Women Dropping Out of Science Careers

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

ByABC News
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.