Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Why we leave

There was an article in Naturejobs last week on "leaks in the pipeline" - why women leave science at every stage of the ladder. This article focused on why women who get science PhDs aren't showing up in the same numbers in academia. To cite one example, in the geosciences, "39% of PhD recipients are women. But only 26% of assistant professors, 14% of tenured associate professors and 8% of full professors are women."

The authors of the article, themselves women geoscience academics, give some reasons for the leaky pipeline. But I've been thinking about all the reasons that people might choose to get a science PhD and then not end up in academia - and only some of them are specific to women.

Here's my list of reasons that ANYONE might leak out of the pipeline. I've italicized the items that I am guessing are more prevalent among women.
  • Failure to get an academic job. (We can't all be academics if there aren't enough jobs to go around. And there don't seem to be.)
  • No desire to be an academic. (People start grad school intending to be other things? Gasp!)
  • Desire to do the sort of science that can be easier to do in private industry (more funding, better facilities, and whatnot).
  • Desire for greater income provided by industry jobs.
  • Desire for more reasonable work hours provided by some industry and government jobs.
  • Desire to balance family and career. Feel that such balance is hard to attain in academia.
  • Desire to work in an industry where your 30s are not chewed up by trying to ensure that you still have a job in your 40s.
  • Fear of failure. Imposter syndrome.
  • Overt discrimination against women, minorities, disabled persons, homosexuals.
  • Unconscious bias against women, minorities, disabled persons, homosexuals.
  • Lack of role models for women, minorities, disabled persons, homosexuals.
  • Lack of good mentorship in how to attain an academic job.
  • Lack of good advising during the PhD process (or in a post-doc) that results in fewer publications, etc. making you less competitive for academic jobs.
  • Poor recommendations because you have bad letter writers.
  • Poor recommendations because you have personality problems to which your letter writers must confess.
  • Lack of desire to move away from a specific location.
  • Spouse or significant other that is unable/unwilling to move to/away from a specific geographic region.
  • Care for an elderly or disabled family member that ties you to a specific location.
How about the reasons that are specific to WOMEN?
  • Discrimination based on child-bearing status.
  • Fear that they will be unable to reproduce or have as many children as desired once they reach tenure.
  • Fear that they will be unable to adequately care for their pre-existing children while trying to reach tenure.
What do you think? Did I miss any? Have I miscategorized some?

It seems to me, from making this list, that while there are some barriers that apply on to those of us with no Y chromosome, there are lots of barriers to anyone who is: (1) not a white, able-bodied, heterosexual male or (2) looking for a career where work does not totally subsume the rest of their life.

To fix (1) we need to keep strengthening recruitment and mentorship at all levels while continuing to educate and supervise those responsible for hiring decisions. With time (1) should be fixable. I remain hopeful that I will live to see the day that (1) is no longer on the list. To fix (2) we need to overhaul the structure of academia - starting with tenure. On this front, I am much more pessimistic.


Propter Doc said...

You know what upsets me most about these lists? The discrimination based on child-bearing status. If we had a society where men and women were charged equally with the child rearing responsibility, allowed near equality in family leave (appreciating that medical reasons make females require more) then any young male would have to be subject to the same discrimiation if they had a partner of child bearing capabilities.
So then the system would favour single men. But wait! Academia really does favour single people - the hours, the stress, the singlemindness to succeed.

Nice post though.

Emily said...

Well, as soon as I defend my Ph.D. thesis (hopefully late next month) I'm outta here... my degree's in geoscience but I'm going to be a business consultant as of late summer.

Partly this is because I lack the passion to be a really good researcher, but that in turn I think is at least somewhat due to the fear of failure / imposter syndrome thing.

And partly it's because the academic expectation of "move for a post-doc or two, and if your spouse's career doesn't accomodate that kind of geographic flexibility, then you should be willing to do the long-distance thing for a few / several years" doesn't work for me and my husband.

I considered industry jobs in my field, and while the family friendly hours and possible part-time flexibility appealed, the work itself didn't.

And I considered teaching jobs, but those tended to want areas of specialization that were not mine, or be in rural areas where my husband wouldn't be able to use his Ph.D. in industry, as he desires. And frankly, I'm going to be making four times as much money next year as a consultant with similar levels of stress and hours.

I think you captured most of that in your list.

Dr J. said...

