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One more reason why women may leave academia in science

March 24, 2008

[Reposted from IFOV.]

A lot has been made of the underrepresentation of female Ph.D.s in the sciences in academia. I am a woman scientist currently holding a tenured Associate Researcher/Professor position at a Ph.D.-granting, US state university. However, I am leaving my tenured position in academia for a comparable position with a non-profit company; I am about to become a statistic – one more woman Ph.D. lost from the higher ranks of academia. Oddly enough, my reasons for leaving academia, as anyone who knows me will attest, have nothing to do with what I will hypothesize in this blog may be one little-recognized reason some women leave academia (or broadly, the sciences). More on that in a minute. This trend almost certainly extends to academic jobs that are not in universities, but academia is where the studies of this problem are conducted and what the available statistics represent, so that’s what I’ll focus on.

A little background
Let’s start with those statistics, shall we? The following comes from a recent article in the journal Nature Geoscience, by Holmes et al. [2008]1 (and references therein), which focused on women in geosciences through 2004. According to Holmes et al., statistics show that the proportion of female geoscience undergraduate to graduate students is roughly the same, indicating that they are not “lost” during the pursuit of Ph.D. degrees. [This is apparently not the case in other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, so one could view this as a best case starting point.] In 2004, women earned 34% of the Ph.D.s in the geosciences. However, the percentage of women in entry-level positions at Ph.D.-granting institutions (i.e., Assistant Professor) is only 26%, and the percentages become increasingly smaller with the advancement of the terminal degree granted by the institution. In other words, there is a lower percentage of women in Assistant Professor positions at Ph.D.-granting institutions than at M.S. and Bachelor’s degree-granting institutions. Add to this the fact that as you consider higher academic ranks (Associate Professor and Professor, both tenured ranks), the percentages continue to decrease, such that at Ph.D.-granting institutions, only 8% of full professors are female.

Many reasons have been posited for the attrition of women from the academic ranks. The Holmes et al. study surveyed male and female academics (roughly equal proportions of students through full professors) and asked them what they thought were the reasons for the attrition. The answers came down to the usual responses: academic structure (e.g., policies on family leave, resistance to telecommuting, lack of access to child care), the “pipeline” (e.g., given time, we’ll get more women), and women’s choices. Some of the “women’s choices” that were cited by these academics included, “women are choosing a different career path”, “females don’t like field work”, “females in general have a low interest in the subject matter”, “females lack self-confidence”, and “females in general prefer to teach”. There are all kinds of things to explore here, so go pick up the article if you’re curious to know more.

Undoubtedly, many or all of these reasons for women leaving academia are valid. However, I’ve come to believe that there is an additional, different issue that affects women’s decision-making. There are a lot more female doctors and lawyers out there than geoscientists, and their training and jobs are just as arduous and competitive, if not more so in some cases, and yet somehow, they manage to work around issues of structure, pipline, family, etc. What is different about (geo-)science?

The idea
So. My idea is that being a successful academic scientist requires personal traits that are not fully consistent with the socialization of women in the US (where most of these studies are done), despite the progress we think we’ve made with respect to gender equality. As such, I suspect some women choose, subconsciously or consciously, to leave (or not enter) academic positions in science because of their own fears about how they may be perceived by others if they exhibit these traits. This is certainly not the only, or necessarily even a primary, reason women leave academia/science, but I think it is one that may not be given enough consideration.

At the Ph.D. level, a big part of life is debating and defending ideas forthrightly and vigorously. That doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that, stated differently, it can mean, “be aggressive and confrontational”. Suddenly, these don’t sound like traits that people generally associate with women or appreciate in them. Nor are they traits that women in our society are generally taught or encouraged to develop. But the need to exhibit these traits, whatever you call them, is true for research paper and proposal writing/reviewing, presentations at conferences, participation on committees and review panels (local and national), job interviews, etc., virtually all of which are public forums of one kind or another and a part of daily life for an academic. I suspect that academic scientists debate, defend, and critique more publicly and regularly than is the norm in other fields (e.g., doctors and lawyers). It starts in grad school and never ends until you retire. One has to accept that this is expected behavior, and that may be a problem for some women.

