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.


7 thoughts on “Why women leave academia

  1. “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”

    On the other hand your argument seems to imply that a 50/50 ratio between the sexes in academia is so important it’s worth uprooting the way the academic world has evolved here. But is it, actually?

    The idea that the sexes are fundamentally similar and suited to the same tasks is simply a bit of feminist theory – supported by no good science – invented because the feminist movement wanted women to have the freedom to do whatever careers they wanted. I don’t have a beef with that, but I do object to the next step we’ve now reached – the slightly bonkers plans to change the way everything is done in politics, journalism, science etc just to reach a 50/50 ratio.

    Surely the attitude should be that women should be flexible and motivated if they want to succeed at a job. We men have to be – we are still expected/forced by society to do so. We have to adapt to our careers. Frankly, women should do the same if they want to succeed.

    We were told over and over that a woman can do any job as well as a man (by the same gender theorists as those claiming essential similarity between the sexes, with the same dearth of supporting evidence). Now when women are not achieving in the same fields we seem to be changing the goalposts and saying that everything should be changed to reach this parity (which is basically a political goal of a dubious wing of feminism*. I can’t see that it’s obviously desirable)

    The work of Warren Farrell suggested that women make career choices with different priorities. To be honest, so does common sense, and so do the studies you mention.

    There’s a massively important difference between equality of opportunity and clumsily enforced equality – where it isn’t naturally occurring. Too often these days people are confusing the two and I think you do too.

    *one that gets a wildly disproportionate voice in a certain daily newspaper

  2. I’m not suggesting that it should be 50/50. I am, however, suggesting that the characteristics that seem to be discouraging women (when compared to men) are not necessarily optimal. If someone could demonstrate that these are indeed optimal (for an academic career) and it is just unfortunate that more women don’t have these characteristics, I would be (reasonably) happy to accept this. I have just never seen a convincing argument that this is the case and it is certainly not my view that it is the case (although I don’t have evidence of this either). My suggestion was simply that if we were to have a broader view of what might be the optimal characteristics for a successful academic (not everyone has to be aggressive,egotistical, and what a massive research group for example) we might be making steps towards more diversity in academia.

  3. Thanks for yr reply.

    I think there are a good number of things about academia that are sub-optimal and what you MAY be one of them*. In fact I would agree to the extent of saying that in a different environment women might do a lot more science. But there’s another problem to take into account also…

    I think that calling competition “aggressive” could be quite wrong. Working in science is not like being in the City. But even if it were, we have to channel men’s competitiveness into work. Competition is a good motivator for men.

    In fact this is very similar to the arguments that go on in schools. Less open competition for all and boys do worse and girls do better. But we’ve deliberately disadvantaged boys to achieve that. Now we have a lot of boys who – far from being focused on a post feminist, post-gender lifestyle without competition – feel aimless and neglected and smash parts of London, or each other up.

    I think channelling men’s drives is difficult. We can’t pretend any more that men and women are wired the same. Men are already falling behind in education and the workplace – and this doesn’t help anybody. To pull down a working system for nebulous aims like “diversity” and “equality” (very difficult to define the limits of) could be far more destructive than thinkers of your ilk realise.

    • I must admit that I don’t completely understand your comment and – if I do understand some of it – I am somewhat insulted. I’m not suggesting (as I say quite clearly in the post) that we remove competition, aggression, etc from academia. What I’m suggesting is that having a broader and more diverse view of what it takes to be a good academic may allow a much wider range of characteristics in academia. This may be a very positive step in itself and may help in encouraging women (for example) to consider academia as a viable career. I’m certainly not suggesting that we change it to specifically disadvantage men.

    • Having read your comment in more detail, I now realise that you probably didn’t actually read or understand my post particularly well. Given that you haven’t responded to my last reply, you may well have decided not to look at my blog anymore given that it is written by someone who you’re happy to refer to as a “thinker of your ilk” (which I assume is not meant to be complimentary). The basic point I was trying to make is that if we have something (like academia) that appears to have more of one kind of person than another (men versus women for example), then there should be some sense of whether or not the characteristics that result in this disparity are required (are optimal) for this particular job. If coal mining still requires people to hack away at the coal face with a pick and shovel, I would be happy to accept that there would be many more men coal miners than women.