Even if we had a society where men and women took equal time and responsibility for childrearing, in the biomedical field at least women lose a lot of their capabilities in a lab the minute they become pregnant (due to safety issues - don´t yell at me them´s the rules, at least here). So then their effectiveness in a lab (from an employers point of view) is lost for the extent of a pregancy plus the minimum time following birth that they take - 6 weeks here. So we´re talking at least 10 months which, as we all know, is a monster chunk out of a 3yr grant or postdoc position.
Because of this I know at least 2 young FEMALE group leaders who will not employ female phd students or postdocs if they´re in their late 20´s, especially those married or even in a serious relationship. As a young group leader with a 3-5 yr grant to get your career running, the risk of losing trained personnel, and the funding for that position, is simply too great. Bugger solidarity, it´s their own skins they need to save.
Now that´s something that balancing childrearing will never "fix". So what are we women meant to do about that? Hand in a medical certificate of a hysterectomy with our job applications?

snakechaser said...

This raises an interesting question for me. I am planning to finish my PhD in the next year and then will be applying for jobs in academia. Hadn't given much thought to being discriminated against regarding pregnancy because I don't plan to have children. However, I am sure that will not be evident to potential employers since, as dr. j pointed out, this issue is front and center in an employer's mind nd I am healthy and in my early 30s. So, do I 'fess up to my life plans or tell them it isn't their business if they ask?

PonderingFool said...

Dr. J. those are some faculty who do not know how to properly utilize talent. There are others things they could be doing if work rules restricts what a woman carrying child can do in lab. The main skills a post-doc brings is their brains not their hands (though they typically are thought of as mostly the latter). Second, how much are those laws based on reality and how much on irrational "fear"? The latter tends to keep the status quo going. There are plenty of fixes for this, including expecting a father to take time off around the due date and after to you know actually help out around the house, preparing things for the baby, taking care of the baby, etc. That would equalize the time taken off and address the imbalance you talk about.

The problem is twofold as ScienceWoman points out. You have barriers that everyone faces and then you have ones women and/or minorities face. The thing is by fixing some of the first (like improving mentoring/teaching) you can begin to make significant headway into the second.

The doubts is a major problem. A friend of mine left graduate school for exactly that reason. She did not think she could ever be a great scientist but she thought if she did not stay in science she could be a great parent. You should be able to do both but that is not coming across very well at this point.

Lisa said...

Dr. J, as long as we're considering a highly idealized society where men and women are taking equal childrearing responsibilities, why can't we consider that the proper resources or changes in the lab environment would be available to pregnant women so they could have the same work output as others? I'm not saying you personally can fix these problems, but we shouldn't accept that nothing could be done about them in the future.
There are few things that are perfectly safe for everyone except pregnant women, (lots of things are just more dangerous to pregnant women than others) so as long as we are able to implement safety procedures to lower the risks or amount of exposure to an acceptable level for everyone else, why can't we strive to have enough precautions in place that the risk is also low enough for pregnant women? Or is the risk incredibly low already and pregnant women are not allowed to work in these labs simply because they have a higher risk than other people? They also have the risk of more serious complications than most people from a car accident, for example, yet pregnant women drive around all the time because we can't just live in a box for 9 months.
If there really were huge risks that couldn't be mitigated and only applied to pregnant women, and they couldn't simply do all the work except whatever was the risky part (such as having a separate area of the lab which doesn't use certain chemicals) then there should be guidelines in place so that potential hires could sign a form stating that they will be medically able to do their job for the time period for which they're hired. (If non-pregnancy is really a job requirement, such as being able to lift 50 lbs is listed as a requirement for some jobs, then it should be stated as such.) An accidental pregnancy could be handled like other sudden medical disabilities which leave people unable to perform their jobs. In any case, there should not be a guessing game of who's going to get pregnant.

Carrie said...

Egads, what I find appalling about Dr. J's reasoning is that we (taxpayers) spend YEARS training each scientist in the US. And we are willing (enabling) throwing away all that training and talent and $$ based on the fact that someone can't work in the lab for 12 months. Egads.

Such a contrast to the 'high powered law firm' of a friend -- where the fact that associates take 6 months maternity leave is accepted as part of 'life' because they realize that if they basically force out their pregnant (or possibly pregnant) job candidates, they will have been throwing away all the time and money invested in their LONG TERM success.

FemaleCSGradStudent said...

My opinion of the pipeline metaphor is best expressed by someone more articulate,

“There is little response or concern to questions such as ’Where is this pipeline coming from?’ and ’Where is going to?’ ’Who
laid these pipes?’ ’How is it embedded in global capitalism?’
’Who are we producing for what purpose?’ ’Why are we so
invested in shoving all these young girls and women into the
pipeline that is dark and dingy and not very habitable?”

taken from,

E. Hammonds and B. Subramaniam. A conversation on feminist science studies. Signs, 28, 2003.

Holly said...

As a female scientist who is one month away from getting a PhD sans academic position lined up, I can only reiterate that a lot of the "reasons" you brought up hit home with me. Many apply.

