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.