Why do women leave science?

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.

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140 Responses to Why do women leave science?

  1. I greatly enjoy your blog, which always makes me think. I think you are absolutely right in saying that the effort should go into the leaky pipeline, rather than getting women into science.
    But there’s a problem with attributing the leaky pipeline to minority status, which is simply that you see it in disciplines where women aren’t a minority.
    In the UK we have the Athena Swan award scheme, which was set up to tackle this issue. Institutions have to produce statistics on things like % women at various levels, as well as an action plan for tackling gender balance. You might find their website worth a look, as there are lots of ideas for improving matters.
    Anyhow, I had to prepare the submission for our department of Experimental Psychology, and I found that the leaky pipeline is very much in evidence: we have around 50%women as tenured staff, but the numbers are more like 80% at undergrad and postgrad level. There’s a massive drop-off in % women between postgrad and postdoc stages. I think the proportional loss is similar in Physics, but you just start from a lower baseline of women, so you end up with a tiny number.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you for your kind words about my blog! 🙂
      Yes, you are right, your example does not fit my explanation. The drop that you have at your department cannot be lack of role models, problems with networking or anything like that.
      The fractional drop seems however somewhat less extreme to what I see around me. At my institute, we have now 30 % female PhD students and postdocs, and only 8 % in the tenured staff. It seemed even worse in the institutes where I was before, one had zero female faculty, the other one (and it was a big institute, with about 30 % female PhDs too) …. but maybe you’re right that in all of physics together, the proportional loss is similar. I don’t know. I would certainly feel much happier if there were 50% female profs in my field.

  2. lauras50by50 says:

    Your post made me think about my own academic background. I never intended to go into academia, but did want to be a scientist/engineer. I studied chemical engineering in college, then went straight on to get my masters in business. Now that I read your post I realize I never had a woman professor in engineering. I also didn’t encounter any female engineering PhD candidates while in school. I did go back to school a few years later and got a masters in manufacturing engineering…and again, no female professors. Hmmm. I did spend a few years as a lean manufacturing engineer, but otherwise have had a career in business.

    Congratulations on being Fresh Pressed!

  3. Gardner says:

    I thought you might find this story from NPR interesting. It discusses the role of stereotypes in women’s work in science and technology fields. The research suggests that while the stereotypes are not accurate the fact that they exist do impact the way that women work in these fields. It is very interesting.


    • zinemin says:

      Thanks for the link, this is a very interesting article.

      “For a female scientist, particularly talking to a male colleague, if she thinks it’s possible he might hold this stereotype, a piece of her mind is spent monitoring the conversation and monitoring what it is she is saying, and wondering whether or not she is saying the right thing, and wondering whether or not she is sounding competent, and wondering whether or not she is confirming the stereotype,” Schmader said.

      All this worrying is distracting. It uses up brainpower. The worst part?

      “By merely worrying about that more, one ends up sounding more incompetent,” Schmader said.

      I am afraid that happens to me as well. That is one of the reasons I prefer to work with women.

  4. Love this. I’ve been thinking about this lately, how I struggled with sciences in high school. Looking back, I was fully capable of understanding and succeeding in it, I just let the outside noises win that told me “science and math are for boys”. I hope more women are encouraged in these studies.

  5. When I took a Women & Gender Studies course, we covered the topic of women in the workplace, and concluded that women are being held back both by a glass ceiling and a sticky floor. However, with our country becoming less conservative with every passing year, I have a feeling things may change a bit.

  6. gud blog and interesting too…pls go through mine too…i hope u will………

  7. Just saw this blog today, and your topic piqued my interest. Nice discussion on a pressing issue.
    I agree! Keeping the established women in science encouraged in their fields is crucial. Women can’t just fill up the undergraduate population, there has to be women with doctorates too so the younger ones have people to look up to.
    The scarcity of women in science isn’t a new issue and personally, I really don’t like the idea of this whole “pinkifying science” business. Women in science deserve more respect than this. However, I guess a lack of understanding is what fuels these misguided attempts to encourage girls to get into the sciences.
    For once, the current culture promotes science as something “cool” – what with shows such as The Big Bang Theory or House. Pop culture just might encourage more girls to don lab coats. However, I also hope they do it for the right reasons.

  8. ridicuryder says:

    I think you are looking at the trees without seeing the forest here. I like the ” tree” observations you make in this post and that you brushed the bigger issue of Maternity time. I know that as a single factor, women “opting out” for motherhood makes several perspectives possible.

    Addiction research out of Vacouver by Gabor Mate suggests a pretty strong link between substance dependency and being inadequately nurtured as an infant and young child.
    Women desiring parity in the workplace are kind of missing the point when seeking equality…..there are HUGE differences between how women and men approach work (I have spent 20 years as a Male Nurse so I can also speak to a choosing a career dominated by the opposite sex but I won’t get into that here).

    Rather than petitioning Science, Universities or other institutions to “promote” inclusion for women, I think a simple analogy would carry things further. Something like “Would you ride a bicycle with spokes attached to only one half-side of the rim?” Women are Spectacular, flawed as much (but in different ways) as men. Different sexes don’t need exact or 50/50 representation across all fields but nobody should shy away from the statement that any one profession/vocation that has a lack-luster approach to promoting inclusion is dominated by MORONS.

    A woman’s (or man’s) place is in the home for a significant portion of child rearing years (if a healthy society interests you). That this is still a barrier for women pursing a career should probably be viewed as one of the largest holes in everyone’s data. Work-Life balance is a cozy little concept given a lot of lip service among Corporations, Institutions, Goverment Agencies and other Consultation-aholics…….bring a laser focus to this and a lot, lotta….basically gigantic amount of problems (like your trees) fall away.

    • zinemin says:

      You are wrong. Meta-analysis of many studies shows absolutely no impact of non-parental day-care on the development of children, see this link here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/insight-therapy/201010/is-non-parental-daycare-bad-children
      In some cases, it has even been found that non-parental day-care has a positive impact on development. That does not surprise me. Professionals at least went through some sort of training, while anyone with any sort of psychological issue can be a parent.
      It is totally wrong that one parent needs to stay at home for a ‘significant portion of child rearing years’ to get ‘a healthy society’. This is right-wing propaganda and not based on any evidence. In many societies throughout histories, women were working, or children were handed over to nannies, and society did not collapse. The idea of a stay-at-home mother is a very recent development and in fact really unnatural. Just read about tribes in the amazon, for example. Men and women both mostly disappear into the jungle during the day to collect food, and very few adults stay to look after the children.

  9. nicademus83 says:

    Hi. I’m actually writing a research paper on this very subject. I’d be happy to share it with you when I finish.

  10. churchofdog says:

    Thank you for addressing this issue. I’m a married, child-free-by-choice woman in my early 30s who recently decided to go back to college to pursue a career in the planetary sciences. I don’t feel like educational institutions are to blame for women’s decisions to leave the sciences. Personally, I have felt like this environment is the only one in which I have found support. To be quite honest, I think women leave science due to familial/societal pressure to settle down, get married, and have children. Fields like mathematics, the sciences, engineering, and architecture require a significant amount of time, peace, and quiet that – let’s face it – are luxuries you don’t have once kids are in the picture. It seems like women especially aren’t very supportive of women who choose not to have children and/or decide to pursue an education in fields that are traditionally male-dominated. As women, we need to support each other instead of trying to tear each other down regardless of what path we choose. Also, if we make the assumption that men can’t be role models for women and vice versa, then aren’t we putting severe limitations on ourselves?

