Women in science tumbling off a cliff

Since someone in this thread is trying to suggest that there might be a gender-based difference in ability to pursue careers in STEM fields, this chart is most appropriate.


That fits with my experience. On average, the undergraduate women I teach are just as capable as the men — if they weren’t confidential, I could show you my gradebook and you’d see that it’s women who consistently stand at the top of the class. Yet somehow, after they graduate, their participation in science careers plummets. I don’t think they turn stupid after getting their degree; I remember my peers from my graduate school and post-doc days, and no, all of them were scary smart or they wouldn’t be there. I think it’s more that harassment takes its toll (most of which I was oblivious to at the time, but afterwards, I’ve had women tell me about it, and it was an eye-opening “Oh, yeah, he was kind of creepy, wasn’t he” sort of revelation), and disrespect (I definitely knew older faculty who saw women as good technicians, but not smart enough to do creative work) and judgmental attitudes (“she’s just going to get married and pregnant and leave the field anyway”).

We are not yet creating equal opportunities. Don’t try to tell me that women are less capable when I deal with brilliant, hard-working women in science every day.


  1. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Just last Friday, I was in a class on developing one’s skills as STEM mentors and role models. It was an excellent class and gave me some good ideas on how to connect with students (especially girls) interested in STEM. Here’s the thing–not one of the strategies suggested had anything to do with gender specifically. What works for girls, is also better for reaching boys. It’s just that for girls, it’s much more important.

    Here’s the kicker. I work at a center where men outnumber women about 2:1. In this class, women outnumbered men 4:1. The way you learn how it feels to be a minority, evidently, is try to be a decent person.

  2. Becca Stareyes says

    There’s also been studies done to show that the cliff happens independent of ability level: it’s not that low-performing men are more persistent than low-performing women, so stay in longer or are preferentially hired. (Which… look at the current political situation for an example of a lower-performing man thinking he is doing a perfectly fine job.)

  3. chris61 says

    (Such differences might not affect capabilities but might affect preferences).

    Quoting myself from the previous thread. Of course women are as capable. Some studies I’ve seen suggest that women are more capable than men and therefore with more career choices are less likely to choose STEM. Certainly in the USA over the last few years more women get Ph.Ds then men do.

  4. marcoli says

    Hear hear! I have seen that women leave this career track for a variety of reasons, but one is certainly that they see it is a boys’ club farther down the track. And i have seen the attitudes from men that you speak of. Fortunately, in my department we have a better-than-most sex ratio among the research/tenure track faculty (14 males, 9 female). It can be better, certainly, but this has been the most balanced that I have seen!

  5. Rowan vet-tech says

    My ‘differences’ that ‘affected preferences’ even at a young age was asshole men. Its why I decided not to be a paleontologist even though that’s pretty much my dream job. Having people be shocked that I was good at math and science in junior high, and seeing *NO* women paleontologists on tv in the documentaries I watched constantly told me that it would probably be a shit show.

  6. Saad says

    chris61, #3

    Some studies I’ve seen suggest that women are more capable than men and therefore with more career choices are less likely to choose STEM.

    What does that even mean? How would you even carry out a study to determine that women are “more capable” than men? What does that mean? More capable at what?

    Oh, and cite one or two of them.

    Also don’t think nobody caught your rewording of “estrogen vibe” with that “might affect preferences” bullshit.

  7. electronswheee says

    *sigh* I’m a phd candidate, just a few months out from defense. This morning I just had one of my male collaborators try to give me some unsolicited advice to not have kids before graduating. I…godsdamnit, why can we not move on?

    I have worse stories, but as it literally just happened it’s still on the front of my mind. So yes, there’s a reason why there aren’t as many of us…

  8. mnb0 says

    “Don’t try to tell me that women are less capable when”
    I have taught math and physics to so many girls last 17 years who were smarter than me (male) when I was at their age (and I seem to belong to the 2% most intelligent people in the world, which is not impressive at all after doing some correct calculations).

  9. johanna says

    Another factor is the confidence gap. Men tend to overestimate their abilities, and women tend to underestimate theirs – not just in science, not just in academics, but in all parts of life.

    And to take on a career as a researcher, you have to have a decently high opinion of your own abilities. You have to believe that you can come up with ideas that no one else in human history has ever thought of before, not just once or twice, but steadily for the rest of your life (or at least until you get tenure, which for young people these days can feel like the rest of your life).

    This was a big part of my thought process when, as a newly minted PhD, I looked at the prospects for my career as a researcher and decided to walk away.

