What Happens to Women in Academia?

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.

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One reason women might be more likely than men to give up academic science at the post-doc stage is that they've already experienced more than their share of negative feedback (both consciously and unconsciously delivered).

That should be feasible to test. Take a field, and look at the male-female ratio at graduation, after three, six and nine years postdoc, at tenure-track start and tenure. Also, during postdoc times, check where the missing males and females went. That'll tell us at what stage the discrepancy develops.

But yes, my hunch is much as yours: more women leave the field earlier, opting for a non-academic carrier path right after graduation or after one stint as postdoc.

It'd also be interesting to compare male and female estimations on people's chances in general, and their own in particular, of achieving a permanent position in the future. Again my hunch is that females will tend to rate their chances lower - and be closer to the correct level than males.

Alex has missus been chewing your ear.

By Jack Jumper (not verified) on 21 Apr 2010 #permalink

I think your description of the phenomena is spot-on. I had been a graduate student for 4 years when one of my labmates finished up and started looking for postdoc positions. The offers were horrible -- be separated from her husband, move to Minnesota, and get paid 20k a year. I went through the motions for another year until I hired on with I.B.M. as an IT consultant -- not my field of research!

I disagree with your structural fix, though. The research community couldn't function without all those grad students. If we imagine a world where all the professors have one or two students and do all their own research, the work done per dollar spent on salaries would be much less ... well, unless professors' salaries were much reduced...

How about training the same number of scientists, but multiplying the number of tenured faculty by a factor of four and decreasing their salaries by the same factor? I don't know what tenured faculty get paid.

we discussed some of these issues on Nature Network a couple of months ago. The problem is not simple, but the solution is probably to increase the number of permanent research staff. There's a disconnect, because most permanent academic staff are hired in universities as teachers, even if they spend a lot of time doing research. Their funding is therefore coming from a different source: education, not research.

Another point - I wonder what happens to the sex ratio in industrial research. That's often overlooked in these discussions, but it does provide a major source of employment. Even of entomologists!

Some of this is biological clock I think. Yes, some women have children in grad school or as a post-doc...but on the whole, I think most of us would like to avoid it. So I've been moving along pretty well for a Canadian grad student, and I'm looking at finishing my PhD by 28, then being a post doc for a decade after? It's pretty hard to start trying for kids at age 38.

The other thing is pay. I have a BSc (small beans I know), and I work 70+ hours a week. I get paid less than the minimum wage working 35 hours a week in my province. The damn pipeline is too long.

Also, take a look the ratio of senior (full/assoc)profs with offspring to those without. I suspect male ratio is higher. One of the things Carol Grieder (recent Nobel prize winner) has said repeatedly - all pictures are with her children. It is possible, just very very hard.

Decreasing the number of people entering the pipeline isn't the only option. You and also teach graduate students AND PROFESSORS that a faculty position isn't the only way to use their degree and train them for some of those options. Talking about people who go to industry, government, or teaching jobs as failures adds unnecessary strain to the faculty track.

Engineering PhD programs seem to be ahead of the curve on this topic, but it's slowly creeping into other sciences.

Nah. The big disconnect is from postdoc to faculty. I think there is innate bias in the hiring process that works against women - even when there are women on the search committee. This has been shown clearly in publishing studies (women have lower paper acceptance rates if they are identified as women). I think the same process works in hiring. I know this sort of thing is extremely unpopular, but I think that some thought might be given to some kind of affirmative action for hiring women (and perhaps even minorities) at the faculty level. Of course, it is easy for me to say such a thing because I am a white male who already has a faculty position.

By Joshua King (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

Engineering PhD programs seem to be ahead of the curve on this topic, but it's slowly creeping into other sciences.

This may have something to do with the fact that engineers in industry are the ones publishing about process nodes [1] that academics will finally get access to in five or six years. I've compared my test silicon budget to some of the academics I know and we're not even in the same country.

IMHO it is a bit of a shame that more engineers in industry don't take the time to publish, though.

[1] etc for those not in semiconductors.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

First, love the term "mansplaining"!

More seriously, as a graduate student studying taxonomy, the only places that I'm aware of that I can apply my graduate research training would be academia or a handful of government positions (which are essentially academic jobs). I can't say that making more faculty positions will solve the problem either (although it would help in the short-term). By their nature, faculty train more students than is needed for replacement (one professor can easily train 6-10 PhD's in their career), and add the stubbornness of many academics to fully retire, and the job market continues past saturation to the point where we are at now!