    • I am also a woman in my mid 30’s who is childfree by choice and I have to agree with you here. I’ve been routinely harassed and even discriminated against because of my choice to not have children. I’ve been accused of being a lesbian, being mentally ill, have lost relationships with men, etc. There is still a lot of social expectation that women are supposed to have children and, further more, that the children then become the excuse for not ever doing anything with your life. You can stick “because of the kids” at the end of any excuse you want and no one will question it. I have many clients who are in college, approaching graduation, and honestly, I find it depressing, how many of the women have been working for years to complete degrees that they already know they’re never going to use.

  11. Yes: “It takes a huge amount of courage, stubborness and determination to go into a career that is totally dominated by the opposite sex.”

  12. I know that as a female student in a STEM major, I also experience difficulties. A couple of my professors were surprised that I did so well in their classes and alluded to the fact that their surprise stemmed from the fact that I was female. Maybe that would be less of an issue if more of my professors were female.

  13. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for your honest blog – I love it. I’m not a scientist, but I am an expat living abroad and I blog as well. It’s great coming across such a well-organised and earnest blog. Cheers!

  14. I agree about minority status: I’ve been the minority gender at the playground many times. I still don’t know why it makes me uncomfortable to have a bunch of women come up to me completely excited, saying “Are you a stay-at-home dad?” I’m not, but I know one who has a Ph.D. in physics. I doubt that men would give the same reasons for leaving science, although there may be promising avenues there if you would ask men. Being a man, I can tell you people have their own societal expectations of men, just as they do of women.

    You’re sick and tired of hearing that women are more reasonable? Is that some kind of insult? Is being a scientist, having tenure, more women in science, etc. more important that being reasonable? Take whatever meaning of “reasonable” you want. Would “having the right priorities” be an insult if it meant getting out of academic science? If it meant fewer women in positions of power, would it be an insult to say that more women don’t see the value of “power?” Could men benefit from questioning those values?

    I think the question you’ll need to ask yourself (a very hard one) is why you want to be a scientist. Why do you want to be a professor? Why do you want there to be more female professors? Who would be better off if there were more women professors? Would science be better off? Would those women be better off? What does it mean to be better off?

    • zinemin says:

      No, ‘being reasonable’ is not an insult.
      But I think ANY generalizations regarding gender and race are bad, problematic, and limiting. I am absolutely convinced men, women, people from different races are extremely similar to start with. It is conventions, expectation, and environment that make differences. I am convinced about this because I experience on a daily basis what it means to have an unconventional job.
      You feel the boundary of the convention too, if you are at the playground, and this ‘uncomfortable feeling’ you have is something we female scientists experience all the time. Wouldn’t you be irritated if you heard women at the playground say: ‘well, men are less often here at the playground because they are just more ambitious than us?’

      • Funny you should say that because my wife has experienced comments like that. When my wife was in medical school we moved into a neighborhood with lots of stay-at-home moms while she was pregnant. Walking home one day she met a gang of these moms and as they were getting acquainted with the usual comments about medical school (“Oh that’s awful! That’s so tough” and so on) somebody “Yeah, but at least you have something [instead of being at home with your kids all the time].”

        The flip side is that my wife would love to be home with her kids all the time. We have a society where people are told that the impossible is possible if you just work hard enough. Should a woman (or a man) discover that’s not true while in graduate school or a post-doc, she might leave academia. Having kids is a total game-changer: kids don’t just make people question their values, they utterly change them in completely unpredictable ways. Consider this: when you have a kid you suddenly have someone who loves you unconditionally: no matter how little you achieve, how many graduate degrees you have, how much money you make or don’t make, how many papers you publish, where you live or what you choose to do between 9 and 5. And this is someone who’s never even met you before! I’ve realized over the past six years of being a father that science is not the most important thing in my life, nor is fame, status or power.

        Many stay-at-home moms I’ve met are highly educated, i.e. they have graduate degrees. Either they changed their minds like I’ve discussed, or they never intended to have academic jobs in the first place. My point is there’s nothing wrong with that. The logical burden is on people who say that’s wrong, and in most cases they’ll appeal to economic reasoning, which is totally heartless.

        I see what you mean about being a minority, and that sucks, especially in a scientific field with a higher gender disparity than mine. I’m not generalizing about women, or men. In my experience, the women I’ve known who have left academia have done it superficially for a number of economic reasons, but beneath that they’ve all done it for one reason: their values changed by the end of graduate school. Either that or they just wanted a Ph.D. and not the job that goes with it.

      • zinemin says:

        I disagree with several of the points you make.

        I do think it is a problem if women give up their jobs completely and become stay-at-home-moms, for the following non-economic reason: It is a huge burden for children to be the ‘sole purpose’ in life for their mothers; and that is what usually happens with stay-at-home-mothers. I know many of such examples from the perspective of the children; they are overprotected, mothers still meddle with their life when they are thirty and they have problems to make decisions and a huge guilt-complex. Also, I know several stay-at-home moms who had a severe depression after their children move out. So I think it is a great thing that your wife works and I think your children will be grateful for this in the long run.

        Also, I find your point about children ‘being someone who loves you unconditionally’ very strange. I am not in science because I need a boost to my ego, but because I find it interesting and exciting. If someone loved me unconditionally, I don’t think that would change anything for me. Especially if it is someone who is biologically conditioned to love me no matter what, like a small child. I also have a feeling you place too much of a burden on the child if you use it to provide you with unconditional love. Most children older than 13 years old than I know have very complex, often difficult relationships with their parents.
        I have observed that it helps a lot if the mothers have their own life, though; then it is easier to leave each other be and have a respectful and grown-up relationship.

  15. Reblogged this on Sex, math and programming and commented:
    What are the values that lead people to careers in science? Do those values have anything to do with the leaking pipeline?

  16. A former physicist says:

    I’m putting a vote in for marriage and motherhood as the main reasons for having put out my aspiration for becoming the next Albert Einstein or Madame Curie.

  17. As a woman who was in science research in her early career, and now in another field still dominated by men (clergy), I think it’s great that you talking about this issue. And I agree, that the lack of support by other women is a huge factor on why women leave the sciences.

  18. as a father of three teen girls your post really hits home, thanks for sharing

  19. bharatwrites says:

    I agree that it’s foolish to judge women in academia by typical female qualities. There’s clearly something different about them that they’ve chosen this line. Also, academia is not a meritocracy. Success in academia is affected by politics more than in the industry. Tenured faculty members are impossible to unseat, and their voting powers usually mean that upstarts with fresh ideas who rock the boat become unwelcome. And as you’ve already said, a woman who’s willing to give up security to pursue a career in academia (occupied by mostly men) is special. Such a person would be the type to rock the boat. So, the fact that these women find academia environments hostile has less to do with discrimination against women and more to do with the fact that any given woman in academia is more likely to make waves than any man in academia.
    While one might be tempted to brush off academia as the white man’s world, the solution to it is to increase the number of private colleges. Starve the government colleges as much as possible. Instead of wasting more taxpayer money to correct a societal wrong, let’s use private funds and open more women’s only colleges. Give them money to buy equipment and hire students. When their research comes to the fore, they cannot possibly be ignored.
    Having said all that though, it is possible that women leaving science has something to do different priorities. We need more studies to understand the cause. I don’t think it would be fair to increase the quota for women in colleges with government funding. That would be state-funded discrimination against men. It would encourage the entry of those women who frankly aren’t that good.

