Why women leave science (and what’s being done about it)

Women in their mid-thirties with careers in science, engineering and technology are twice as likely to quit their jobs as men-- and studies on women and work-life balance suggest that it will take more than surface-level changes to put a dent in this statistic.

Even though it's not 1923 anymore, women in STEM careers still report that they struggle to thrive in a male-dominated workplace culture. Photo credit: flickr user Meaghan Courtney

In 2008, the Harvard Business Review wrote about a research study that explored the reasons why women leave behind STEM careers:

"The Center for Work-Life Policy, a nonprofit organization that studies women and work, recently reported that women in science, engineering, and technology fields are likely to leave their positions, in large part 'because the hostility of the workplace culture drives them out. If machismo is on the run in the United States, then this [science, engineering, and technology fields] is its Alamo-- a last holdout of redoubled intensity.'"

-Quote from p. 50 of Glass Ceilings & 100-Hour Couples

The researchers found five reasons why women leave science:
  1. The hostility of the workplace culture
  2. A sense of isolation in a male-dominated workplace
  3. Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields
  4. Long work weeks and travel combined with household management becomes too much to handle
  5. Bemoaned by the "mystery" surrounding career advancement and lack of mentors
It’s easy to see how it can become a downward spiral: Women drop out because there aren't many other women who they can relate to—which serves to worsen the situation. But it’s not just that there aren’t more women around. The pressure of juggling responsibilities of work and home, as well as a plethora of other factors, contribute to why more educated women are quitting their jobs recently than ever before. The results of a research study on why women opt out of their careers are chronicled in a book titled Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples: What the Opt-Out Phenomenon Can Teach Us About Work and Family. The authors are Karine Moe and Dianna Shandy, professors at Macalester College in Minnesota in labor economics and cultural anthropology, respectively. They spent several years surveying and speaking with hundreds of educated women (with Bachelors degrees or higher) about their careers, how they manage work/life balance, and why they made the career choices they’ve made. Since I got it, I can hardly put it down. I highly recommend listening to this interview with the authors that was on my local public radio station-- the interview pretty much summarizes the entire book and all their major findings. Although their study focused on women in all fields, I think their findings can help shed light on the opt-out phenomenon that is taking place in STEM fields.

According to a research study on women with careers and a family, the key to a happy working mom is job flexibility. Photo credit: flickr user Passive Income Dream

In more or less words, here’s what happens: Highly educated woman meets highly educated man, perhaps at school or at work. They’ve got their high-intensity jobs, each plugging 60-70 hours a week. They fall in love, get married, start a family, and find themselves hiring three nannies to cover all the shifts. They’re struggling to balance it all. They look at their finances and realize that they could get by just fine on a single income. They do the math and find out it would be more financially beneficial for the wife to stay home. In cases where one spouse quits their job to stay home, 97% of the time it’s the woman, the authors report. It seems to me that the juggling of many responsibilities coupled with isolation in the male-dominated workplace culture in STEM careers could be the recipe for women choosing to walk away from their scientific jobs. It certainly doesn’t help that the stressful pre-tenure years, as well as medical school and residency, coincide directly with a woman’s most fertile years, the authors pointed out during a seminar they gave on my campus last week. I wonder if more women than men look to nontraditional science careers as alternatives to traditional research jobs for this reason, in the hopes that they'll find something more family friendly without having to quit science altogether... I don't have data to back this up, it's just a thought. Companies are starting to realize that women opting out could be bad for business and have been taking action to revert this phenomenon by developing programs designed to retain women in science— these programs are summarized towards the end of the 2008 article Stopping the Exodus of Women in Science. In more recent news, I found out last week that the National Science Foundation is implementing so-called “workplace flexibility policies” in an effort to be more supportive of women and men with family responsibilities. Among the changes include the option of postponing grants for up to one year after child birth or adoption and grant suspension for parental leave. I, for one, was pretty excited to hear that the NSF is seeking out ways to better support scientists and their families-- and that they are encouraging other institutions to adopt similar policies. Do you think it would help if more institutions adopted policies like these? Or is "family friendly academia" an oxymoron? To all the women and men out there in STEM careers— What do you think needs to happen to make the STEM workplace a place for both men and women to thrive?

Author: Christine Herman

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  1. I think your last statement sums up a big part of the problem. The current research environment is no longer sustainable for capturing the imagination and creativity of young researchers- men or women. Now that the model has shifted to promote long PhD programs followed by long postdocs, no one wins. Especially not women.