While I agree that one fix would be to stop training PhD's and even MSc's, I can't see that happening anytime soon. As it is, more and more people seem to be taking up an MSc because they feel they NEED that title in order to get a job (even at the lowest level of private industry, the MBA mentality if you will), not because they want to. This in turn taxes funding structures, making it more difficult for those that WANT to be there to get funding. As science jobs (especially in biology) become more and more scarce, I can see more and more people escalating to PhD's with no intention of finding a faculty position. It's really becoming an "evolutionary arms race", and the only winners are the university board members!

Now that I've got that cynicism out of the way, time to put the rose-coloured glasses on and keep working on my thesis...

There is a difference between US men/women scientists in the way-back-hindbrain concept of employment. See Janet's post about priorities and think of it this way. Men have more acculturation to expect that jobs are going to suck sometimes but you do it because that's what one does- work. Relative to this, the notion that a job must satisfy and fulfill intangibles and/or subserve other goals is higher in women scientists.

An even piggier way to put this is that men are more likely to come to the table with an unthinking expectation that they will be working uninterruptedly for the rest of their lives to provide material support for self *and other(s)*.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

An even piggier way to put this is that men are more likely to come to the table with an unthinking expectation that they will be working uninterruptedly for the rest of their lives to provide material support for self *and other(s)*.

Perhaps thanks to that no-conceivable-options a priori assumption, are men more prone to one-track career planning? To leaving alternatives off the table?

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 22 Apr 2010 #permalink

Men have more acculturation to expect that jobs are going to suck sometimes but you do it because that's what one does- work. Relative to this, the notion that a job must satisfy and fulfill intangibles and/or subserve other goals is higher in women scientists.

Are you absolutely certain that you want to go down the road of "Men are more willing to do crappy jobs under crappy conditions, while women will expect more from a job?" Because there's more than one conclusion that a person could draw from that... It also feeds into all sorts of classic negative stereotypes of women, i.e. they won't hunker down and work through a crappy job because they are picky and have more emotional needs.

Also, it's women who wind up making $0.75 on the dollar. And there's evidence that women don't negotiate as aggressively when accepting academic jobs. I'm not sure that the biggest problem in the academic job market is all these men willing to work for low pay and crappy conditions.

It may be that men are somewhat less impacted by certain short-term sacrifices at a particular time in the career path and biological clock. However, I question any analysis that suggests that men are more willing to hunker down and put up with shit for the long term because they feel it's their duty. This runs counter to the real gender disparities in pay and advancement. It isn't men who are stuck in lower rungs of the ladder, unable to advance, and making less money than their colleagues of the opposite gender.

"men are more likely to come to the table with an unthinking expectation that they will be paid for working uninterruptedly for the rest of their lives to provide material support for self *and other(s)*."
Fixed that for ya, brother drug. Women expect to be working for their entire lives to support themselves *and other(s)*- they just aren't all accustomed to having it officially recognized as a 'breadwinner' role.

Nonetheless, you may have a bit of a point, although I think it might play out differently than you think. From what you say, it sounds like you think men put up with lousy conditions in science because it is Work and that is Supposed to be What Men Do. I look at it the other way. Women don't put up with lousy conditions in science because it is a Calling and it is Supposed to be What You Love.
I choose to be a scientist, and consciously and unconsciously shaped my own self-image based on that, after seeing my parents being employed, but not having a vocation/calling. I do it because I love it. If my smashed and battered idealism ever gets broken beyond repair, I'll likely give it up in disgust (luckily for science, my idealism is still outpacing my sense of powerlessness. For now).
Carebear, on the other hand, stumbled into science after many other jobs, and is happy to do it because he's good at it and it's a good way to earn a living. He doesn't see it as his purpose on this planet.

I do think it's well worth looking into these more nuanced explanations for why there's a high attrition rate among female academics, but not before addressing the more obvious and undisputed problem that early career female scientists are generally made about as welcome in academia as a fart in a spacesuit.

There's another issue at play that is more pervasive that Drugmonkey's example. In many ways, the singularly focused person is the extreme case. To become tenured faculty while having a family, many people either have a full time nanny or the spouse isn't working in as time intensive a job.

How many men do you know who would take a 0-30hour per week job to support their wife's career. Even as a man who moved across the country for his wife's job, I wouldn't want to work part time or stay at home. The fact that so few men are willing to do this puts women at a disadvantage.

it's easier for women (even female scientists) to be thrown on the employment trash heap by the establishment, even when those women have devoted every fiber of their being to science, leaving those women to deal with the enduring shame of the welfare-or-whore choice.

just sayin'.