  20. thedenude says:

    I think it might be misleading to discount gender differences as a determinant in career preference. As a somewhat extreme example, neurological models possessing an affinity for technical thought are observed in much higher proportion amongst males than amongst females. Keep in mind, of course, that additional complications having to do with being a minority might only exacerbate already standing neurological differences, thus causing the observed phenomenon. In any case, does there exist sufficient statistical correlation to indicate gender as somewhat causative in the selection of a career path? I thank you for your post, and I will write about it in my next article.

    • zinemin says:

      It just baffles me completely if men make statements like this. Do you realize this is extremely sexist? Your sentence ‘neurological models possessing an affinity for technical thought are observed in much higher proportion amongst males’ is revealing. Neurological MODELS are OBSERVED? Do you understand the difference between models and observations? I am afraid you are the one with no affinity for technical thought.
      Maybe this is why you would like to believe that women are inferior in men in that respect?
      Careful meta-analysis of data consistently finds that male and female brains are extremely similar, and subtle differences are mainly due to socialization. See here for example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/15/girls-boys-think-same-way
      To quote from the article:

      In short, our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility. It is a case backed by Lise Eliot, an associate professor based at the Chicago Medical School. “All the mounting evidence indicates these ideas about hard-wired differences between male and female brains are wrong,” she told the Observer.

      Unfortunately, every study, no matter if only based on 10 cases, and done with very questionable techniques, which finds some differences between men and women gets a huge amount of attention in the media. Because this is some men really want to hear. Just open your eyes, look at the evidence, and consider how strong convention and social conditioning can be.

      • thedenude says:

        Well, see. You’ve demonstrated perfectly the cognitive difference of which I speak. People with cognitive affinity for more social behaviors tend to view objects with respect to how they are affected by such objects, while people with a more technical cognitive mode take the opposite approach. Thus,because it the traditional view of social affinity is that of inferiority, you get, upset because you feel I am viewing you as inferior. But, there is nothing inferior about having an ability like that. Of course, neurologically, I’m afraid that the bias between the two different cognitive modes does exist. Having said that, it would certainly be a mistake to assume bias means, Independet correlation. It hardly can be said.

  21. This is such a significant problem, which is why I’m beyond thrilled that my 9-year-old daughter tells me she wants to be an engineer. However, I see a problem even at her young age: Without proper encouragement — especially of younger children — I see this as a fleeting goal. I wish more colleges had outreach programs into elementary schools, so children could see the very real advantages to a career in the sciences.

    • zinemin says:

      I’d be thrilled too if I had a daughter who wants to be an engineer. 🙂 I once read that girl’s interest in science often peak at about 9 years old, before puberty starts. After that, girls often become more insecure.
      What would have helped me when I was a teenager is if someone had told there are many men who find female engineers and scientists interesting and attractive. I have the impression that often girls stop being interested in science when they become teenagers because they are afraid about not finding a boyfriend. Teenagers are so conventional in this. 🙂 And so wrong…

      • Brigitte says:

        First, I loved your post. As a kid, I was not really into sciences, mainly because I had very bad teachers. But once at age 14 I got a wonderful sciences teacher, my curiosity just increased about everything and I was completely changed – for good. Unfortunatelly, my career choice in sciences (a bachelor in chemistry, followed by engineering and a MSc in nanosciences) brought me more despair than joy, no matter if it was in an industry, teaching or even in academia. I was always surrounded by a vast majority of “machos” who dictated the most unfriendly male-rules. Or you follow them, or you’re out. In ALL interviews for the last 24 working years of my life, one of the key questions were “You don’t intend to have children, do you?”, which can be translated into more than a menace than to a humble question. Of course I lied. And as it was my secret desire, I do have a family now. But I now am aware that my choice in sciences was not a smart one. When I was still a teenager, it was like a challenge for me, a competition, trying to prove myself that I could survive and be successfull in an environment dominated by men. But the battle just became tiresome and meaningless, because we simply cannot win a game where the rules don’t apply to us. So I had a breakthrough and started to analyse my decisions and its consequences. Life is not so black & white as I thought and I refuse the cartesian model for human beings. My loss, but maybe my salvation is still to come.

  22. CBeckyBlog says:

    This is spot on. When working in a large research facility over the summer, I remember females being outnumbered by males 4-to-1. It was horrible. And so often, it becomes difficult to actually collaborate with other women because the rarity of our positions make us compete with each other.

  23. Ghazala says:

    Congratulations for being freshly pressed. I’m an academic from social sciences in India and I feel certain resonances here… In certain disciplines like sciences, women may be in a minority or the ‘leaky pipelines’ problem may persist even when, like Dorothy above says, that they are not in a minority. Your post made me think of women belonging to minority groups of the wider society in which any institution is located. Its a double whammy! Any ways… Your blog post is a first in many years that has provoked me to comment and first ever on fp.

    • zinemin says:

      Yes, I agree… maybe the leaky pipeline in fields like psychology has to do with women being generally less visible in the academic and also the business world.

  24. Adam says:

    Thanks for the post… But I’m confused about one point: you mention fixing the problem before putting effort soley into drawing more women into STEM fields, but the basic problem is then explained to be the lack of women itself. Isn’t the only way to combat the problem attempting to bring more women into STEM fields?

  25. This is so spot on!! I don’t even work in academic science, but did do an MA in Women’s Studies and many of my colleagues in that program were examining these very issues, as dual science/womens studies graduate students. Now, I try to promote STEM programs for young people, particularly young women, and I feel like I should have a disclaimer every time I talk about the topic. Like if 20 year old undergrads fully understood the path ahead, maybe we wouldn’t lose them “silently” as you say. And you didn’t even get to the issue of what gets considered “science” and what to research when women make up half the scientists…our public institutions would be researching different things, I believe. Thanks for this post.

  26. I wonder if a contributing factor is the income gap between men and women. If the woman earns less than her spouse, it’s her career that is sacrificed on the alter of ‘family’ – and I don’t know too many men who are unthreatened by a girlfriend who earns more. In your example, many professorships mean moving yourself, and if you have one, your family to a new location. How many families relocate based on the woman’s job?

    I submit that your woes begin far earlier – with the gender bias in the toy department. Where are the chemistry sets sold? The building toys? If all we offer our girls are princess tales and Bratz dolls, then that’s what we’ll get. We subject our girls to this pink veneer from babyhood.

    Femininity is not measured in intellect, it’s measured in cuteness for the young, and in motherhood for the adult.

    • zinemin says:

      Yes, unfortunately you are right. I totally do not understand why it should be more of a problem for men if they earn less, or if they move for the wife, than the other way round. This baffles me. I cannot imagine being in a relationship with a man who thinks like this. Why do women put up with this? It is a mystery.

  27. ratchet7764 says:

    Very interesting post. Trying to get women (well, actually, everybody!) more interested in following through on career aspirations is a laudable endeavor. I love the idea of having child care at universities–that would make higher education so much more accessible to women! Looking forward to the next post!

  28. avaflux says:

    Hello there!
    I found your post very interesting! Food for thought! 🙂

  29. Kirstin says:

    Congratulations on making the “Fresh Pressed” page on WordPress. I’m glad that this topic will be able to be seen by people outside of science. I, too, have been having the same thoughts as you. In fact, I also started a blog as a means to try to understand this issue and to contact other female scientists in order that we may support each other. My blog is: http://tosciencewithlove.wordpress.com/.
    I also just contacted another woman who is also blogging for similar reasons. Her blog is: http://sciencementor.wordpress.com/.
    Again, congrats on a great post!

