There are many programs going on trying to lure more girls into studying engineering and physics (some good, some bad), which seems, at first sight, great; but sometimes I wonder. Shouldn’t we first make sure that the women who are already in the system get some support so that they actually want to continue their career? Shouldn’t we first fix the infamous ‘leaky pipeline‘ before just putting more women into it and exposing them to the problems that makes women leave science at a far greater rate than men?
Annoyingly, often the character and preferences of women are blamed for the leak in the pipeline: the infamous imposter syndrome, that women are more prone to be insecure about their qualifications, longing for stability in life, and simply more aware that there are other more important things in life than the career, like having children, and thus actually more level-headed and reasonable than most men.
I’m sure that these are typical reasons that women give when asked why they leave. But certainly men who are leaving would respond similarly– these are in general the main reasons for leaving science. If the fraction of women leaving is greater than those of men, this means that those other considerations outweighted the joy and fun of being a scientists more often for women; and perhaps this is not because these reasons are inherently so much stronger for women, but just because being a scientist is simply less fun and less attractive if you are part of a minority.
Many articles are claiming that it is motherhood forcing women out of academia, because academia is not suited for part-time jobs, taking a year off is impossible etc. Of course, this is a very real problem; but I believe it is caused by us being in the minority. If there were many female professors, certainly the academic system, which is not made by God but by people, would adapt very quickly. After all, several countries with mandatory military service for men still allow them to be part of academia, even if they have to leave regularly for military training. It is ridiculous to think that motherhood should be a reason for women to have to leave the field. It is just a problem because structures are not adapted to the possibility; and also because too many women give up early, choosing another career just because they plan to have children in the future. In this way, many women fall out of the system silently, with no chance of universities noticing that changing their policies would have made them stay.
I believe that the main reason that the pipeline is leaking simply because there are too few women at the top level. Being a minority has the following implications:
- Problems with networking. Everyone is prone to wanting to surround themselves with people similar to them, and people love to collaborate with friends, with whom they can also go out and have fun. Most people prefer to have friends of their own sex, and scientists and engineers, with their slightly conservative tendencies, even more so. As a consequence, it is harder for women to establish collaborations and to be invited to conferences.
- Lack of mentorship. I often have seen how male professors become friends with their male PhDs, supporting them for all of their postdoc phase. It happens far more rarely that a male prof becomes friends with their female PhD — probably partly because a close relationship could be misinterpreted by others, partly because friendships are based on similarities.
- Lack of role models. I am deeply grateful about the few female profs I know that seem to have managed to get where they are on their own. All of them are extremely good and add a lot to their field. Their scarcity is however scary for female PhDs and postdocs and makes us feel unwelcome and odd. It seems people are surprised if we are ambitious, and expect us to leave at some point. If we don’t, they get irritated.
- Structural problems. I am convinced that there would be excellent childcare at Universities, and no problem with taking a year off for family reasons, if half of the professors were women. We all have a tendency to look out for our own kind. The person most unlikely to fight for childcare is, of course, the married male professor with a stay-at-home wive. And there is still a too large fraction of them around.
Put differently: The problem is caused by the problem itself, and self-perpetuating if no drastic measures are taken (see also here for a similar conclusion).
I am sick and tired of hearing how we women are more reasonable, more sensible, or alternatively weaker and less self-confident than male scientists. This is not my observation. It takes a huge amount of courage, stubborness and determination to go into a career that is totally dominated by the opposite sex. This problem is structural; the structures are actively against us women, and nobody even has to be personally sexist or discriminating for this to happen.
I do not see how it can be addressed except by quotas and by government intervention, like special grants tailored for women, that somehow people seem to be afraid of. I have no clue why; after all, it is the government paying for research, why not use part of this money for closing the gap between the genders? It cannot be left to the STEM departments at universities which are still under the rule of men who would like to keep up the status quo, consciously or unconsciously. By now, I am convinced change will never happen unless it is forced, and no amount of ‘science for girls’ programs will ever change the fact that female PhDs and postdocs are leaving academia at an alarming rate.
Btw, since this post came out rather pessimistic, here is some constructive advice about how to survive as a woman in a STEM field. I don’t have much advice, except that we should all try to help other women and let them help us.