Women Dropping Out of Science Careers

"I was facing other things, like being told, 'We don't hire women.' … It occurred to me the other day that I never met a woman biochemist until I was a post doc. I never had a woman professor in college that was a full-time regular faculty member and it always amazed me that I somehow I decided that this was something I could do and wanted to do," Leboy said. "Although I was planning to go into academic science at that point – 1962 – I didn't even believe it was possible for a woman scientist to get an [National Institute of Health] grant. It was a really different culture."

As different of a culture as it may have been, according to the Center for Work-Life Policy study, women are still feeling that isolation in the private sector with few, if any, role models.

"One woman told us … 'I was used to being the only woman in the room.' What they weren't used to is the very severe isolation, as if their colleagues were almost out against them," Sherbin said. "They would have no one to reach out to or [they felt] the isolation was really stalling their careers. They certainly have a very hard time finding a woman to be a role model or sponsor for them. … They often time have a very hard time even getting men to be their mentors or sponsors."

Women in academia are grappling with similar struggles, though for different reasons.

Emily Rogalski, a 29-year-old neuroscientist doing her post doc at Rush University Medical School, isn't surprised by the results of recent studies, but is definitely concerned. Rogalski, who is also getting married this September, will start a full-time faculty position at Northwestern University this fall; in her negotiations for the position, determining an amount of maternity leave that she was comfortable with was important to her.

"I think you're still running into the same problem, that even if you've got your degree, if you haven't had a family yet — you get to that age people start to make decisions about having a family and you can't take that time off and still climb the ladder," she said.

Rogalski feels lucky to have had several top-level women advisors and mentors, but she finds the absence of women in her field who are balancing a family and intensive research troubling.

"I think it's really difficult. … At some point you're going to sacrifice your family or your career. I don't think my advisors would be where they are today if they had taken off time to raise a family," she said. "I want to work and I don't want to quit, but I definitely want to have a family. I'm not willing to sacrifice my family for my career. I don't want to compromise. … I hope that flexibility [of academic life] is something that works in my favor, but I don't have a lot of examples. I can't think of a lot of women who have done it."

This sentiment is shared by many women in academia, according to Dr. Orna Cohen-Fix, a senior investigator in the laboratory of molecular and cellular biology at the National Institutes of Health.

Last year, Cohen-Fix co-wrote a study that found that women tended to drop out of research between their post doc positions and running their own labs. While women make up about 45 percent of the post doctoral positions, they only make up 29 percent of tenured faculty. In the top spot of senior investigator, or someone who's running his or her own lab, the statistics are even more striking; women make up only 19 percent of those positions.

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