  10. andyb says

    I’m a little surprised PZ only associates this trend with misogynistic attitudes, and ignores cultural attitudes and a lack a support for child rearing. In my opinion, this is the #1 cause for this discrepancy.
    Having kids on a graduate student stipend will require major loans, and there will be many projects that would be disrupted by a student taking a year off – so a lot of people (men and women) will consciously decide to put off children until they finish graduate school. This is a 6+ year commitment for many people.
    After you start graduate school, you realize the real pressure cooker begins at a post-doc and tenure track positions – where the competition for limited jobs gets fierce. If you want to be as competitive as possible, having a family seems like a bad idea, so now it looks like if you want to pursue a PhD and enter academia, maybe you should put off kids for 10+ years. In addition, when you have kids, you’ll probably have to move somewhere where you have no family or support network.
    I believe this discrepancy would fade if there was a support network for raising young children (paid maternity leave that didn’t negatively impact your position – plus affordable, quality child care), and if there were more jobs available that didn’t require a full-time commitment, so that it was easier to balance family and a career. You’d think the last one would be an easy fix (and would benefit colleges and students, because we’d increase the number of faculty) – but we would need to shift health care costs away from employers.

    RE #9 – my guess is that this person was trying to provide helpful advice – I’m confused by your “move on” statement. I know women who have provided this exact same advice. I can also say that all the major decisions about my career path were based first on personal decisions related to relationships. The best advice I could ever give myself (if my career was my #1 priority) is never, ever get in a relationship.

  11. electronswheee says

    I guess you’re referencing me? Dude, stop. Not that it matters, but I do not have kids, have never wanted kids, and frankly I strongly dislike the little buggers. Please trust me when I say that it’s more than “just friendly advice”. Do not make me pull out my “oh, that’s obviously horrible and I’m sorry that happened to you” stories to explain why this is a microaggression.

    Regarding your larger statement, I can agree that child support for graduate students is a problem, as is child support more generally, but it is most certainly not the main problem. Admittedly, I have never wanted children, and it frankly would be difficult with the hours I currently work, but it’s not the reason, in my opinion, women drop off so quickly. The bigger issue for me is the outright misogyny. I have been the one lady in a room of 50 white dudes, and it is not a fun place to be. I was so excited at a conference recently when there was a lady with a newborn in front of me in the registration line, only to have that hope dashed when I finally realized this one lady in a sea of hundreds was the wife of a researcher.

    I just don’t have much hope this is going to get better in my lifetime, but maybe we’ll push it a bit closer.

  12. Rowan vet-tech says

    @andyb – You don’t think lack of support for child rearing (a task that mainly falls on women) is misogynistic at its core?

  13. electronswheee says

    ….and I just realized that comment was barely cogent. It’s been a week of <5 hours of sleep whilst trying to get measurements for a proposal…

  14. andyb says

    I guess I (try) to cut people slack when they give me advice – because it’s usually good intentioned. This goes for my mom, as well as the guy on the street who hands out cartoon pamphlets on being saved.

    Is a lack of support mysogynisitc at its core – maybe, at at least see the argument. I think a fix is impossible unless we adopt a universal health care system.

    Everyone has their own experiences. I’ve usually had a female department head, am working on a university with more female faculty than male, and went to school with a lot of female graduate students now with university positions. I think the disparity is improving.

  15. JustaTech says

    Just to clarify, this chart is only looking at researchers in higher ed, right? What happens when you look at women who are scientists in industry? Does that account for some of the loss? I ask because I work in industry and there are quite a few women with PhD’s here as scientists (research, development, quality) even in my little company. And what about non-academic research institutions? Because while PhDs might only come from one place (universities) there are many more places for them to go.
    (And part of that might be better pay, better work-life balance, marginally less misogyny, but we shouldn’t act like a person has left science if they don’t work for a university.)

  16. palefury says

    I am a female postdoc in cancer molecular biology who is currently contemplating whether to leave research. The main reasons for this are 1. job security (grant funding is increasing hard to get and contracts are pretty much year to year for most of us), 2. more time with family (I have a 2yo), and 3. location (working in Australia but want to move home to New Zealand). Currently weighing up the pros/cons.

    Since having a child it really does feel as though I have to choose between career and family. Though this doesn’t really seem to be consideration for male postdocs in the same position. I am not sure why this is and whether the pressure is coming from me or from those around me.

  17. chrislawson says

    @andyb — echoing Rowan vet-tech, lack of support for childcare is one of misogyny’s many faces. They are not separate things.

  18. chrislawson says

    JustaTech@17 — your argument isn’t really helpful unless you know that these non-academic research organisations have more women than men in senior positions to make up for the drop-off in university numbers. I would be very interested to hear of the existence of such wonderful places.

  19. chrislawson says

    andyb@16 — I’m glad to know that you have personally experienced working with women in academia, but “everyone has different experiences” is not an argument against published data showing a massive drop-off in women as seniority progresses.

