Even as nearly equal amounts of men and women pursue graduate degrees in science, recent studies point to a troubling trend: A significant number of women are dropping out of the field — both in the private sector and academia — in their 30s and 40s.
According to a new study by the Center for Work-Life Policy and sponsored by a host of technology companies, 52 percent of women in private-sector science and technology jobs drop out without returning, a vast majority between the ages of 35 to 44. In the 18-month study, researchers conducted 28 focus groups in 13 major cities around the world, surveying women in science, engineering and technology who had been working at their company for at least six months.
"The dropping out was a surprise to us. We knew anecdotally that women were leaving these careers. We didn't expect to see the number 52 percent," said Laura Sherbin, a director at the Center for Work-Life Policy. "We [also] found that there was a specific age range in their mid- to late-30s where the attrition seemed to spike."
Even more confounding, the dropout is occurring even as gender differences in science study are starting to level out. According to the National Science Foundation, 211,000 women out of 486,000 students are pursuing graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. In the biological sciences, women dominate at the graduate level, making up 56 percent of the student population.
The reasons for attrition in the private sector are vast and complex, according to Sherbin, and can't be attributed solely to women leaving to raise families.
"The top two reasons why women leave are the hostile macho cultures — the hard hat culture of engineering, the geek culture of technology or the lab culture of science … and extreme work pressures," she said.
Sherbin describes "extreme work pressures" as the increasing demand to put in longer and longer days and face time at the office.
This idea of being uncomfortable with "extreme jobs" resonates particularly with Phoebe Leboy, a retired biochemist at the University of Pennsylvania who has worked in the biomedical field for more than 40 years and is president of the Association of Women in Science.
"What we expect from our career professionals in this country has changed substantially in the last 10 to 20 years," Leboy said. "In the last dozen years I hear frequently from my grad students and post docs, I really admire what you're doing, but I don't think I can hack it."
Leboy calls the work life that has developed in the last 15 to 20 years "a white male career model" and she isn't just hearing complaints from women who want to have children, but men as well.
"American men are increasingly are not wanting to take on these extreme jobs either, particularly as they are sharing home and family responsibilities with their partners," Leboy said. "This is why you see large companies calling for relaxing H1B visas limits to bring in more professionals because the amount of work-per-dollar-paid just doesn't look attractive to Americans anymore."
Leboy, who was the first woman promoted to a tenured faculty position at Penn's dental school, recalls as she was getting her PhD and doing in her post doctoral work in the '60s and '70s under a different set of hurdles.