    It is hard to imagine a good way to change the system to make it more enticing. It is hard to encourage anyone to pursue science as a career- even if it is a passion. The first change has to come through making a contentious effort to train for the job market and not to selfishly train to have a set of hands in the lab. The funding agencies have a direct role in propagating this problem. Universities encourage high publication rates further promoting the problem. The system is broken. Innovation loses.

  2. Conventional and tedious repetition of why the world is unfair to women. Five reasons given:
    The hostility of the workplace culture
    A sense of isolation in a male-dominated workplace
    Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields
    Long work weeks and travel combined with household management becomes too much to handle
    Bemoaned by the “mystery” surrounding career advancement and lack of mentors

    Because of the flat age distribution in science and the refusal of some old farts to die, I’m sure there is a lot of residual and internalized refusal to accept women as full partners. But I’ve observed very little of it in a long career, and most of that was early on, pre-1980. When I have seen it, I’ve made a point of dealing with it, but in a way that strengthened the woman. I didn’t coddle her, which would only justify any resentment toward her.

    Science is a field where everyone is eternally in competition with everyone else. Say what you will about the ‘community’ of science; hostility, isolation, cliques, and the general unwillingness of the world to bend to one’s ‘needs’ are part of the landscape.

    Guess what–men experience these things, too. They just don’t have a convenient place to retreat to. Many more men than women don’t have the option of leaving science. They suck it up and die early of heart attacks and stress-related diseases.

  3. Wow, this was me! 2 times 70 hour days both in IT. It came down to cost benefit analysis – no viable way for either of us to go part time or even reduce hours, and he was more senior, had better benefits (though salaries were the same). .

    I didn’t want to “retreat”, I loved my job. I loved to travel, meet new people, solve problems. Never encountered any problems, except immediately after I got married and there seemed to be an expectation I’d start having kids straight away. I really didn’t want to give it up and I know he’d do as good a job as me at home. But looking at the numbers one of us was going to have to stay home. We really did discuss which of us it would be, but the numbers answered that too.

    The only real problem which I didn’t think about enough at the time is: there’s no way back. I assumed I could pick things up again when the kids were older. How stupid was I? But if I had realised that at the time, I’m not sure how much difference it would have made.

  4. @Dangerous Bill: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Especially for bringing it to our attention that it’s not just women that struggle with the culture of the science workplace.

    @CathyBy: Thanks for sharing your story! I bet you’d resonate well with the stories of women recorded in the “100-Hour Couples” book. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but Chapter 12 is called “Reigniting the Career” and might have some useful tidbits for you.

  5. Wow! Another one sided article blaming men.

    First of all, as Dangerous Bill pointed out, men experience these problems too and as Melissa points out, the current system where we provide wave after wave of cheap labor for senior scientists making over 10x what they pay junior scientists is not working for anyone except the senior scientists.

    Secondly, why do all these articles act as if women are struggling in every field of science? Have you looked at Clincial research setting recently? We had a extremely well funded female distinguished lecturer yesterday give an interesting talk. Her acknowledgements section listed 13 collaborating scientists. Guess how many we’re male. TWO!

    We too often confuse choice with coercion and act to correct an imbalance but only in the direction of the vocal group. There are very f male nurses, few make hygienists, few make OBGYNs yet we see no articles describing how we need to correct those fields.

  6. I think the issue here is not whether a carrer in science is hard and stressful, regardless of the gender. The issue is that, when it comes to managing family responsibilities and carrer, woman are expected, and are socially pressured, to carry with a bigger load of the household activities. And even more, when is the women who, naturally, gives birth and breastfeeds. I mean, your are 9 months struggling with the changes in your body, starting with morning sickness, then at least 1 month recovering from birth, and finally at least 6 months breastfeeding and adapting to a new lifestyle. And, as a parenthesis, federal government does even provide a maternity leave. You can easily lose 1 year of progress in your carrer. Now, during this time, your masculine peers are frantically researching and publishing. Obviously their CV will be more promising than ours.

    I am currently pursuing my PhD as well as my partner. And we recently had a child, oops! Guess who will finish their thesis first?

  7. I can really see where Dangerous Bill is coming from:
    “Science is a field where everyone is eternally in competition with everyone else. Say what you will about the ‘community’ of science; hostility, isolation, cliques, and the general unwillingness of the world to bend to one’s ‘needs’ are part of the landscape.”
    That is the environment I experienced. The constant defense of your worth and intelligence is exhausting. There are people out there who are very confident and aren’t shaken by the hostility. Some of these people are women, but the reality is we are raised very differently from men.

