22 votes

Is it really just sexism? An alternative argument for why women leave STEM

Tags: stem, women, sexism

6 comments

  1. [2]
    aphoenix
    Link
    This is an interesting piece, with some interesting ideas. I haven't done the research this person has done, but my wife is a professor in rehabilitation science, so I guess she's in that...

    This is an interesting piece, with some interesting ideas. I haven't done the research this person has done, but my wife is a professor in rehabilitation science, so I guess she's in that relatively small percentage of women who have stuck around. She was able to do so for a few reasons:

    • we have great family support; my mother picks up the kids from school every day.
    • we have had the benefit of flexibility, both in my working hours and her study (and then work) hours.
    • we have a very supportive country - Canada provides up to a year of parental leave, for mothers or fathers (or mix and match)
    • We have been lucky with finding exceptional child care.

    Without the familial support network, the exceptional daycare, and the work flexibility, she would not have been able to reach this point in her career. I think that to "make it" you probably need at least 3 of these 4 things, and for most people in, say, the USA, they are missing one (paid family leave) right off the bat, so a good first step would be figuring out parental leave.

    I think it's important to note that sexism is definitely still a problem that my wife faces with some frequency, and the only reason that it's not a contributing factor to her wanting to quit is because there's no job where it wouldn't be a problem, so you can't really opt out of sexism. Racism too, for that matter (my wife is a person of colour). These things are hard to deal with and still require constant work, but I think that maybe we're starting to get to the point where we really need to look at some of the other things, like work / family balance, to enable women to focus on their careers.

    14 votes
    1. joplin
      Link Parent
      I don't know the stats, but this varies widely by state and by employer in the US. My employer has very generous family leave for both parents. I have several coworkers who have taken it multiple...

      for most people in, say, the USA, they are missing one (paid family leave) right off the bat

      I don't know the stats, but this varies widely by state and by employer in the US. My employer has very generous family leave for both parents. I have several coworkers who have taken it multiple times. They're gone for months, nothing bad happens at work, they return and pick up right where they left off. A lot of the hand-wringing that employers do about this is absurd. I hope that we get some sort of law passed at the federal level soon.

      5 votes
  2. [3]
    DanBC
    Link
    I wonder how this can be said if women are leaving early? This is one of the things (better leave, more family leave) that would benefit everyone, but which disproportionately affects women. This...

    Our hiring committees have received bias training, and it seems that it has been largely successful.

    I wonder how this can be said if women are leaving early?

    When you ask women why they left, the number one reason they cite is balancing work/life responsibilities — which as far as I can tell is a euphemism for family concerns.

    This is one of the things (better leave, more family leave) that would benefit everyone, but which disproportionately affects women. This feels to me to be clearly a problem of sexism, with roots in traditional patriarchal models of work and family life (the man works, the woman stays at home).

    Her main point, that we need to also focus on work/life balance as well as harassment is a good one.

    11 votes
    1. Micycle_the_Bichael
      Link Parent
      Yeah I came to say pretty much the same thing as your second point. The issue of family planning is one that has deeply sexist roots. Pregnancy is something that biologically will fall on people...

      Yeah I came to say pretty much the same thing as your second point. The issue of family planning is one that has deeply sexist roots. Pregnancy is something that biologically will fall on people with a vagina, which is predominately women (though all of this should 10000000% extend to the trans community as well) and that's pretty immutable. But child raising is societally expected and often times forced up the mother. My cousin-in-law literally couldn't take parental leave from his job despite him wanting to be the one to raise his newborn son and let his wife go back to work. I'm curious why the author doesn't view these things under the umbrella of sexism.

      5 votes
    2. skullkid2424
      Link Parent
      ...is precedence immediately by... So presumably the bias training is working since the hires % match the hiring pool %.

      Our hiring committees have received bias training, and it seems that it has been largely successful.

      ...is precedence immediately by...

      In fact, at least in the U of T chemistry department, faculty hires are directly proportional to the applicant pool —although the exact number of applicants are not made public, from public information we can see that approximately one in four interview invitees are women, and approximately one in four hires are women.

      So presumably the bias training is working since the hires % match the hiring pool %.

  3. skybrian
    Link
    From the article: [...] [...] [...] [...]

    From the article:

    So, it seems that sexism can not fully explain why women with STEM PhDs are leaving STEM. At the point when women have earned a PhD, for the most part they have already survived the worst of the sexism. They’ve already proven themselves to be generally thick-skinned and, as anyone with a PhD can attest, very stubborn in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Sexism is frustrating, and it can limit advancement, but it doesn’t fully explain why we have so many women obtaining PhDs in STEM, and then leaving.

    [...]

    When you ask women why they left, the number one reason they cite is balancing work/life responsibilities — which as far as I can tell is a euphemism for family concerns.

    [...]

    At no point [before getting tenure] do I appear stable enough, career-wise, to take even six months off to be pregnant and care for a newborn. Hypothetical future-me is travelling around, or even moving, conducting and promoting my own independent research and training students. As you’re likely aware, very pregnant people and newborns don’t travel well. And academia has a very individualistic and meritocratic culture. Starting at the graduate level, huge emphasis is based on independent research, and independent contributions, rather than valuing team efforts. This feature of academia is both a blessing and a curse. The individualistic culture means that people have the independence and the freedom to pursue whatever research interests them — in fact this is the main draw for me personally. But it also means that there is often no one to fall back on when you need extra support, and because of biological constraints, this winds up impacting women more than men.

    [...]

    By and large, women leave to go to a career where they will be stable, well funded, and well supported, even if it doesn’t fulfill their passion for STEM — or they leave to be stay-at-home moms or self-employed.

    [...]

    So what can we do to better support STEM women who want families?

    A couple of solutions have been tentatively tested. From a study mentioned above, it’s clear that providing free and conveniently located childcare makes a colossal difference to women’s choices of whether or not to stay in STEM, alongside extended and paid maternity leave. Another popular and successful strategy was implemented by a leading woman in STEM, Laurie Glimcher, a past Harvard Professor in Immunology and now CEO of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. While working at NIH, Dr. Glimcher designed a program to provide primary caregivers (usually women) with an assistant or lab technician to help manage their laboratories while they cared for children. Now, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she has created a similar program to pay for a technician or postdoctoral researcher for assistant professors. In the academic setting, Dr. Glimcher’s strategies are key for helping to alleviate the challenges associated with the individualistic culture of academia without compromising women’s research and leadership potential.

    2 votes