An example
A few years ago, I participated on a national review panel for a federal agency; we were reviewing proposals seeking funds to develop new scientific instrumentation (an even more male-dominated arena than basic research). Our subgroup of reviewers consisted of four men and two women. I knew the other woman and liked her (still do), even though we have never worked together and are not particularly close (literally or figuratively) colleagues. During the course of a discussion about one of the proposals, this woman and I got into a vigorous debate about the merits (and demerits) of the proposal at hand. We were having what could be called a full-on argument, but there was no animosity behind it, only a desire to fully debate and explore our observations. Shortly thereafter, this woman and I were joking about something unrelated to the proposal and having a perfectly good time. I looked around the room and the men’s faces displayed a mixture of negativity and surprise. They thought we were on the verge of jumping over the table and having a cat fight minutes before, and so they couldn’t understand our good humor moments later. I think some of them also disliked the fact that we were behaving in a way that they perceived to be overly aggressive, but which in fact was no less aggressive than I have seen many men behave. The woman and I commented to each other about it later (we laughed, actually). Many people don’t understand that you can have a debate/disagreement with someone, but still go out and have a beer and a good laugh afterward (thankfully, my fiancé and father have perfected this when it comes to discussing politics). When one or more of the debaters are women, it becomes incomprehensible. In the extreme, some will label such a woman a “bitch”.

Not a low self-confidence problem
So how is my hypothesis different than the assertion that women lack self-confidence? Isn’t discomfort with publicly debating and defending ideas a reflection of a lack of self-confidence? It can be, but doesn’t need to be. You can have all the self-confidence in the world, and still not want to be called a bitch behind your back just because you are willing to express an opinion or argue a point aggressively. Assuming women leave academia because they lack self-confidence fails to recognize the reaction women sometimes receive when they project their self-confidence. Women may leave academia/science for reasons of self-confidence, but it’s possible some are leaving because of the social implications of having the right amount, rather than not enough.

What can we do about it?
I’ve come to realize that many incoming grad students (male and female) think a Ph.D. is about learning how to make measurements and interpret data; they don’t anticipate these other skills (debate, criticism) that need to be accepted and developed along the way, which may be a particular issue for some women. I see a few things that could be changed to solve this problem. One is not tractable within academia, and that is continuing to evolve society’s views on women’s behavior and what is considered appropriate or acceptable – we’ll leave that aside for now. The others are tractable within academia, and they are: 1) changing students’ perceptions of what will be expected of them in grad school and their career, and 2) changing current academics’ perceptions of their female cohorts at all levels.

I believe that undergraduate science departments/advisors could do a better job of educating students about what most grad schools will/should be training them for and expecting of them beyond the actual research they will do for their dissertation. I’ve seen several grad students express their uncertainty and discomfort mid-way through grad school when they realize that if they pursue academic careers (at a university or elsewhere), debate and criticism will be never-ending aspects of life. Promoting interactions between undergraduates and grad students where possible (a sort of mentoring process) is another thing science departments could do to give undergrads a better understanding of what graduate school and academic life are like.

For those of us currently in academia, it’s not news that bias can be very subtle. We need to watch for colleagues who unfairly penalize, with as little as a frosty look or roll of the eyes, women who debate or are not shy about giving opinions, and call attention to such bias so that it can be eradicated. We also should try to overtly encourage women (students and faculty) to develop their debate and criticism skills and feel free to express themselves honestly, to the point of a polite argument if necessary, without fear of being labeled a bitch, or other even less savory slurs that get applied to women who project the same degree of self-confidence as their male colleagues. We may think they’re getting the message, but repeated, open, focused conversations on this topic probably are required.