That said, I admit that I myself do sort of subscribe to "Of course it sucks sometimes--it's a job." My take on basic research jobs being competitive and demanding can be summarized by paraphrasing Cypress Hill:

"People see scientists, you know what I'm saying? But you're still trying to get out there and work just like everyone else. It's a fun job but it's still a job. And save your money, man, save your money too. Research grant don't last very long, you know what I'm saying? You'll be lucky in this business. There'll be another cat coming out calculating like me, publishing like me. There'll be a flipside, somebody trying to spin off what you did like something serious."

"You ever have big dreams? Of making big green? Bigshot, heavy hitter on the conference scene? You wanna look trendy, in the big lab, be a snob, man, never act friendly? You wanna have big fame? Let me explain what happens to these scientists and their big brains: First they write papers like all damn day. Long as you publish everything'll be OK. Then you get dissed by reviewers on grants, things never stay the same way as they began. I heard that some never lived full to the fullest, that's why Boltzmann wound up dining on a bullet. Think everything's fine in the big time? See me in my lab with the laser real shine. So you wanna go far? And live large? That ain't all that goes with being a science superstar!"

"So you wanna be a science superstar, and live large, big lab, five postdocs, you're in charge! Coming up in the world don't trust nobody, gotta look over your shoulder constantly!"

In other words, the rules of life are the same for scientists as they are for anybody else trying to be successful.

If it's allowed at all to present the idea that there are gender-wide differences in what people want in a job, then the difference identified by DM is certainly one of the big ones. I identify myself by what I do - I'm a scientist. My wife works, but she also teaches yoga and does crafts and doesn't see herself defined by what she does for her primary job, so it's certainly plausible that she'd take one of the many alternate career paths available to her if they seemed more attractive than just slogging along. Her ego isn't tied up in it.

Mr. Gunn- I think that's the wrong way of thinking about it, to compare a male scientist to a female non-scientist. It's common (albeit not universal) for scientists identify themselves by their jobs. If anything, the scientist-as-identity thing seems to me to be stronger in women. Now, in biology, at least, we're not having so much trouble getting female grad students.
So, do women tend to *stop* identifying themselves by their jobs as they age (possible, childbirth -for example- can do weird things to you)?
Or do they identify themselves by their jobs, come up against a climate where they are "as welcome as a fart in a spacesuit" (fantastic phrase, btw), and fall away, heads spinning with cognitive dissonance?

@drugmonkey- upon further reflection, another angle on what you said occurs to me. Perhaps you've characterized Men's attitudes correctly, but misidentified the cause. It would be in keeping with stereotypes about personality for men to process problems at work as external (e.g. "that's just the nature of Work!"); whereas women would be comparatively more likely to process problems at work as indicative of something about them (e.g. "I'm just not cut out for this").

becca @23:

It would be in keeping with stereotypes about personality for men to process problems at work as external (e.g. "that's just the nature of Work!"); whereas women would be comparatively more likely to process problems at work as indicative of something about them (e.g. "I'm just not cut out for this").

That plenty of people (parents through guidance counselors through graduate advisors and beyond) are happy to reinforce this dichotomous pattern in assessing reality probably doesn't help, either.

Dr. Free-Ride: Exactly. Like the infamous xkcd cartoon about math. (xkcd #385)

As a woman, I find the higher up the food chain I get in science, the more hostility and passive-aggressive crap gets thrown my way because I am a woman.

Also, it's been interesting to watch across several instituions and companies: in pools of equally capable and productive scientists, the men get mentored and given choice of plum projects and opportunities, the women get excluded (sometimes intentionally, sometimes not) and get much less choice/opportunities of lower calibre.

I don't presume to know every woman's experience, but I can share mine. I recently graduated with a MS in Entomology. At the same time I got my degree, I got closer to a "Ph.D" in Mommyhood (well, I was only pregnant while I did my field work). I was well supported by my department's faculty (I received an extension on my funding because my Department head said he didn't want me to be "penalized for having a child", and right after my son's birth I had one professor let a friend video tape his lectures so I could watch them at home with my newborn baby) and well supported by my (female) major prof (who let me work amazingly flexible hours). However, I never felt justified going out for beers after work or at scientific meetings to socialize and make contacts with other students/researchers because I felt I needed to be with my baby after work. So I probably lost out a lot of opportunities for future jobs/Ph.D. work because of that.

