children and the fourth decided to leave the work force and be the stay-at-home mom.
And you know what?
We all raised smart, well-adjusted children despite our different family lives. And we were all under the same societal norms.
Bottom line is that STEM women have more options than ever to navigate through societal expectations. WE know we can be a warm human being AND an effective leader. Women can be good employees AND good moms. We can bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan…
Leaving you with this from the lighter side: Motherhood: It’s not a 9 to 5 job, it’s a “when I open my eyes ‘til I close my eyes” job.