I haven't exactly chosen to leave academia, but I am not optimistic that I will find a t-t that I'll even want to bother applying for. And, knowing that if I do find one and am interviewed, the hiring committee might very well look at me and consconciously or unconsciously think I am less viable because I might have children/a family life that will interfere with my ability to publish/do the job.

My solution is for us women to select as life partners those men or women who will help take care of our children so we can work if that's what we choose to do. And, I would also extend maternity/paternity (parenthood?) leave benefits to life partners so it's possible for one or both people to take time off. That would be a small price to pay for stronger families and healthier children.

I don't think this struggle to balance work with family is in any way unique to science/academia. There are problems across the board with the whole system.

We can certainly try to change the system by exercising our civic responsibility by getting involved with policy making. Trouble is, the people most motivated to lobby congress are those who have the least time because they're taking care of their family and working.

Until you can convince single, straight, white men that this is their problem too - nothing will change.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I have been here in Scandinavia for over a year, and have seen the effects of excellent maternity leave on the "leaky pipeline": none. Women are just as absent from the professor ranks, and they are just as discriminated against, as the US.

Here, paid parental leave is 10 months; the parents can split it between them however they choose. I have yet to meet a father who has spent more than 1 month leave (usually the first month). Even here, society still expects women to shoulder the majority of the child care burden, and women pay the price professionally.

(And yes, women younger than 45 are covertly discriminated against... employers pay the first 3 months of maternity leave, so hiring fertile women is "risky". You will never get an employer to admit that, since it is illegal, but I'd give you $100 if you found a woman who claimed it wasn't happening).

I emphasize: good paid maternity leave is not enough. Women must be released from the *expectation* of being the primary caregiver. I can only hope that, with this shift, motherhood would not longer be assumed to be a career-stopper.

Dr J. said...

Carrie: to make the point, the reasoning isn´t personally mine, it is me explaining what I´ve observed happening. Maybe it´s best to think of me as a devil´s advocate that´s trying to get women to think through these problems more thoroughly than just the instinctive feminists "This cannot be!" I do not believe in the validity of what´s happening, but happen it does and we have to consider exactly why, and also, exactly how WE will react in the boss situation.

The idea that we as a society are investing a fortune into training women that we then lose, is one I use a lot too. However, Dr X, when setting up his/her group does not consider it their responsibilty to ensure the society is supplying enough jobs for women. The other MAJOR point is that group leaders do NOT invest in postdocs/students for the long term. Here industry is much better because they do. Academia is a very different beast to industry, law firms, banks...

Am I A Woman Scientist made the point that the expectation has to shift. Yep, I agree. But how does an employer then deal with a postdoc that then says, "No actually I want to spend the first year at home with my baby." Great for the mother, wonderful for the baby, crap for the boss. Do we then change the expectation only by saying to women: A maximum of 2 months off after birth? You can´t (and I wouldn´t want to), but what it means is that this expectation won´t change as long as there are women who do take longer off. ScienceWoman, as a new mother, what do you think? Would you be willing to have someone say "to show solidarity with other women and ensure we get equal treatment in the workplace, you are not to spend any longer than X months as full time mother to your baby?"

Lastly, as an honest question to all young women scientists here, consider this situation: You have a just gotten your first group leadership position and with it, funding for a postdoc and a phd student. Your final two choices for the postdoc are between a male and a female, equally well suited (experience and personality) and both married with no kids. Can you HONESTLY tell me that it wouldn´t cross your mind? Honestly tell me that there would be no thought of the impact on YOUR productivity, YOUR group, YOUR career, if your postdoc then leaves for 6 months to have a baby? Don´t just jump on me here out of political correctness. If we can´t think these things through honestly and fully, how are we ever actually going to deal with it?

EcoGeoFemme said...

I've noticed that work often slows or stalls for a variety of reasons. I could be planning to do some particular lab work for months without actually getting it done. Maybe something else comes up that's higher priority, or equipment breaks, or I'm held up by bad weather for field work, etc. So while not all work halts, some work can stop while other work goes on. If a post-doc gets pregnant and can't do lab work, is that so terribly unusual?

Someone I know submitted a paper to Science and had it accepted while she was on maternity leave. While I don't think any woman should be expected to work while on leave (even at home), I'm just saying that it's not the end of the world to have a baby. In the big picture of a whole career, it's really not that much time off.

That said, it's still crap that having babies often reduces a woman's output compared to a man's. This business is competitive enough as it is.

PA said...