When I originally decided to go into science, I wanted to be a researcher or a professor, but having a kid (and wanting to have more) has completely changed my perspective. I feel uncomfortable with my ability to juggle working full time and being a mom with younger than school age kids.

I'm now employed part time at a small organic farm. The per hour pay is comparable to what I'd be making as a tech at a nearby university, I get to work with living things outside (which is why I was attracted to science in the first place), and I can actually work part-time which means I get to be with my kids more than 2.5 hours a day. (It's hard for a non-student to get a part-time science job. Researchers seem to only want part-time undergrads that they can pay nothing.) Perhaps some day once I no longer have young kids in the house I will get a job as a technician or even go on to get a Ph.D., but I will be so "far behind" by then I doubt I'd ever be eligible for a tenure track position.

I know there are a lot of women who feel more confident in their ability to do both science and mothering. It can be done (my major prof. did it!), but I bet a lot feel like me and opt for a career that's more family friendly.

I have to agree with the other commenters here who've said that the outright sexism is a large part of the "leaky pipeline" for women in science. I know way too many female scientist comrades who've quit science because of outright sexual harassment. They've convinced themselves, over time, that they just aren't cut out for science after they've faced pretty nasty conditions at work (touching, inappropriate comments, etc.).

It's a faulty assertion that men and women simply see things differently at work when there isn't a level playing field to begin with, from infancy on.

As a (female) scientist I find that sexism doesn't escape the government realm either. I have a graduate degree, I run a field office for the federal government...yet Im not paid on the appropriate pay scale given my responsibilities, nor am I taken seriously (especially as it relates to machines/equipment and technical operations)by those I supervise or by peers.

The men in our agency get consistently sent on trips all over the world for research projects, their voice is given more clout in planning meetings, and hiring/pay is male-biased. 80% of the research/scientist positions in our agency are held by men, 60% of the technician positions are held by women.

Personally, I feel like women don't make it to the summit in academia/tenure-permenant research positions because its a biased hiring/pay system, the opinions of the male scientists are valued more, and they are more often rewarded (i.e., more projects, travel). Then if she tries to fight it, tries to prove herself as an equally capable scientist, she is perceived as a bitch and further isolates herself.

I know without a doubt I work 10 times harder and log more unpaid hours than my male peers, and worse, I have more publications under my belt than most of the higher paid scientists in our office.

For me, its left a feeling of whether I even want to be a scientist and whether all of it is worth the daily fight.

By FemaleScientist (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

Women engineer PhDs do not have parity with their male tenure-track colleagues. In the mid-90s, I and another female were hired into a mid-level university under a female-hiring incentive program that earned participating departments support money and extra positions). Assigned lab space renovation was stalled for 3 of 4 years and workspace in the interim was 3 feet of bench-space in a teaching lab with no lockable storage space. I was given one grad student, assigned to someone else's research project, and had a heavy teaching load. My start-up funds were meager and went to equipping the lab for the male hired in behind me, plus they kept the equipment I brought with me from another university. It was a no-win situation from the beginning. The other woman hired in at the same time didn't fare much better.

There is gender-bias in government agencies for female scientists and engineers as well. After a open-panel interview for a job, I was explicitly asked about personal relationships and family plans by the hiring supervisor. This is strictly against Federal hiring policy regulations.

I can attest that many, but not all, women science professionals are marginalized and treated as expendable by male mid-level management in State and Federal agencies, many of whom do not have science degrees. These supervisors and managers and were hired in previous decades when natural resource and regulatory agencies shifted away from infrastructure development to a business management model of operations.

I love science and using my knowledge, skills and experience to the best of my ability on a job, but my experience in academia and government wasn't very positive. However it was two men, my advisor and the VP of research at the university where I earned by PhD, that were superlative in their open encouragement and support of my drive to succeed as a scientist/engineer.

Note to drugmonkey: most women ceased being the little helper at home and became family breadwinners (shared with their husbands or as head of their own households) in the 70s and 80s - out of economic necessity as much as by desire.

By FemaleEngineer (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

I'll take "misandronists screeching patriarchry" for $1000, Alex.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 23 Apr 2010 #permalink

And, I'll take "jackass" for $750, Alex, because I'm a woman and making 75% of what you make, Anonymous @ 30.


Identifying the chicken/egg problem does not answer it.

By DrugMonkey (not verified) on 24 Apr 2010 #permalink

Just to make it clear, my last comment was not directed at Alex, but at Anonymous @ #30.

