Purpose This paper aims to explore the complexity of the "leaky pipeline" of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in the intriguing contexts where there are a high number of STEM graduates but a low number of women working in these fields. Design/methodology/approach The authors conducted in-depth interviews with eight STEM "leavers" and eight "persisters" in Turkey to understand the multi-level influences on their career paths. Findings The behavioural ecological model is applied to enrich the understanding of women's attrition from STEM. The authors found a complex system of actors, relationships and influences that impact the negotiations of women's felt misfit/love of their STEM career and changing self-actualisation. Practical implications The authors highlight that social marketers should consider the complex influences on even the most individualistic-looking decisions to produce systemic change. Originality/value This paper deepens the use of the behavioural ecological model in the ways that the layers of motivator and demotivator influences interact with women's internal negotiations of career choice. The paper integrates classic theories (self-actualisation (Maslow, 1943) and two-factor model (Herzberg et al., 1959)) within systems social marketing.