Women Dropping Out of Science Careers

Think women are leaving science to raise families? Not so, researchers say.

February 12, 2009, 1:03 PM

June 24, 2008 — -- 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.

"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.

In this study of both men and women scientists, researchers found no evidence of gender bias or a so-called "glass ceiling," but that women's desire to be with their children trumped that of men's desire.

"Women aren't as convinced that they can succeed as many men," she said. "Even women without children were concerned with spending time with children. It's the perceived family situation, even if they're not married at the time."

Based on the study and her personal experience (she is the mother of two teenagers), Cohen-Fix believes having more women mentors could be a solution to the "dropout" problem.

"I think there is a paucity of role models for women" of accomplished researchers who have kids that turn out to be normal, she said. "Because women don't go into the system, that just doesn't trickle down."

Cohen-Fix advises women researchers who are having kids to try to do both before dropping out, even if they think they might have trouble juggling both family and long hours in the lab.

"The other thing I always tell people is to try it, but if you leave before even trying [you'll never know]," she said. "[Science] is moving forward so quickly that even if you take two or three years off, it's really hard to come back."

For now, at least in the private sector, mentoring programs for women have become de rigeur for several large companies, including Cisco and Microsoft.

And for those large tech companies, that travel to Capitol Hill every year to ask for raising limits on H1B work visas, the issue of attracting those women back into the work force should be of utmost importance, Sherbin said.

"The talent is actually sitting in their back yard," she said.