As a Jeopardy fan, I got the reference.

Furthermore, I am in fact Brian of Nazareth. And so is my wife.

: ) Loving the Monty Python reference. : )

I am currently in my hotel room at a large national conference, after being informed that I wouldn't be attending the evening's activities with the rest of the people in my field because there was no ticket for me. I'm a mother of two, Ph.D. student, and have been listening to all the postdocs here talk about how they can't find TT jobs.

I do not want a TT job, I just want to be a tech, I'll run your lab and churn out mad data and write papers and manage students for you if you can provide me with stable employment. That's not too unreasonable, right? All the science is STILL dominated by old white dude PIs. I am a competitive candidate, and a productive whiz in the lab, yet here I sit this evening, with a pit in my stomach wondering if I can make it in science.

Why would I want to move my family (again) to some place we don't want to live (again) just so I can get a job that won't remotely pay my bills (again) to be patted on the head or overlooked (again) and potentially have to change advisors and field because I only work 50hrs/7days instead of 60hrs/7days (again)? I can't put my finger on why I've felt so uncomfortable, but I know it has something to do with standing awkwardly as a group of old white dudes ignores me, and ultimately being shamed into leaving the room because I feel so out of place (like the little kid who's crashing the grown up party). I'm an effing smart responsible grown woman with a mortgage and two kids and I know I've had more jobs and am older than some of these folks, but I feel like wallpaper.

I was so excited to meet people in my field and network and find folks that might want to eventually employ me, but now that I've unsuccessfully tried to I just want to hide. I KNOW I'm a good student, and my PI is very proud of me, but isn't it wrong that I feel unworthy of that pride, that everything would be better if I'd just shut my mouth and let the real scientists do their science and remember how little I know? I adore science and research, which is why I want to be at the bench indefinitely, but this stupid way that they run it is really bringing me down. Most of them even try to be inclusive. I feel a mixture of pride and shame for being a grad student mom - when I've joined in the profs' stories about childrearing they don't know how to respond, "uh, oh, um, how old are they?" coupled with a look of nausea and then the subject gets dropped. Then when you top it off with my unconventional career goals which I don't even divulge much (are they that weird?), I just feel so unwelcome. I don't want to play this game anymore.

By discouraged (not verified) on 26 Apr 2010 #permalink

Perhaps nothing changes, or at least not much. Fifty years ago, yes 50, I was a Lab Tech here in the UK and co-part-time students told me how recruiters from the USofA were trying to coax technicians from the prestigious UK Medical Research Council HQ labs to emigrate. Apparently the problem was the US educational system produced too many people with "poor quality" degrees and those people did not want to work as "lowly" technicians. Britain then still had a tradition of wonderful technicians but then who am I to crow as I soon went down the academic route, albeit a "Applied Biology" degree and on to a PhD.

On an associated note, ironically, in the field of Antomology I have been pleased to help several PhD students with identifying their ants and find that the "weaker" sex is more abundant. What saddens me, and I don't think sex applies, is that there is little sign that more than a very few, if any, will be employed to continue ant taxonomy beyond their PhD. With digital imaging and gene sequencing, it could all take off but without any pilots it will be like Europe after the Iceland volcano - grounded.


The $0.75 on the dollar thing is simply not true at the individual level. Women with similar experience working similar jobs make closer to $0.95 on the dollar. At the economic level, that's certainly true that for every dollar earned by a man, about three quarters of a dollar is earned by a woman. However, many lower paying jobs are female dominated, and many more women than men choose to take long periods of time off of work to raise children.

I am chiming in late here, but appreciate the discussion and have personal experience in this area. I am a female PhD who recently "dropped out" of the academic track after starting a family. For me, I simply had no idea what was involved with juggling a career and motherhood until I arrived here myself. I was recently forwarded a posting for a post-doc position for which I was perfectly qualified. It paid $36K a year. Taking that position would involve moving my husband away from his job - a job which is our sole income right now and pays more than twice what that post-doc does, held by a husband who already sacrificed 5 years of his life following me around the country during grad school. At $36K, half to two-thirds of my salary would go to child care. I would be financially strapped, emotionally drained from leaving my child in day care all day, and expected to compete with other post-docs who could work evenings and weekends when it came to those scarce academic positions. At this point, it is clear to me that academics is not the right environment for me if I want the family life I currently have. So, I've moved on and am going to have to get creative with my career.

By Stephanie (not verified) on 26 May 2010 #permalink