Why women leave academia

There was a very interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about why women, preferentially, leave academia. It was based on an analysis of chemistry PhD students. Essentially, at the beginning of a chemistry PhD 72% of women would like a career in research compared to 61% for men. At the end of the PhD, however, the percentage of women interested in a research career had dropped to 37%, while for men it had remained fairly steady (59%).

The study suggested that there were many aspects of an academic career that people found unappealing, but “women in greater numbers than men see academic careers as all-consuming, solitary and as unnecessarily competitive”. The certainly gels with my own views. What we now value in an academic are characteristics and qualities that may, preferentially, disadvantage women more than men. Maybe, disadvantage is the wrong word; maybe it is simply that what is required for a successful academic careers discourages a higher fraction of women than men.

I have, however, heard many suggest that this no longer really matters. There is no inherent discrimination (or at least there is no real evidence of it) and a woman has, by and large, as much chance as a man to have a successful academic career. Women are simply choosing not to follow an academic career path. I do, however, have a fundamental problem with this argument. If, as the study suggests, there are indeed aspects of an academic career that preferentially discourage women when compared to men, this argument then implies that these aspects are somehow necessary or optimal.

It certainly seems that a successful academic career requires a certain amount of single-mindedness, aggression, competitiveness, and other characteristics that may well disadvantage women when compared to men. If one could show that these characteristics were optimal for an academic career and that it was just unfortunate that more men were suited to this than women, I might buy the argument that everything is essentially fine. It’s not, however, obvious to me that these characteristics are indeed optimal. If the prime role of an academic is to lead a major research project, bring in lots of money, and aggressively push your views to the detriment of others, then maybe this would be the case. I certainly think that this is not really what academia is all about. It’s about scholarship and research, engaging with and educating the public and students, and ultimately trying to improve our understanding of the world around us.

It’s certainly the case that competitiveness, aggression and desire to lead, do have an important place in academia. However, if these are the dominant characteristics then I think we do not have the ideal academic environment. There should be breadth and a range of different styles. The goals should be scholarship and research not simply big project that costs lots of money. I think we disadvantage ourselves by having an academic career path that preferentially discourages women when compared to men, although I don’t really have a good idea of how to fix this.


The Moral Economy

I was wondering why we shouldn’t apply the free-market ideology to everything. The basic idea behind the free market is that the system will self-regulate and will automatically settle into some kind of state that is optimal. Why can’t we apply this to everything and simply have no laws whatsoever. Presumably everyone wouldn’t simply go out and commit all sorts of heinous crimes. The truth, however, is that some sadly would. One might expect people to drive carefully (because it’s sensible to do so) but most wouldn’t. I’m sure that a system without laws would settle into some kind of state, but possibly not the kind of state that most would be comfortable living in. Essentially, we are an intelligent species that has developed a set of morals that most would agree are reasonable and we impose laws so that our society is one that satisfies our sense of morality. Our morals wouldn’t disappear without laws, but what would you do with those who didn’t behave according to society’s norms and how would you define these norms? As soon as they’re defined, you essentially have the beginnings of regulation.

I don’t see why something similar should apply to our economies, especially as these are not technically independent of our societies. Economies don’t develop by themselves. They develop as a society tries to provide food, shelter, transport, entertainment, education, healthcare, etc. The goal of an economy is not to create a profit for investors. It’s to provide services. Investors should be rewarded for careful and useful investments, but not at the expense of the services being provided. Similarly, those who contribute most and are regarded as the more creative members of our economies should be rewarded more highly than others. However, they shouldn’t then be able to use this to then leverage extra rewards over and above what might be regarded as reasonable. I accept that it is difficult to define reasonable, but the top 25 investment bankers in the US earning 3 times more than all of the 80000 teachers in New York state seems immoral to me. Similarly, the richest 1000 people in the UK increasing their wealth by £155bn since 2008 also seems hard to justify. This would wipe out two years worth of deficit, something the government regards as so important that almost 1 million people have lost their jobs since 2008.

I accept that economies are very complicated and that some will (and should be) rewarded more than others. However, following a path of austerity in which the poorest will potentially lose all they have while the wealthiest continue getting richer seems immoral. To argue that this is the moral path (since future generations will have to pay for any extra borrowing today) seems entirely disingenuous.