Earlier, while noting greater rates of pseudonymous blogging by women, Morgan Jackson raised the topic of why the majority of tenure-track science positions go to men. It’s a striking pattern, especially considering that at the graduate student level women predominate in many fields- including entomology.
The obvious culprit is that women face discrimination in hiring decisions, as several of our commentators mention. And make no mistake- that does happen.
But I’ve seen enough people drop out of science to realize that there’s more than just individual gender-based discrimination at work. At the risk of mansplaining the phenomenon, here is my take on why men continue to dominate academia.
As a starting point, note that our universities produce too many Ph.D.s relative to the number of academic jobs available. How many more I don’t know, but I’m guessing at least three-fold. The reason for the Ph.D. glut is a topic for another day, but the pry-it-from-your-cold-unemployed-fingers fact is that most science graduate students ultimately will not find academic employment in their field. They may find industry jobs, or start their own businesses, or work for the government, or whatever, but the numbers just don’t allow everyone currently being trained for professorial positions to land one.
The natural consequence of too many Ph.D.s is intense competition for the available positions. It is not unusual for a search committee to be inundated with 300 applications for single job.
In the absence of ready professorships, research scientists receive their doctoral degrees and enter a postdoctoral holding pattern- currently a subject of discussion elsewhere on ScienceBlogs. Postdocs work low-paying research jobs while accumulating the experience and publication trail needed to obtain a name in the field and (hopefully) a permanent position. This can take time, though, sometimes a decade or more.
A lot can happen in those postdoctoral years, including expensive things like the desire to start a family or buy a house. Or start a business.
Or, heaven forbid, the postdoc may decide that living in a particular corner of the world is important and would rather not have to move to the one place that might have a job that fits an overly-specialized expertise, wherever that may be.
In my limited experience, I’ve seen more women than men decide to forgo the Lost Postdoctoral Decade. It isn’t that they aren’t capable of the work, or that the meanies on the hiring committees are sexist. When faced with an uncertain number of uprooted, poorly-compensated years, the men I know are somewhat more likely to plod along and the women somewhat more likely to seek more satisfying alternatives. In short, women opt out of the system more frequently.
The structural fix is obvious: we need to stop training so many scientists. At least, not in programs designed to turn out university professors. I suspect that some (unfortunately, not all) of the gender bias issues would dissipate if the pipeline from student to employment were shorter and the working conditions more favorable.