Is any of this true?
Who knows. I perceive a major flaw in studies of why women leave academia/science: if you want to know why people are leaving academia, you need to ask the people who left, not the people who are still there. The people who are still “in” are providing responses based on their perceptions of why others have left, or why they think they themselves might leave. They have no way of knowing why others leave except in rare cases. My hypothesis suffers from the same problem – I’m guessing like everyone else, because my own reasons for leaving a university for a company have nothing whatsoever to do with gender issues. Even if we asked those who left why they left, many women may not realize or be willing to admit their personal feelings and may focus the blame on less personal issues like access to childcare. As I said above, my idea (if true) is certainly not the only factor playing into women’s decisions to leave academia/science. But I’ve been on this thought path for a while, and wonder what other people (men and women) think. A friend is hosting a networking breakfast at a conference this week that will touch on the many issues facing women in planetary science; perhaps my idea will generate some interesting discussion on this issue.

1Holmes, M.A, S. O’Connell, C. Frey, and L. Ongly, Gender imbalance in US geoscience academia, Nature Geoscience, 1, 79-82, 2008.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Christina permalink
    December 1, 2009 10:07 am

    A very good article. But it works too ways. I find that a man can criticize another man’s theory and it will be appreciated in the name of the advance of science. However, a man intellectually criticized by a woman seems often quite incapable to deal with it, and will do anything to ‘eliminate’ this woman, as he feels that it undermines his credibility as a man, to be intellectually defeated by a woman. therefore it is very important to educate male students that this attitude is historically understandable, but unacceptable as it hinders true progress of knowledge. If anything has hindered my academic career the most, it is not my aggressiveness or ‘lack of self-confidence’, but the unprofessional incapability of male academics to deal with it.

  2. June 14, 2009 6:44 am

    YAA Adding this to my bookmarks. Thank You

  3. Trillian permalink
    April 3, 2008 12:40 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree with your ideas, and appreciate that you’ve even included some suggestions for what to do about it. Personally, I have gotten over my fear of being called a bitch, because if that’s what people want to call me when I’m aggressive or stand up for myself, then so be it. I’ll think of “bitch” as “good debater” or “leader”, instead of its traditional, more hateful meaning.

    Regarding why more women drop out of academia, I am disappointed that the two-body problem is not more commonly cited as a reason. Studies show that women professionals are more likely to be married to other professionals, than male professionals are (see below). Because dual career couples commonly cannot both find jobs in academia, someone is forced to drop out. Male professionals married to non-professionals do not have this problem. Therefore, the total number of men in academia will be higher than the total number of women.

    From C. A. Trower, Science Careers (from the journal Science), March 22, 2002:
    “If married, doctoral women are more likely than men to face problems accommodating dual careers: 84% of women but only 42% of men have a spouse who works full-time. Only 10% of married women, but 38% of married men, have a spouse who doesn’t work. Finally, women scientists are more likely than men scientists to be married to another scientist (55% of women versus 32% of men) (NSF, 1996).”

  4. April 1, 2008 10:07 pm

    I’m a lawyer (specifically a litigator) and have found some of the same sorts of biases in my field of the law where debate and argument reign supreme. A woman who is forceful in arguments before a judge is a bitch or a ball buster, but a man who does it just a good lawyer.


    It’s heartening to hear that women deal with this in many fields, but also incredibly frustrating. Thanks for the great read!

  5. Kate Craft permalink
    March 31, 2008 10:41 am

    I found this article very informing. I’m currently a student preparing to start my PhD work in planetary science. I’ve previously been in engineering where there are its own set of male prejudices. It’s helpful to think about how debating and heated discussions can be viewed by others. Thanks for writing this!

    Georgia Tech

  6. March 25, 2008 12:09 pm

    An excellent article!

    In addition to the self-confindence, I would like to point out that women tend to deal better with advisors/ supervisors who focus on both the positives and negatives of their performance. I don’t have a study to back this up, but from personal experience in both computer sciences and astronomy, I have noticed that women who have a supervisor who will critique their work in both positive and negative manners with a goal of making the final product better have a better level of confidence in their work than those who are either always receiving negative OR positive criticism.

    RE: scientific arguments:
    In social settings, it have been sterotyped that women will hold grudges. Men can beat up a guy and then have a beer with him. True? well, yes and no. Women KNOW that you can debate and argue your science without bringing into the argument any judgment of the person. However, we have this sterotype laying around in all of our minds and how it manifests itself is that the woman who can argue her point aggressively is considered a “bitch” and over bearing.

    How do we separate our social views from our scientific personae?

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