    • zinemin says:

      Thanks! 🙂 I am looking forward to reading both blogs in more detail soon, they look very interesting. And I am all in favour of trying to support each other a little — it feels sometimes like a terribly lonely struggle, and it is hard to find people I can discuss these issues with…

  30. I will never leave science. You will have to pull the glass pipette out of my cold dead hands.

  31. amberbernstein says:

    A very good post, and certainly true. While I am currently making my way in the humanities department (on a very low level still), I have so much admiration for women who go into science.
    Somewhat cynically, I would like to add that I think society does not want more women in higher positions, they only want them at the ground to medium level to do the bulk of the badly paid work.

  32. Jason says:

    So, why is this a problem? Is the engineering field somehow inadequate with more men than women? Are the women less happy for pursuing something they would rather being doing than engineering? Are the men in engineering less satisfied in their work for the relative lack of women? It seems to me that the hidden premise of this post is that men and women must achieve numerical parity in every field without regard to some patterned differences between the sexes. Also, implicit in the article is the insinuation that there is something unjust in the system that affects women’s career choices away from engineering.

    Perhaps women are less attracted to engineering and the sciences for similar reasons that there are fewer men who sell Avon. Maybe they are just not so interested.

    No, I am not an engineer nor a scientist.

    • zinemin says:

      I think you did not read my post carefully. I am talking about women who extremely interested in science, to the degree that they are getting a PhD in it, and then leave anyway. And yes, I do think it would be good for society and science if there were more female professors. I even know many men who say that they would like to have more women around; isn’t it boring in any field or in any profession, especially in a creative profession like science, if it is totally dominated by one minority of the human species, namely white males, for no other reasons than convention? Because I do not believe that there is any other reason. Convention is a very powerful thing. And often very bad for progress.

  33. Cherrie Zell says:

    Structure, by its very nature, is insidious. Most people don’t notice it because it has evolved to suit the majority. Empirically proving that a structure that suits the majority is actually a bad thing is nigh on impossible. And the politics and power at the moment have such a strong bent towards evidence-based policy.

    For a recent doctor’s visit, I specifically asked for an older female doctor because I figured she’d be more in tune with my problem. But when she asked if a I had a preference for the specialist – male or female – I said it didn’t matter. She responded by saying that she prefered to recommend female specialists. Whereas I had been pragmatic about finding a solution to my problem, she reminded me (without being pushy about it) that there were bigger problems that I could help resolve with my choice of actions.

    Unfortunately, individual responses are the slow road to change. Thank you for your post to remind me that we also need to think broadly as well.

  34. hellomslewis says:

    I started going to college because I had a dream of bioengineering better oil eating bacteria. My background was ecology-based, from a family of park rangers, and I had won several state level science competitions. Somewhere in the course of coursework I felt like I didn’t belong. I’m now finishing up my MBA, and in reading this wonder why exactly I became one of the statistics.

  35. lilbrigs says:

    I am a huge science nerd. I love outer space most of all, but also biology and chemistry. Basically I’m intrigued with how the world works. I just never had the patience to study or retain all that information. If I was oriented toward my other brain hemisphere, I’m sure I’d love a job in the field. But I was born an artsy fartsy kid instead, and went to a high school where everyone was fighting to be in the top 10%, and nothing I did was ever good enough. And I can’t successfully take a test to save my life.

  36. Hevel Löwen says:

    Reblogged this on The Realm of Wonder and commented:

  37. Aurora says:

    I’m a PhD student in Brazil (but not STEM…on the contrary, my area is considered predominantly female, and some don’t think of it as part of the sciences 😉 However, even if 99.9% of the students are women, most professors are men). Women do give up along the way, and I might be one of them…I’m just so sick and tired of…everything in the academic world. I don’t know. I guess I’m just there out of stuborness…but I might give myself a break between this stage and my post-doc to breath a little.

    • zinemin says:

      Yes, absolutely do take a break if you somehow can! It is easy to burn out during a PhD. Maybe the fun will come back if you have some time off, or else you might have another idea what you want to do. I really should have taken 2 months off between the PhD and my first postdoc. Instead I started the postdoc totally exhausted and spent a year having literally one cold after the other. I probably lost 2 months with all these colds anyway. Good luck!

  38. plasticpatrick says:

    I would generally agree with your post. Women are badly needed in science. Personally I am in a computer science program. We had two women out of a class of 21. One dropped out in the first year and the other didn’t make it to year three. Women are so valuable because they are the minority in computing. They bring different perspectives that would never occur to the boys club.
    The problem with quotas is that it meddles with the free market system and it threatens the people currently holding power.
    It’s something that should be done for the good of humanity but we aren’t very good at doing what will benefit the whole.

  39. ecodolphin says:

    Women are equal to men in every aspect except confidence in my opinion. Women are making in roads slowly. Just remember don’t ever stop pursuing what ever it is that matters most to you. And don’t ever back down to mans beliefs if you don’t share them!

  40. Sarah D. says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m glad it was FP’d or I probably wouldn’t have seen it. I work on a project that brings local paleontology and geology (professional and amateur levels) into street fairs and other places where you wouldn’t expect to see science. We work with different partners, including historical and arts organizations as well as scientific ones, and we’re beginning to link up with schools and girls’ programs. I’m not going to give up on trying to get more girls into STEM, but obviously so much more needs to be done all along the trajectory.

    Sorry to see a few minutes ago that Sally Ride just died. Such an inspiring woman, inspiring person.

    • zinemin says:

      This sounds like a great project. I loved paleontology as a girl. I think it is a very good and accessible starting point to get interested in science.

  41. Honie Briggs says:

    You may be interested in downloading the free podcast on iTunes by Sally Ride Science
    A Global Marathon For, By and About Women in Engineering (Hosted By National Engineers Week Foundation, March 2006) https://www.sallyridescience.com/media/feed.xml
    Sally Ride, as you may know, passed away today at the age of 61. I was in high school when she blasted off aboard the Challenger and became the first American woman in space, and a few years later I entered a male dominated career field as a jet propulsion specialist.

  42. Peaches says:

    I’m not a scientist, but the same thing can actually be said about Journalism. Higher level journalism jobs most often go to men, in large part because of that family thing, while entry level positions are held about equally by men and women, if not more women.
    Good post! Very thought provoking.

  43. Carol Brooke says:

    Zinemin, This is an important step towards finding a resolution to this problem. You brought up very important points. I had a minor in Biology, but I decided to let it go because of the lack of compassion happening during dissections. It was really horrific and unethical. Apparently, if I wanted to study biology, the animals needed to be killed and torn apart for research. Chemistry was fun to study. I did feel that there was a lack of role models. My mother was an electron microscopist when I was a child. Later, she became a teacher. I considered attending U.C. Santa Cruz to study the dolphins echolocation when I finished my undergraduate work. After visiting and talking with a graduate of the program I decided to earn a graduate degree in counseling. My second graduate degree is a Master of Science in Educational Technology. Women in science may be able to use technology as a tool to answer the needs in balancing work and family. I think there will continue to be many more career opportunities for virtual, telecommute, work-from-home opportunities.

  44. Anonymous says:

    Why do women leave science? I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. There are probably many reasons and I’m not informed enough to know the answers–if there are clear answers. An additional question that could be asked, why are men being significantly outpaced by women in educational attainment? In the U.S., 25% of women have attained a Bachelors degree by the age of 23. Only 14% of men have attained a Bachelors degree by 23. In Canada, where I live, the numbers are similar. It wouldn’t surprise if there are similar numbers in European countries.