    I am raising two young boys. In competitive sports my boys are learning to adjust to hostile environments at a very young age. I didn’t experience anything like that until I was in graduate school. No Girl Scout Troop leader is in your face if you don’t sell enough cookies. Girls are trained to play nice.

  8. Get over it. I’ve been in the oil industry over 25 years. I didn’t expect to make many female friends. I love what I do. My husband has a STEM job too. We’ve both made sacrifices. Our daughter is a well-adjusted college senior with a STEM major. We had a nanny/daycare until she was 12 years old. I will never regret not being a stay at home Mom. I’ve been able to pursue my dream and have a family. If you can be a stay at home Mom and be happy, great. We don’t owe anyone any apologies. We do owe it to ourselves to make decisions that we can live with. Men and women!

  9. Choices, choices, choices.
    You can’t have it all.
    You have to make choices. With each choice you gain something and lose something else. If you decide to be in a relationship, you gain companionship and support, but lose some freedom. If you decide to make a new human being, you gain a loving little bundle of joy, but lose even more freedom. Why does everyone feel that they have a right, a guaranteed right, to have everything they want, all at once? It is impossible.

    Once you have those responsibilities of a mate and an offspring, you immediately lose some of your ability to pursue other goals. Its simple math. If you worked 16 hours before and slept 8, now you need some of that time to devote to mate/offspring. This is true for men and women.
    If your work is so important that it will be impossible for you to have extra time to mate and offspring, just make it absolutely clear to mate, prior to “tying the knot” and making the offspring that these are the conditions of doing this. If that is not amenable, then find another mate that will accommodate your needs. Can’t find one? Then either adjust your needs, or accept that your job has the priority.

    Everyone, men and women, have to make these tough decisions.
    Its called life and being a grownup.

  10. Rebecca’s comment resonated with me. I’ve been in Aerospace for 20 yrs, a single mom with a teenage daughter. Due to the success in my career many have asked (typically male execs) if I’m encouraging my daughter to follow in my footsteps. My response has gotten louder in the last couple of years, “No! Hell No!” In explaining my response I say I’ve had some fantastic opportunities, made a difference & have no regrets – however, I would not wish this path on any female I love until there’s a culture change.

    In retrospect, the path has been exhausting and there’s not much improvement on the near term horizon.

    I agree with:
    *Disconnect between women’s preferred work rhythms and the types of behaviors rewarded in male-dominated fields (my best skills seem wasted in this era of my industry)
    *Delayed retirement by gray beards has significantly impacted career growth/opportunity
    *Lack of career sponsers/good female leadership role models within our industries (Women tend to have plenty of mentors)

    The Cons of staying with this STEM career (beyond loyalty) are very quickly outweighing the Pros… it’s so disappointing!!

    I owe more to my daughter than continue to put up with this!!

  11. I left my science career after 20 years, it was difficult. I didn’t realize that the hostility & competition are a constant in my career field; I’ve found it in 2 out of 4 workplaces. Thank you for the article.

  12. I’ve finished my B.A in biotechnology and wish to start my own science career, i don’t plan on leaving it as i want to make lots of break throughs in my field.
    I’m hoping that the increasing awareness to woman discrimination in science and other fields will make a difference.

  13. I left my science career as well, it was a quick decision and i felt good with it at the time.

    The only real problem which I didn’t think about enough is: there’s no way back. I assumed I could pick things up again when the kids were older. How stupid was I? But if I had realised that at the time, I’m not sure how much difference it would have made.

  14. I left my science career because of my kids, I wanna spend time with them more and I am now a plain housewife. I am a chemist and because of the jobs nature I travel a lot. So that’s the reason why I left my career because of my kids, one 4 year old daughter and 7 year old son. sometimes you need to choose between family and career. it’s up to us. 🙂

  15. It’s too bad that women have to put their femininity aside if they want to succeed in science, especially in academia. Here’s a blog post by Karen Kelsky, aka, The Professor, on this topic:

    Some of the advice is worthwhile, other parts are probably true, but sad for being true (like don’t smile, laugh, or be too agreeable, nurturing, or nice). Until this changes, some women will deal with it and succeed, while others will choose to not bother.

    @Erin, Rebecca, Susie: I think you’d really like the book I mentioned in my post (Glass Ceilings and 100-Hour Couples), because many women have stories just like yours and they share advice on how they cope with the transition from career woman to full-time mom.


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