There has been a lot of talk for years about women in STEM, from trying to get girls to fall in love with science and technology, to getting women to stay in the workforce once they’re trained, a lot of time and effort has gone into studying this problem. Decades of research, funding and programs later and we still have an issue, almost 40% of women leave the field, yet we’re still not entirely sure why.
I applaud programs that seek to encourage females to enter STEM careers and stick with it. I myself have been lucky enough to have been a part of many. But there is one age group that no one is paying attention to: women in their middle age who majored in engineering, but took time off to raise children, that are now empty-nesters.
I know, I know. Why would anyone bother with a 45 y.o. woman, but hear me out. We spend money on programs to train young girls in the sciences, we spend money on programs to get young women to major in engineering. We spend tons of money trying to figure out how to keep them and support them as they raise their children. Yet that’s where it ends. If you chose to leave to raise your kids, you’re gone, forgotten, and let go. But many of those women are done raising kids, and only in their forties. Why not spend some money re-training them and getting them back into the lab?
According to PewResearch in 2014, 29% of women were stay-at-home-mothers. It’s hard to find the data to see how many of them were STEM majors, but of the 40% of women who leave STEM careers, about a quarter of them do so to raise families. This means they didn’t leave because they no longer love engineering, they just chose to take time to raise their kids.
Many of these women are now in their mid-forties and their kids are on the way to college, which leads me to wonder, just how expensive would it be to train these women to become coders and technology workers today? With all the coding bootcamps out there, as well as other retraining programs, why not recruit from this group of women to fill not only your technology needs, but also to balance gender in the workplace?
A few years back, Apple and other big-name companies began offering female employees money to freeze their eggs, with the idea that they can invest in their careers until their late thirties/early forties, and then begin their families. This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of “Sequencing," made popular by the book by Arleen Rosso Cardozo in the early nineties. The idea being that women can have it all, just maybe not all at once. This works for certain types of women, particularly those who enjoy diving deeply into their careers and find the work/family balance to be too difficult.
We all agree that a woman can begin her family at age forty, and that in some ways, she may make an even better parent than she would have when younger, given her life-experience. Then why not say the same about a woman in her forties and her career? If we’re physically and intellectually capable of handling an infant at forty, we’re certainly physically and intellectually capable of coding in our forties. Having done both, trust me, the infant is way more difficult.
So why not include Gen X female engineers who are done raising their families and ready to return to work in your recruitment plans? Why not spend some money retraining them, and growing your female base from this older stage of life, rather than only investing in young girls and college aged women?
To help get the conversation started, here are five reasons to consider recruiting Gen X engineers who are done raising their kids:
1. They’re already in love with engineering! You don’t have to convince them math is beautiful, or that software rules the world, they already know this. As young girls they were interested in STEM fields and pursued them in college. They naturally have the mindset of an engineer, raising children doesn’t change that. And many of them have just spent twenty years or so raising their own engineers and science loving offspring, like Kim Moldofsky, The Maker Mom, and many of her website’s followers.
3. They know how to adult. I hate to say it, but it’s true. Women in their forties got their shit together, and they can manage a performance review just fine. In addition, they don’t suffer the same social media/Tinder/out of control rents/roommate issues that younger employees who are just launching from home are dealing with. A woman who has raised children to adulthood is the ultimate adult herself.
4. They’re done raising kids. This is a big one, and both men and women wonder how to balance work and family. While we still need to continue the important work of bringing that balance to the workplace, many women in their forties are done with this part of their lives and find themselves empty nesters with lots of time to invest in their careers.
5. They’re excellent program managers. Many educated SAHMs are deeply involved in their communities and often serve in executive roles on school boards, church leadership committees, and other clubs that their kids are involved in. Many also have blogs, write books, and share their love of technology on social media. They haven’t been lounging around eating bonbons the past twenty years, rather they’ve been putting their managerial and intellectual talents towards the next generation. This means that even though they might not have run an international software release in a while, they have for example, overseen the development of a new building for their kid’s school, or launched a new coding club for their kids, or even founded a soccer or gymnastics team. They drew upon their natural leadership skills to do this work, often for free, as a service to their children and the community at large. This capacity is a part of who they are, and all of those skills transfer to the latest apps being developed in the valley.
So there you have it Silicon Valley. Everyone knows you have a gender issue, and I applaud all of the nationwide programs that serve our girls and young women in this way. All I’m suggesting is taking a look at the 25% of Gen X engineers who left to raise their kids, and encouraging them to come back and be a part of the future of your business. What do you have to lose?