  45. Why do women leave science? I’m not sure I have an answer to that question. There are probably many reasons and I’m not informed enough to know the answers–if there are clear answers. An additional question that could be asked, why are men being significantly outpaced by women in educational attainment? In the U.S., 25% of women have attained a Bachelors degree by the age of 23. Only 14% of men have attained a Bachelors degree by 23. In Canada, where I live, the numbers are similar. It wouldn’t surprise if there are similar numbers in European countries.


  46. I’m a journalist who has written about engineering education several times, and was really daunted by what I was told is traditional education in that field, esp. the “fire hose” of data shot at students in a truly macho fashion. I know it would be very difficult indeed to thrive in an environment where people actually expect/hope you will fail and disappear — as you know, good jobs and grant money are limited, so thew smart/tough women competing, the better, in some eyes. Journalism has become very heavily female — although, in the US where I live, it’s quite similarly depressing to see how few women have very senior, well-paid jobs and how few women get the best freelance assignments from the prestige outlets.

    • zinemin says:

      I personally liked what you call ‘macho’ education… I liked getting a lot of information thrown at me and figuring out things on my own. It is just a certain style that some people like, and others don’t, and I don’t think it is gender-specific. I also knew men who hated this kind of style and left.
      Grants are indeed limited and competition is stress, but that is the same for men… I think the problem is that we women have an additional source of stress that men do not have, namely questions like: ‘do people take me seriously or do they have a prejudice against me? am i wrong with the impression that this guy criticizes me more sharply than he would with a men? am i imagining things or not? ‘, as explained nicely in the NPR article linked above by Gardner. I think this additional source of stress makes it easier to burn out, and contributes to the problem….
      It is very annoying that the top jobs even in very female-dominated fields are held by men. I really hope this will change!

  47. Leah says:

    “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.”

    Plus, having a woman as a mentor, too, helps in terms of being realistic about your career and life choices and opportunities. I was in the humanities in undergrad and grad school and had equal numbers of male and female professors and mentors, but my (female) thesis advisor was the one who advised me not to change my name when I got married (and I didn’t) and who talked about how academia affected her family and personal lives. Another female professor, and, later, a male professor, told me about how the female professors on family leave don’t tend to get a lot of work done on leave, but when their male partners take their portion university-allotted family leave, they write their first or second book.

    Ultimately, I’ve decided not to have children for a variety of reasons including my career, and after I graduated with an MA, I moved on to working in the field instead of pursuing a PhD, but if I hadn’t been told by my mentors that I would really have to consider a lot of issues about being an academic/in a career and a woman at the same time, I might have had unrealistic expectations about my supposed support system. Research institutes, universities, and the private sector alike need to make family leave and family life more attainable without hindering one’s career for both women and men.

    As for working in an all-male environment as a woman, I really liked The Real Katie’s post on being “too sensitive”: http://therealkatie.net/blog/2012/mar/21/lighten-up/

    This is something everyone needs to read.

    Thanks for the great post and congrats on being freshly pressed!

  48. Scott says:

    Not to seem irreverant, but maybe women leave science for the same reason men leave the Church!

    • zinemin says:

      This comment is a total mystery to me. Are men leaving the Church in disproportional numbers?
      And why? Because they feel marginalized? That makes no sense. Their deity, the priests, and nearly all the important figures in the Bible are male. Probably this comment is trying to be sexist in some way, but I don’t even understand how.

  49. Anonymous says:

    Hello Zinemin,
    interesting topic! I have worked for 35+ years in biological and medical sciences and am a tenured professor (male) at a major ivy league University in the USA. I have spent most of my life doing NIH funded research in the laboratory. In our field there are currently more women then men at the levels of house staff, fellows and postdocs, and even junior faculty. Senior faculty and departments heads are at least 30-40% female. It depends a bit on the field. There are less women in surgery, for example. I have two daughters and one of them is an adult (mid thirties) who works at a major Wall street firm in banking. In that field there are less than 3% women at the mid levels (vice president) and even less among the higher levels and partners. Women in banking experience real and blatant discrimination. In the current political atmosphere there is little will to help them.
    In terms of those that leave Science I have been curious for some time about their motives. Specially when they are promising and talented young scientists with publications in Nature, Science or Cell. Curiously, in my limited experience, these have been mostly men! Their burn out is real. The causes are multiple: the grinding grant writing process, the politics of academia or big pharma or biotech companies, the insecurity of future funding or even future pursuit of your project… I have always found the process of training talent very wasteful. Some of the brightest young talents I have met in the last 40 years are not doing Science anymore. This is not a male/female thing, I am convinced, but it is something inherently wrong with the system in the US. Of course “burnout” exists in many fields… Thanks for your thoughts. David

  50. skyride says:

    “This problem is structural”– ah, aren’t they all? Well, a fair share of them, anyway. Great post.

    p.s. what are some of the countries that allow male academics to take time off for the military? That would make a great counterargument when I get into debates like this with my male friends.

    • zinemin says:

      Switzerland is one of them. Men have about 300 days of compulsory service, and this is not in one piece, so they have to leave work for a few weeks quite a few times. If they go higher in rank, they even have more compulsory service… and those high-ranking ones are even often people with important jobs, like managers, and nobody considers it a problem that they take time off for the military.
      I also know that Cyprus has 26 months of compulsory service. Enough time to bring up a two year old. 🙂
      Yet, I am sure men of course anyway dominate the academic world even in Cyprus, despite being two years behind compared to all women. I assume they adapt the age-limits for grants accordingly in Cyprus… it is ridiculous that this is not done for women who have taken family leave. Is the military more important for society? I really doubt that.

      • skyride says:

        Thanks for that! I have heard such arguments made time and time again– it was even a legit position to take in denying a woman a job in the not-so-distant past. But you have definitely proved that a gross double-standard.

  51. Miss Y says:

    I’ve only recently started a degree in Engineering but I’ve work in field in a roundabout way for years. I enjoy it so far although it can be challenging and as a woman it can be difficult yet I’m determined and passionate so that goes a long way in helping me push through.

    Since mining has boomed in our country and trades people are hard to find that companies have resorted to encourage women to learn a trade and join the engineering sector. There seems to be plenty of support to do so.

  52. Apurva Mehta says:

    yeah, your observation and experience is really true, the way you have described the reality which is the path that leads to a solution is also impressive…and from my experience i can say that specially in academics women is more powerful in convincing then men.

  53. melaninas says:

    Reblogged this on innovateproject.

  54. Jason says:

    Rather interesting that the author considers herself an academic but then filters out hard questions she doesn’t want to deal with. My comment remains stuck in moderation clearly because she didnt want to deal with the possibility that perhaps women are proportionately less interested in science and engineering for the same reason that men are proportionately less interested in cosmetology. The assumption that real differences in career interests between men and women seems to ignore mountains of data.

    • zinemin says:

      I replied to your comment somewhere above. It is funny that you say I ‘consider myself an academic’. Would you say that to a man too? That is not a consideration and not a matter of opinion, I have a PhD and work in science. I *am* an academic. And there is mountains of data than men and women are extremely similar in their interests and abilities to start with, but that girls are actively discouraged if they show interest in cars, machines, physics, and maths. If you are so interested in the topic, why not do some reading?