Science Woman is right that there are several reasons to leave academia, and not all of them are woman-centered. I recently read an article on businesswomen (CEOs no less) quitting or at least downsizing to devote more time to their personal lives. I think that most likely the two most important aspects are time and pay. Business pays plenty, but for those top positions, people have to devote almost every minute of every day. Academia (while certainly a time hog) allows somewhat more flexible schedules, but does not pay well enough for good child care, housekeeping help, etc etc. I have to say that as a researcher it is very tempting to try the business waters and see what making all that money feels like.

Lab Lemming said...

AS scientists, we try to find any explanation, no matter how far-fetched, that replaces this one, but there is a very important reason that you missed:

Bad luck.

The scientific system isn't designed to gove second chances. So good scientists who get shafted by no fault of their own have little recourse. Of course, nobody wants to admit that luck plays any part in science, so the lack of it is never acknowledged. Or rectified.

Maccanena said...

I am also a female PhD student finishing in a few short weeks. And I still can't make up my mind of what I will do. I want a life, I want children, and I am not free to move around as I please. My husband has a fantastic job, with a better pay already that I will ever get at the top of my career, and I don't wish him to drop that to follow me in an uncertain and badly paid career. But I think the main issue for me is the maternity one: I do wish to be a mother, I have absolutely no hurry to get to the top, I don't mind getting there slower than a male if I can have the time to be a happy mom to happy children. Unfortunately, the employers at Universities don't see it that way. You have to aim for the top, you have to leave your life behind, you have to sacrifice everything... which is competely ridiculous. My advisor and other professors don't understand my attitude, that I may want to have a balanced life. Is that so strange? Why do they make me feel like the weirdo here? With this kind of advisors and employers, no wonder we're all so messed up.

Oh well, thanks for the great post. These are the things that have been occupying my mind in the past few months, and will continue to do so until I get a job, whether in academia or in the industry.

volcano girl said...

What is the best analogy for the time between phd and tenure track? Sink or swim? Survival of the fittest? Survival of the most insane? How about, trying to survive a cold, bleak winter in a cocoon to wake up in spring to crack open and become a big moth? OK, not quite.

There are so many reasons to leave academia. I know some very smart, creative scientists (both men and women) who have been pushed to quit the rat race for family, lack of funding, and frustration.

I have been lucky to find a good postdoc with a fantastic advisor. And with funding for another year, I am optimistic and not desperate about finding a permanent position.

ScienceWoman, keep faith in yourself and in your abilities. Civil service is a terrific option for research. There are always community colleges and private high schools if you want to focus on teaching (not glamorous, but sometimes pay better than state universities!).

Jenny F. Scientist said...

I'd like to point out that it is very atypical for a woman's labwork to be restricted for pregnancy. At my current large R1, the only mandated restriction is a reduced radiation exposure- but nobody has gotten even 1/10th of the max exposure in five years anyways, so it's a non-issue. As for working with chemicals, for anything very toxic, one is minimizing exposure ANYWAYS. I'm sure there are a few chemicals one must avoid entirely, but many have valid substitutes (nontoxic dyes for et.bromide, etc.). So it's invalid to extend the non-working period into the latter months of pregnancy.

Here, the ten women I know who had babies in the last year all worked to within a week or two of the due date.

Jamie said...

Having children is a lifestyle choice, not a moral right. If you want to to well in science, simply don't have kids. With 7 billion humans on the planet, the world clearly does not need to be filled with your progeny. And besides, why would you want to subject yourself to such drudgery? There are so many better things you could be doing with your time. Science is only one of them.

Jenny F. Scientist said...

Except the MALE scientists overwhelmingly have kids. Young, even. I have never heard a young man say 'I don't know if I can have kids and get tenure.' That means there is a fundamental inequality built into the system.

As for lifestyle choice- half of all births in this country are unplanned. I recommend Bitch PhD as a resource for anyone who thinks kids are a lifestyle choice that should be denied if one wishes to teach college.

Anonymous said...

My mom's a surgeon, and worked up until three weeks before her due date with my younger brother -- and this is at nearly age 40 -- and no-one said anything about lab safety or any kind of thing like that. Furthermore the mineralogy lab tech here was something like 12 months pregnant and still preparing samples when I worked with her last year. I present this as anecdotal evidence that neither large hospital operating rooms nor Caltech restrict labwork due to someone being pregnant.

I'm not sure what I'll do about it if I ever get into this situation, but my fiance's more likely to stay home with children than I am, in any case. Convenient, that. It's what my parents did, and it worked fine for them.

C said...

A reason that affects women more than men is the two-body problem. When established in a relationship, the average age difference in male-female relationships is typically with the male older. So when she gets her PhD, he is typically established in his career, which makes it more difficult for her to have as free choice as when the older in the relationship gets the PhD first.

The "supportive wife" to further and enhance a man's career is not universal anymore, but is more common than the equivalent male role.

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