  20. JustaTech says

    chrislawson@20: It wasn’t really an argument but an honest question. If women with PhDs aren’t researching or teaching at universities, where are they? I suggested two places (non-university research institutions and industry). I did not say that any organization or company has more women than men in senior scientist positions: I don’t know that and it is not my experience.
    Basically, what I’m asking is: are all places of scientific research (non-university research institutions, industry and government) as lacking of women as universities? Because that would suggest that the same forces are at play across the board. If those other places have more women than universities, even if it is not enough more women to make up the difference, then *that* would suggest that there are important differences in these workplaces that might be studied to see about changing the universities.

    I will also admit to being a bit bitter that it seems like university researchers forget that there are other places to do research and that it is still science, even if you do it for a company.

  21. andyb says

    Chris@21, i don’t the data at all, my ‘experience’ comment was in regard to why. My wife is in stem at a university, and we’ve frequently had these discussions. I also have female family members working in acadamia in science.

    I know there are neanderthals in our profession (my apologizes to our neanderthal relatives for this racist slur), but i think these misogynistic attitudes will go extinct (or nearly so). Real change will require more – for example I would point to the radical increase in women in the workforce in Japan due to changes in childcare availability. (The pro healthcare arguement should move away from issues of equality, and focus more on the economics and why this is good for business.)

    On the half full side, its remarkable more masters degrees appear to be earned by women – this has to be radically different than 50 years go.

  22. secondtofirstworld says

    @andyb #12:

    I’m luckily in a position having grown up in a country, that does have universal health care, and paid maternity leave, however that bears no relation in identifying and combating misogyny. I support the Scandinavian model. This not only strengthens relations between the father and the developing child https://sweden.se/society/gender-equality-in-sweden/ I wish we had that, because although mothers can stay on paid leave up to 3 years, or 5, if a second child is born during that interval, that was just a cop-out by the former regime to not build nurseries, which is something democratic governments don’t do either. They rather extended paid leave to grandparents first, then changed to law to be mothers only, but granted women a pension after 40 years of work.

    This brings me to my second point, the factors influencing willingness to have kids, that aren’t directly financial in nature. Since demographic decline is a huge issue, reasons are constantly explored to have more women bear more babies, and have them protected by the labor act from firing until they can return. The core problem is, and it’s very similar to America, if the other party gives the administration, they reverse, repeal or kill laws the other has codified. You can be the richest person in the world, but if every election brings groundbreaking changes, which affect the lives of families greatly, planning to have a kid is a huge issue. Societies with universal healthcare aren’t less misogynistic, it’s also influenced by societal views.

    Even if having babies would go without a hitch, every person has a right not to have them. So one thing, that has to change is treating it as if only the woman is involved. This means both not asking a woman if she wants them or not, at least not on company time, and also means for men to contribute more if they want the baby. Why? Well, being loyal can be expected company policy, so if a person abandons their most nuclear unit they’re returning home to, how loyal can that employee be? I was always bemused by the “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question, as it can’t be followed up by the “How long has your previous relationship lasted?” Don’t get me wrong, personal lives aren’t company property, but the ability to commit is important. There’s a proven correlation between having kids and being committed to the job, as that provides for the family.

    This is also why “she will drop out and have kids” is hypocritical, as it’s built on the premise that the father is a good willed person, who will provide. It basically makes a personal relationship into a professional one, where both parents play distinctively different roles. If and when the society were ready to abolish draft subscription and alimony from the law books, more men would support the idea of universal healthcare, where things like paid parental leave are covered by the dividends of the individual, and not a second person.

  23. magistramarla says

    I saw this problem with my daughter. When she finished her post-doc in a research lab, she also talked about how difficult it is for a woman to get a lab of her own and tenure. She still works in a scientific field, but not as a researcher. BTW, she and her husband (a tenured professor) decided long ago to never have children.
    When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, my four year old grand-daughter says “An engineer – like Grandpa”.
    I certainly hope that STEM opportunities are better for women by the time she earns a degree.

  24. konservenknilch says

    In my personal experience (developmental genetics, like PZ) women tend to be equally represented, or even over-represented, up until the postdoc stage, then it indeed falls off a cliff. I can only speculate as to the reason, but a big thing indeed seems to be childbirth – you’re usually 30 or so at that stage – and possibly a re-evaluation of your life priorities at that point. As anyone working in science will know, the hours are brutal and the rewards (financially) meager. An old boss of mine liked to use “9 to 5 scientist” as an insult (of a woman in that case). There’s the old saying that behind every famous man is a strong woman, and there’s truth to that – men get away easier with having kids and also a career as long as a woman has his back.

  25. snuffcurry says

    @chris61, 3

    Some studies I’ve seen suggest that women are more capable than men and therefore with more career choices are less likely to choose STEM.