  55. Great post – congrats on being Freshly Pressed.
    Sexism and subtle discrimination may be part of the equation as to why some women leave science. A neurobiologist at Stanford, Ben Barres has written and spoken on this topic and has a unique perspective – he has worked in science as both a woman and a man and has first-hand experience with the different ways in which men and women scientists are treated. See an interview with him here:

    And his essay in Nature here (with supporting data!):

  56. itssrijana says:

    what everyou have said in you post about women and science and comments too.. i dont think it relates to asia ..my openion

  57. stephaniedi says:

    the same reason women are leaving law…they find out that achieving balance, in the exisiting social schemes, is fiction. There has to be more attention to that leaky pipeline if there can ever be gender equality. Thanks for a thoughtful and thought provoking post.

  58. Great point – I think the medical profession (at least here in South Africa), proves your point. A few decades ago it was awful being a female doctor, and there were few of them. Now there are many female professors and top consultants in our hospitals, and it is easier on women doctors to fulfill all their obligations too, because the system has adapted.

  59. Thanks for your post….I have been wondering the same question in regards to all the recent articles about recruiting more women to the STEM majors but what about the attrition rates? I would like to see the data for each step: undergraduate to career level. Perhaps (as you stated), the issue is not recruiting but actually retaining well-trained scientists to stay in the field. However, it is important to recognize that being a professor is a small subset of the multitude of satisfying science careers and maybe women are more in tune to this realization. Overall, I think women could be more supportive and stop projecting a sense of guilt. If a woman wants to change her name or not, stay home with kids or not have children, etc. then these are her personal choices and she should not be chastised for these decisions. Instead, women could be encouraged more to locate support programs and communities (as through information in your blog) and made to feel empowered that they can take control of directing their own career path in the sciences (i.e. self-mentoring).

  60. rushedreader says:

    Don’t forget the two-body problem. My funding is close to running out and there are no core-funded jobs (similar to US tenure track) at my current university, nor any of the ones nearby. My husband’s job is going great, the house is nice and the garden is lovely. Do we pack up and go somewhere else in the hope that my next job will be “THE ONE”, jeopardising everything else, or is it time for me to look into doing something else and admit that the last 11 years of research were ultimately just a stopgap before I look for the “real job” that my parents have been asking about since I graduated? I don’t know the answer to that, by the way.

    One other thing, I find positive discrimination and targeted funding for women in STEM incredibly patronising and I would not be happy to get a job if my gender played a role in it. Academic science is about excellence, and it would be difficult to live and work with a whiff of “you got there because you are a girl”. Difficult, but perhaps not impossible. 😉

    There has got to be a better way, keep looking.

    • zinemin says:

      I would agree with you if there was no negative discrimination. But since it is there, as has been proven in many studies, and since the structures are against women, I think positive discrimination is needed. I really do not see a better way.
      For example, if there were grants specifically for women, maybe you could apply for such a grant to get new funding at your current university. Do you really think you would care if somebody would perhaps say ‘she just got it because she’s a girl’? You know that you are good, and you know that having more women in science is good for society. In the long run, if you do good research, nobody would remember what grant exactly you got anyway. But I find it more likely that most of your colleagues never even would find out what kind of grant you got. I certainly do not know what kind of grants the assistant profs at my institutes have, and I could not care less.

  61. Pipeta says:

    The lack of women in tenure positions might be normal if we consider that some years ago the doors for us were shut and opened quite recently in tenure track time (Europe tenure track time, at least). Which means that most of the male professors who where there then, are still there now and new positions hardly even become available. If the leak doesn’t increase and we give the top time to renovate, there might be hope. Although I see in my field that there are many young professors in their mid-40’s or so, who got there when women were already “allowed to” get there too… and, among those young professors, women are a rare thing.

    • zinemin says:

      I wish you were right, but I make the same observation as you: even among the young professors, women are rare. Somehow the change does not propagate upwards.

  62. I agree with the points you’ve made in this post – especially about the dangers of the “leaky pipeline”. Working as a chemist in industry straight after I graduated it was very much a boys club: I’m ok at dealing with the blokey atmosphere and the constant talk about aeroplanes, but I think it’s a shame that I have to act like a bloke to fit in.
    My own personal view is that young female scientists should try to get a mentor, and not necessarily a female one (any mentor is better than no mentor). I’d even go as far as saying that if we’re a minority (female) we are best off getting the support of someone in the majority (male) for the purposes of career progression.
    Thanks for writing!

    • zinemin says:

      Getting a male mentor that really understands the issue would certainly be very helpful. I have observed that those are rare though. I only know one male professor who really supports his female PhD students as well as the male ones. He has an academically very successful wife, which probably helps.

  63. Women leave science for the same reason they leave other professions. They have different priorities in life. This also explains the persistence of the gender wage gap: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2011/02/19/gender-pay-gap/

    • zinemin says:

      I disagree. We are not born with different priorities. These come purely from convention. Unfortunately, both men and women are often slaves to convention, at the expense of happiness and freedom.

  64. chavisory says:

    At the end of the day…I found something that I loved and knew I needed to do with my life more than science. I was good at science, and I didn’t not love it, but then I found something that ignited a passion in me that biology didn’t, and I knew I needed to pursue that.

    Had I not found that thing, better mentorship would certainly have made a difference–I wish I had had better mentors even though I wound up not staying.

  65. genesisblog1 says:

    I was drawn to your blog because I am in the middle of a book about neurosexism. The book, “Delusions of Gender,” by Cordelia Fine, discusses many of the excellent points you mentioned in your blog. Fine also talks about gender priming and how simply checking a box to say you are female on a test about scientific aptitude can remind you how society expects you to do in this field. Your mentioning of how people in the field seem “irritated” when women stay is exactly right and its effects run even deeper than just making it uncomfortable for women. It literally sets up the brain to fail. While I am not a woman in a scientific field, I know many women who are interested in this area and it pains me to think that structural and attitudinal problems in the scientific arena could prevent them from reaching the potential they most assuredly have.

  66. Thanks for your input. It is crazy how people are so much more willing to flood a system with new recruits than to adjust the system to benefit all who are currently involved in it.

  67. christiana83 says:

    I am a mechanical engineer, and I got into science and math as a child in part because of those “girls in science” programs! In high school I went to a week long “women in engineering camp”, which is really what pushed me to major in engineering in the first place. I do think that having female role models is very important… I had male role models too, but the female professors and engineers working in the industry do make a huge difference.

  68. KCC says:

    I come from a liberal arts and legal background so this topic is fascinating to me on multiple levels (socially, legally, as well as personally since the same issues are present in higher legal practice). From my own research and experiences I agree with your identification of those four core challenges as well as your identification of the truly systemic nature of issues related to family / motherhood matters. Your observation that they are all rooted in the simple realities of operating as a minority was equally astute and not something I previously considered in that way before.

    Study after study continues to demonstrate that women bear the vast majority of household responsibilities (childcare, cleaning, cooking, etc) even when both partners are working. And that is precisely the reason women cite familial circumstances so much more than men as reasons for career changes across professions. As a gender we are disproportionately stressed by the responsibilities of both work and home requirements.

    You might also find a recent article from Think Progress interesting insofar as it addresses the US’s very limited support of working mothers. (he added time and stress requirements of those burdens should not be under appreciated. http://thinkprogress.org/health/2012/05/24/489973/paid-maternity-leave-us/?mobile=nc)

    Thank you for the interesting read and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

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  70. vijiscientific says:

    Great thoughts. It is so true that the university system need to be more liberal with women starting their family.

    In another perspective, in the United States, there is a fellowship for women returning to science after having to interrupt their career for family reason. It is the Hildred Blewett fellowship in physics, offered by American Physical Society every year. This year alone more than 20 applications were received among which they could only facilitate two awardees.

    While many women out there are motivated to come back to science after the setbacks, there are few fellowships to encourage women.