      What I was looking for is a coherent argument as to why the characteristics that appear to dominate in academia are indeed required. If such an argument could be made, then we may have to simply accept that academia (or at least the sciences/engineering) will remain dominated by men. Simply saying that we can’t change things because it would now disadvantage men (with respect to their current dominance) doesn’t seem like such an argument. I’m certainly not suggesting that we should have a better gender balance because it is politically correct. I’m suggesting that we should have a better gender balance because I think universities would be a better place (both in terms of teaching and research) if we did.

  4. I’m always more than happy to engage rather than walk away. I can see that my initial comment was rather testy at one point.

    The idea, for example, of an inspired amateur following their own scientific interest is one option, needing a lot of spare time and money, though 🙂 But single-mindedness is certainly necessary for a science career – it is very hard work achieving the level of expertise and going through the donkey work. I don’t know if ‘aggression’ is there but yes: I can’t see it being necessary (to most people) for scientific work. Competition…that’s more difficult – it does get results…

    Asking for a rock solid argument why a career seems to work a particular way is one thing. One must ask why do you have a problem with it – is it because the ratio of men to women is not what you want?

    For some, the next step of the argument is going to be “well if we don’t know enough about psychology to be sure that men and women are different, then SURELY we should be trying to get closer to a 1:1 ratio”. If so then I don’t agree with the ‘surely’. I’m worried about someone making a clumsy bunch of rules for everything to try and ensure equality – and the probably disastrous consequences of doing so. Parenting is another source of vast inequalities, and not necessarily favouring men at all, but we must take care trying to fix this.

    The reason I am concerned about disadvantaging men is that this is what is happening now. Education and pay stats (for men/women under 30) show a reversal that doesn’t seem to bother anyone who has gone on about about (in)equality all this time. The term for this is a ‘double-standard’ is it not?

    The social and educational changes causing this came from exactly similar innocuous-sounding arguments to those you propound. I have become extremely skeptical about the arguments surrounding gender equality. I’m sad to say I don’t really trust the motivations behind them, for the reasons in the previous paragraph. Sorry.

    • I still think that we are not quite debating the same thing. I’m not suggesting that we start firing men and hiring women. I’m not suggesting that we start preferentially hiring women in order to reduce the disparity. What I’m suggesting is that there is no obvious reason why women wouldn’t be good academics (in the physical sciences). I must admit, that I’m not aware of a reversal for education and pay stats for those under 30. If women under 30 are now being paid more than men who are doing equivalent jobs, then I would agree that that is wrong.

      It seems, in academia at least, that lots of women do undergraduate degrees, quite a lot do PhDs and some start research careers. It seems, however, that many choose not to continue and don’t even apply for permanent academic jobs. By and large there is no discrimination in the hiring: we hire the appropriate proportion of women, given how many are applying.

      The question then (that I feel it is appropriate to ask) is why are women choosing not to apply for these jobs. There is no evidence to suggest that they aren’t perfectly capable of doing them. If we want the best possible university system, we should hire the most capable people. If a large fraction of these people are choosing not to continue in this career, we may be disadvantaging our university system. The reason is almost certainly complicated and could be related to our own societal norms. I think it’s good for academics to move to a different university or a different country and maybe this is more difficult for a woman than for a man. Not much universities can really do about this. There could, however, be other reason. It may well be that many women look at the (unwarranted) arrogance of some academics and decide they don’t want to work in such an environment. If we could encourage more women to consider long-term careers in academia, we may well improve our already good university system.

      Essentially, I can see no reason why we wouldn’t want to do this. We would have more choice in our hiring and would presumably, by definition, be able to hire more capable people. In a sense I’m arguing for more competition. I’m not suggesting that if more women apply, there should be some rules stating how many should be hired. I’m suggesting that if more women applied, we would have the option of hiring women if they were deemed to be the most capable applicant. If done properly, it wouldn’t disadvantage anyone other than those who presumably weren’t good enough in the first place.

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