    In addition to citing studies measuring “capability,” as Saad has requested, why don’t you explain what those abundance of “career choices” women partake in are and why men are incapable of availing themselves of them such that, poor them, they’ve only STEM to fall back on.

  26. chris61 says

    @28 snuffcurry

    I suggest you look at online data indicating college graduations by year in the USA. Women are the vast majority of graduates in any number of fields -veterinary medicine, psychology, education and others.

  27. snuffcurry says

    @konservenknilch, 27

    As anyone working in science will know, the hours are brutal and the rewards (financially) meager.

    And yet women at and above 30 are not underrepresented in other equally brutal and even more underpaid positions. Whole sectors, in fact, lacking prestige and benefits and decent wages, are carved out for overworked women, mothers or no, to wile away their days.

    An old boss of mine liked to use “9 to 5 scientist” as an insult (of a woman in that case).

    They flatter themselves mightily if they believe the world would stop turning if they tightened up their work weeks to 40 hours or less, improved their time management skills. Besides which, there’s certainly no work ever waiting for a woman at her home! Oh, wait–

    men get away easier with having kids and also a career as long as a woman has his back.

    No, they do so pretty much independently of the existence of a wife or female partner, although female labor that enables the middle-class to thrive is relatively invisible. “Has his back” needs fleshing out.

  28. chris61 says

    @31 snuffcurry

    Go to the US Dept of Education website and look at college graduation data. I assume you know how to use google…?

  29. snuffcurry says

    You want to extrapolate wisdom about “capabilities,” you can cite your authorities. I’m assuming, I don’t know why, you’re capable of doing so?

  30. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Chris 61, either you say “This is what I believe, and this *link* is the evidence to back it up”, or you are nothing but an evidenceless JAQing off Troll. Show us your ability to actually link to real evidence that backs up your claims. Otherwise, that which is asserted without evidence (your normal idiocy), can be dismissed without evidence.
    Attributed to Christopher Hutchins, et al.
    No response by you without a link is dismissed….

  31. sbfromdownthehall says

    Physics prof here, female, 3 kids, mid-career, PhD theoretical physics, experience in research environments in several different countries; teaching, mentoring, and researching at small Midwest public liberal arts college.
    Loads of good points here wrt possible reasons on why women do not pursue research careers after PhD. I can confirm issues with family-life balance, with confidence in calling, with overcoming lifelong set expectations about the role of women as subordinate. In particular the latter is part of a culture of which you notice nothing while you are in it. I really do believe that the US is ahead of the curve in this particular area: women scientists are part of the academic landscape here to a much larger degree than, say, in Germany. Whenever I return there now, I am painfully aware of the difference.

    The practical challenges of family life (it’s not only the kids, it’s also the two-body problem) are formidable. Only in looking back I find that it indeed took a toll to pretend that these challenges were not inhibiting me in any way. Of course they did. Being the single present parent of small kids constrains the ability to work on weekends, evenings, to go to campus events, not to mention conferences, etc. Quality, accessible childcare is the absolute requirement for all of this! I can not even emphasize this enough! We do have a childcare center in town, and if it takes the parents to keep it open, so be it. It’s a matter of the ability to function. Trying to have a family and a research career takes quite some letting go of those ambitions which brought you into science in the first place. And if you are the person who wonders whether a family is going to inhibit your career: hey, kids grow up. It’s a temporary challenge – something like 10 years, and the going becomes easier. I also do not quite subscribe to the notion that this is a female problem. With the exception of maternity leave, most of this affects – I think- anybody.

    That leaves the confidence problem, probably culturally conditioned.
    I am mentoring research students, many of them women. It is amazing me sometimes how often I hear things like “I kinda of want to do this, but maybe I don’t belong here”; that will get an extra effort for success experiences, pep talk, and conference trips for the student out of me. The space to make mistakes, the modeling of humbleness is important. Confidence springs from the experience of success. It is encouraging, that I was privileged to work with young women who are incredibly talented, smart, confident, and went on to grad school for a PhD. If you guys read this – persist. Ok?

    It seems that the following things matter: (1) a change in culture, (2) plenty of credible encouragement, (3) role models (?), (4) a practical, visible way to combine career and elements of personal life.

  32. says

    “No! You support my argument! I don’t wanna support what I’m saying!” In more moderate language from somone critisizing a disadvantaged group or related position has always struck me as an excellent sign that I should press harder. There is fear in there. Google and citations are just as available to the one with the criticism.

  33. chris61 says

    @34 Nerd

    Sigh. The data showing more women than men have been awarded Ph.Ds over the last five or six years is online. Try the NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) website. This is not a *belief* these are data. If you can’t be bothered to look it up for yourself, there’s really very little hope for you.