    The survival tips are very useful.

  71. Hi, I’m a graduate student in Physics too. I have also always found it unconvincing how people often relate more women leaving the science program/careers to certain attributes that are supposedly inherent to women. I agree with you that any such generalizations may be correct to some extent, but are often limiting. They are more so in analyzing the career choices of women, who are already strong, and motivated enough to step into a male dominated field.

    Just yesterday, while talking to a friend about what could be done to create gender equality in a true sense especially in relation to science and physics; I was saying that the current focus of the educational system is not in the right direction. Take for example, these days there are certain quotas assigned for minorities and women in physics in most of the schools. In accepting the students, the bars are often lowered for women so that the quotas are filled. I’ve read in couple of places that statistically it has been shown that women, who show similar performance in researches and practical application of the knowledge to their male counterparts, still tend to score lesser in the standardized tests. Our education system up until now is so much similar to the age old education system that was created by white-males. No doubt that the way these exams test the knowledge of the examinees, the structure might be more suitable to certain groups than the others. This is only an example, I am sure there are several other even more visible cases where the structure of the education system favors one group over the other to excel. I think the focus should not be on lowering the standards to get more women; rather it should be in encouraging women who are already strong, smart, and determined enough. And the only way I think it can be achieved is by changing the education system so that it’s more conducive to diverse groups of people: men, women, white people, black people, Asian people and everyone.

    • zinemin says:

      Exactly. It is just so boring if everyone is the same in a certain field, especially since we’re supposed to be creative. Diversity is certainly good for creativity.

  72. This is way more insightful than expected! I’m glad that you touched on the fact that they are putting more women into the field without actually fixing why the women there left in the first place. It is sad that for the most part all they’re accomplishing is sending more women to feeling excluded and unwanted, lets not even talk about pay.

  73. Alyssa says:

    None in my family inspires me to get a bachelor’s degree in sciences. I like math but not science; although I used to tutor chemistry and physics in high school. Does that counts? Well, I’m really not interested in sciences; it’s just a prerequisite in my studies. Nice thoughts on this entry, by the way. 😀

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    • zinemin says:

      I noticed since high school that women seem to be more attracted to math than to physics. We also had many more women studying math than physics at my University. I have the impression this is because while women are as good at abstract thinking as men, they are getting discouraged from the question ‘how things work’ which is supposedly a male things. Maybe it has to do with the fact men are often the ones doing the repair work at home? My father always made my sister and me to help him, which was a good thing to get some intuition about electricity etc.
      Anyway, good luck with your choice! Math is certainly very useful for many things outside of science.

  74. Wow, you’ve really touched on an issue that both women and men find important. Congratulations on the amazing discussion you’ve generated. Since this topic fits with the theme of my own blog, dissectingpublicscience.com (inaugurated this week), I’ve decided to post a more extensive commentary there.

  75. Daniel Zalec says:

    I’d like to take this opportunity to mention the recent sad passing of NASA astronaut, Sally K. Ride, PhD. She will be missed. I could mention many examples of women in science who have inspired me, but Dr. Carolyn Porco (NASA, Cassini Mission) comes to mind at this particular moment. Check out her TED lecture, ‘Carolyn Porco Flies Us To Saturn’.

    Most recently, I have engaged in correspondence (as an independent science writer) with the following female scientists: Professor Marilyn Renfree (Ian Potter Professor of Zoology, University of Melbourne), and Associate Professor Sarah Maddison (Swinburne University of Technology, Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing). Their expertise has been invaluable.

    To all such women, I say, “please don’t leave!” Hopefully, they will never be forced to leave their fields. If they do, I hope it is for reasons that make them personally happier or better off, not due to some kind of petty social pressure that limits their true intellectual potential. Normally, I don’t distinguish between ‘female’ and ‘male’ scientists; to me, they’re all just ‘scientists,’ of equal value to humanity. However, in the context of the issue of women leaving science, I will do so, because this is a worrying trend. For further discussion, see:

    ‘Bridging the Gender Gap: Why More Women Aren’t Computer Scientists, Engineers’ – PBS News Hour, April 26, 2012 // ‘Women in science: on “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!” and “My Fair Physicist? Feminine Math and Science Role Models Demotivate Young Girls.” – astrobites.com, June 25, 2012.

  76. Daniel Zalec says:

    PS. I just found this article: ‘Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried’ – guardian.co.uk

  77. genesisblog1 says:

    I forgot to mention in my original comment that I am definitely following your blog! Great post!

  78. Reblogged this on The Scan and commented:
    A physicist in a forest…

  79. dakrizzz says:

    I’ve always think about it…and I think some of the topics you wrote are true. Good work!

  80. Kitty says:

    I am a woman with a Ph.D. who has pursued a career in chemistry and has chosen not to leave the profession, but I have thought about it many times. Perhaps you may gain some insight from my experiences.
    At University, I felt I was not treated any differently because I was a woman, and had no expectation of that anything would be different for me in the future. The few women academics were not good role models. I chose not to do an overseas postdoc as my fiance was not prepared to move. I believe this decision has negatively impacted my career. I also chose not to become an academic because I did not like the culture in academia but I do work in scientific research.
    I have three children and have taken a year of maternity leave for each of them. A year away from science takes a toll on your memory circuits, and your familiarity with your discipline. I also believe that my brain has changed irreversibly through those three pregnancies to the detriment of my mathematical ability in particular. Since having my children my life has been hectic. Despite help from my husband, I am busy all the time and rarely have time to rest and regenerate. I do not have time to read literature at home, or do any other work related activities at home. I am too busy just keeping my home and family running. I am frequently tired which negatively affects my performance. I also have limited flexibility.
    At work I see little overt discrimination. I do find that I often see things quite differently to my male colleagues and their views often predominate. I have been mentored by male colleagues, but I find that I am often unable to take their advice as I am unable to adopt their behaviours. I would also add that this mentoring relationship is based on advice only, whereas I have seen other male to male mentoring relationships around me which involve both advice and assistance.
    My reading experience differs from yours, in that I have found references to differences between the male and female brain, and behavioural differences and preferences independent of socialisation. One of these indicated that women (in general) are more inclined to take comments and criticisms personally, possibly due to a higher number of connections between the two sides of their brain. This concurs with my experience, and scientists regard criticism of others as an integral part of the scientific culture. This would negatively impact women’s confidence more than men’s and may explain some of the general reluctance of women to promote themselves. Of course in some individual women this will be different. There are also many differences in how women and men percieve the same behaviour both in themselves and in the opposite sex.
    For myself I have found that over the years I have fallen further and further behind my male colleagues. I think that being a parent has a greater negative impact on a womans career than a mans, but this is only part of the story. There is also an accumulation of lots of small subtle ‘disadvantages’ that also add up to put women behind. Perhaps there are many women who get to the stage where they fall further and further behind their male colleagues, feel helpless, get frustrated and just leave. Or perhaps they just become exhausted.

    • zinemin says:

      Thank you for this comment! I always find it very interesting to read from women who have both career and children, but I am still waiting for an example of someone who is not totally stressed out…. It seems like either (i) you risk to regret never having children, or (ii) you risk to regret giving up your career, or, as you, (iii) you have an extremely exhausting life for a quite some time.
      I am afraid I would not be able to handle it as well as you since I don’t have very good nerves to start with. :/ I go crazy already after a week of conference when I have too little time for regeneration….
      It sounds you are very hard on yourself though… doesn’t the mathematical ability of all people decrease with time? Also, my mathematical ability always suffers if I have too much going on in my life, it just takes so much concentration and somehow peace of mind to be able to do complex abstract thinking. And isn’t it just really unfair to directly compare the performance of a working mother with a man who doesn’t need to do any family work? I think it is a huge achievement that you manage to have 3 children and a career. I certainly admire you!!
      And can I ask you something? Did you enjoy the three years maternity leave in some way, or was this just exhausting?

