Why do women leave science?

I happened across a thoughtful essay this morning on women in science, at the blog zinemin’s random thoughts.  The blogger is a senior postdoc in physics, apparently living and working in the Netherlands.  She 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.”    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 these videos of 3 women scientists speaking about this subject at two Princeton conferences.)  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.

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, just yesterday, 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.


About Tom Schoenfeld

I am an olfactory neurobiologist who practices his science at Fitchburg State University, Fitchburg, MA, in the Department of Biology and Chemistry. I have created "dissectingpublicscience.com" to help educate both my science students and the interested non-scientist about the process of science, by focusing discussions on how science is presented and misrepresented in the public media.
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