Women are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) fields at US federal agencies and they quit those jobs at a disproportionately high rate, according to new analysis from researchers at the University of Georgia. This study is the first of its kind to systematically examine the number of women in Stem jobs in the US government. The team also discovered that the one factor that did appear to improve the number of women in such jobs is more female supervisors.

The team analysed employment at all 15 cabinet-level US departments, as wells as Nasa and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), between 2005 and 2018. On average, fewer than one in four Stem jobs were held by women in the Air Force, Army, Navy, the energy and transportation departments, and Nasa. When it comes to Stem jobs in the departments of Veterans Affairs, State, Interior, Homeland Security, Defense and Commerce, women account for less than 30% of these positions.

The number of women in government Stem posts has increased by only a fraction of a percentage point since 2005 – from 25.33% to 25.63%. Edward Kellough, lead author of the study, calls that finding ‘remarkable’.

The study also found that for every percentage point increase in women as Stem supervisors, women in nonsupervisory Stem jobs increased by slightly more than half a percentage point. ‘As we had expected, the proportion of Stem supervisors who are women has a positive and large significant influence, meaning that in the organisations where there are more women as supervisors we get more women in subordinate positions,’ Kellough tells Chemistry World.

But there was considerable variability in the rate that these women quit different agencies. At the EPA, for instance, women represented 38% of Stem employees, but accounted for more than half of the those who leave those jobs.

The team suggests that the high departure rates of women are probably due to many of these agencies hiring individuals in their 20s, who are more likely to leave their jobs than older ones. The researchers also note that young women might have a hard time finding supportive role models in many agencies because there simply aren’t enough of them. However, they report that more female supervisors had no effect on retention of women in Stem jobs.

But Vincent Traag, a senior researcher at Leiden University who employs mathematical models in the social sciences, is sceptical. ‘We would expect to be able to predict very well the percentage of women in non-supervisor roles based on the supervisor roles,’ says Traag, who was not involved in the study. ‘So, the prediction the authors make says nothing of the causal effect of female supervisors on the percentage of women non-supervisors.’

In addition, Traag notes that one would expect to find a clear positive association between the percentage of women among those who quit these federal Stem jobs with the percentage of female employees. ‘The authors analyse the association with women supervisors instead, which we know … is highly associated with the overall percentage of women employees,’ he says. Traag questions whether the study’s authors have actually uncovered any causal effect of women supervision on the retention of women employees.