      • Kitty says:

        Yes, you cannot have it all. You do not have to give up having children or your career, but you must accept that you will not be able to give your children the same opportunities that those of non-employed mothers have and have a stellar career and have lots of other time to do all the things you would like to do. Some women make life easier on themselves by employing someone to do their cleaning, look after their garden, or transport their children to activities. This together with a supportive partner probably comes closer to having it all, but then you may not have the money for other things. It is all a matter of working out what your priorities are and following them.
        I have thought long and hard about the mathematical ability, and I am sure age is a factor, but I felt there was a step change around the time of having children. It is possible that it is also the constant tiredness, but at the same time there was also a shift towards more interest in social science/anthropology type things so I do believe there have been some changes in my brain.
        Yes, I did enjoy the three years maternity leave. In the very early months it is exhausting, and it is hard to convey just what sort of difference that amount of sleep deprivation makes. But later on it is much more enjoyable. I didn’t really want to come back to work at the end of each one, but I knew that in the longer term for me that was a better option. I was fortunate in that my workplace has its own childcare centre so I was able to continue to breastfeed my children also.
        With regards to comparison to the men, many of my male colleagues do have ‘family work’. Some of them are also restricted by the requirements to drop off and pick up children. Many of them however have partners who work part time. Men who have wives that work full time tend to have a better understanding of the issues of working women than women who have no children.

  81. Anonymous says:

    Not just in sciences. I found the same thing in management faculties

  82. Zinemin highlights two problem areas — cultural and structural — that may have the most impact on a woman’s decision to leave science. The cultural problem is the lack of other women in the workplace, to serve as mentors, role models, collaborators and friends. The structural problem is primarily the lack of adequate institutional support for families and the choices parents must make to juggle work and family, which, unfortunately, still affects women more than men.

    Her observation reminds me of a recent, more general debate about whether women can “have it all,” that was also raised above by Kitty. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, reportedly said “yes”, but argued that women need to fight harder for the structural changes they require (see her 2010 TED talk). Anne-Marie Slaughter, a professor at Princeton and former member of the Hillary Clinton State Department, countered recently (in the Atlantic) that “having it all” should be a much more personal decision, with women (and men) defining for themselves what constitutes a fulfilling career path, and in what balance with family life, with ready accommodation by one’s employer and workplace. (See also videos of 3 women scientists speaking about this subject at two Princeton conferences, at http://eqn.princeton.edu/2012/07/can-women-have-it-all-women-scientists-riff-on-anne-marie-slaughters-atlantic-piece/.) The comments in this more general debate echo what zinemin describes as the specific challenges for women in science. I wonder, then, whether this problem goes beyond women in science, and generalizes to professional women generally. In other words, it is more systemic in our culture and society at large. Anonymous seems to agree.

    Certainly, in my own experience as the husband of a professional woman — who is a PhD in biology — and father of a son and daughter, each of whom has pursued professional careers in science-related disciplines (we’re kind of nerdy that way), our both working initially in academics helped, providing more flexibility to balance work and family when our kids were growing up. It also helped that we had flexible, and evolving, views of what constituted success in our careers. We could remain in academics, but aim for a level of work that matched both our professional competencies and personal definitions of success. We were lucky to identify a place to settle down, refraining from dragging the family to each new job opportunity, because the job opportunities (in this case, in central and eastern Massachusetts) were relatively plentiful. The fact that daughter and son have each moved into a more corporate environment (New York Times, Google), and my wife is now a college administrator, means that each has a little bit less freedom than when he/she worked in academia. Nevertheless, as a new mother, my daughter has found success in fighting for accommodations in work time and work load that enable her to approximate a desirable work-family balance. I would guess that both Sheryl Sandberg and Anne-Marie Slaughter would approve.

    Finally, I am struck by the juxtaposition of zinemin’s lament about the dearth of women role models in physics with some of the images of prominent women physicists arising from the Higgs boson story and elsewhere. First for me was Lisa Randall, a particle physicist at Harvard, who started becoming a go-to expert on the nascent Higgs story last fall following publication of her book, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.” She was interviewed for the Daily Beast, New York Times, and Boston Globe, and appeared on the Charlie Rose Show. Another was Fabiola Giannotti, who I discovered only on the day of the announcement is the leader of the one of the two groups that was working at the Large Hadron Collider (the ATLAS detector) in pursuit of evidence for the boson. (Here is a short piece about her that appeared last year in The Guardian.) And then, recently, comes the announcement of Sally Ride’s untimely death from pancreatic cancer. Ride was also a physicist, and of course was the first American woman, and the youngest American, to enter space. At the time of her death, she was active in leading Sally Ride Science, an outreach effort aimed at K-12 STEM programs. Surely these are important role models for women in science, and for women and men generally. But they hardly substitute for the more local needs that zinemin describes. She wants to have more female professors, postdocs and graduate students in physics programs, to enhance both the collegial interplay with others of the same gender that men in science take for granted, and the professional attitude about the institutional, workplace necessities and choices that would foster success for women entering science from a variety of circumstances. From my perspective, this would be good for men in science, too.

    (This is a reblog of commentary posted on dissectingpublicscience.com.)

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  86. Angela says:

    I am in my mid-30s, I work in IT at a university, I have a Masters Degree and plan to pursue more study and I have a 4.5 year old and a 15 month year old. The university I work for has fantastic on-site child care which I used with my first child to work part-time and now with my second child I work entirely from home in the evenings and don’t use childcare. I don’t have any support in terms of child care. Quite simply my employers flexibility, support for women in academia and forward-thinking approach to work make it possible for me to keep my career progressing. I feel extremely lucky to have this support as if I currently had to choose between my work (which I love) and family, currently I would need to choose family. Technology and academic research should be the ideal jobs through parenting years because they are so flexible. Maybe institutions who find creative ways of using staff should be supported with more grant money. That would be an incentive to make a few structural and policy changes. 😉

    • zinemin says:

      Thanks for this comment! I find it always extremely encouraging to hear about progressive employers. I really hope this will become normal everywhere soon! I really believe that our society cannot afford to lose the brainpower and knowledge of highly educated women just because they have children!

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  89. Maureen Dunn says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you. The leaky pipeline is about being in the minority and all of the disadvantages that come with that position. the more competitive the environment, the
    Less you want to be in the minority. women who go into non-traditional STEM fields are somewhat competitive just to get into the field. when that same competitive woman realizes that she is playing a game that she can not win, she leaves. as I did.

  90. anon says:

    Science is still an old boys club. A recent conference in my field was held in Galveston, TX near an amusement park called “Pleasure Pier”. A photo exists of the two male organizers holding souvenir shirts from Pleasure Pier. On each shirt a marker had been used to draw a large arrow pointing toward the crotch area.

  91. Buthaina Ruyyashi says:

    I love your blog; I am a math major myself, to be honest, I have never felt unwelcomed or had any negative experience throughout my studies for both my bachelors and masters. I work as a part-time college instructor and teach different level math classes; I usually come teach my classes and leave without getting involved in any departmental decision making. I wonder if my experience will be different if I become a full-timer who needs to be involved. I do however notice that in my higher-level math classes there are usually more men than women.

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