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Researchers study difficulties for women in sciences

Two KU researchers are studying why women who choose careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics advance as young professors, scientists or educators but then disappear from the profession.

Karen Multon

Karen Multon, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology and Research in Education in KU's School of Education, and Barbara Kerr, distinguished professor of counseling psychology, are researching how a woman's relationship with a significant other may impact her career choices. The two have received a three-year, $499,852 grant from the National Science Foundation for the project.

"It's not just your boyfriend or husband, it's also family concerns and how you're going to handle all of that at once, in a field that is so demanding," said Multon.

Kerr points out that married male scientists are found to be the most productive scientists, followed by single male scientists. Single women come in at third-most productive, followed by married female scientists.

Multon said they are also studying the impact a woman's distance from privilege, such as her socioeconomic status or geographic location, has on her success.

The project is titled "Milestones and Danger Zones for Talented Women in STEM."

The researchers are teaming with colleagues at Arizona State University and Tennessee State University, a historically black university, to collect information on a diverse cross-section of women.

The topic is a personal matter for both researchers.

Kerr said that at another university she worked at, she was not granted maternity leave, unlike some of the receptionists she worked with. Her employers also told her she would have to pay someone to teach her classes while she was out.

"I had the baby on Friday and was back in the classroom on Tuesday, teaching," Kerr said.

Kerr says researchers have often spent time studying the barriers that prevent women from choosing science-oriented careers in adolescence, but "we believe that just getting them into the pipeline isn't enough, we have to keep them there."

The women participating in the research at all three schools will attend workshops as a service component of the project, while researchers collect data on their backgrounds and how relationships affect their career decisions at this stage.

"Naturally, the idea is to take what we've learned and develop interventions and workshops that we can do with college women that will build their resilience," Multon said.

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