Hey, where did all the women go?

May 16 2011 Published by under academia, computer science, culture, sexism, women

New Scientist had an article several weeks ago, "Where are all the women scientists?" which ACM seems to have just picked up on in their thrice weekly Tech News. It caught my eye because the article begins by quoting fellow FCS and blogger Amy Dalal (her blog is called "This is What a Computer Scientist Looks Like").

After feeling simultaneously disgusted and terrified reading that Amy received harassing phone calls due to being the first FCS faculty member in her department, I found the rest of the first part of the article a bit ho-hum. It was the typical work-life balance stuff.

But then I saw this:

None of the above

But maybe it's not the babies. A study of more than 3,700 female engineers carried out by Nadya Fouad and Romila Singh at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee revealed that only a quarter left engineering because of family reasons (bit.ly/gA79xQ). The remaining three-quarters quit their jobs or left the field entirely because they did not like the workplace culture, or were unhappy with other aspects of the job.
While blatant gender discrimination in the workplace is rare, the subtle, everyday instances of bias that women experience create a snowball effect that, over time, can be overwhelmingly off-putting.
More than half of female scientists have experienced gender bias, according to a 2010 survey by the American Association for the Advancement of Science for L'Oréal. Examples include being ignored in meetings, students calling you Mrs. instead of Dr. or Professor, receiving unwanted comments on your appearance, and hearing that you were hired not on merit, but because you're a woman.

Yes! Exactly! Thank you! I've been saying this for years, and many, many times since I started blogging. Babies are rarely the reason women leave. It's culture. Culture, culture, culture.

Sadly after these three great paragraphs the article seems to have suffered from an overzealous editor, because it suddenly became, "But don't worry, look at this one positive example we have!" and talked about how at the US Geological Survey half of the top positions are held by women. I think that's great, but I would have rather seen the space used for talking about broader initiatives to attract and retain women across all the sciences and engineering, as well as across government, industry, and academia.

16 responses so far

  • Kaija says:

    A fellow female scientist friend sent me this recently and we agreed that it made some good points: http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/women-in-science . As you allude to in your post, there are probably MANY factors at play in individual decisions, but I'm willing to bet that women with STEM training are probably pretty good at the purely rational, logical, economic transactional analysis of their career options.

    As a postdoc with a partner in a quantitative finance field whose bonus is more than my annual stipend, I'm looking widely at next steps for my longterm career. Research has it's moments, I really enjoy teaching and mentoring, but jeez, I'd like to have both time and some extra money to enjoy my life. And it has nothing to do with "children and family" as we are childfree by choice...I have multiple interests, talents, and curiosities and there is more to life than impact factors and priority scores 🙂

  • bluefoot says:

    As a woman who has been in science for 25+ years, I have to agree that the biggest problem over time is the culture. Having to spend every day of 25+ years justifying my existence, or proving and reproving that I should be taken seriously as a scientist and a person is exhausting. It definitely has a snowball effect over time. Not just in science either. I see this in many woman of my peer group in technical and other male-dominted fields and in management positions.

  • Kimberly says:

    Very interesting ... until reading this I would have said it was the babies almost exclusively causing women to leave. It shows the dangers of extrapolating from personal experience. : ) I guess I'll have to rethink some of my opinions. However, I have to point out that 25% is still a large proportion of leavers, so family issues are still important to address if we want to retain women in SET.

  • fcs says:

    Thanks for the comments, all, and good point, Kimberly. 25% is nothing to sneeze at!

  • chall says:

    Thanks for the new links to referring articles. I read the first one when it came out... and I'd think that after some years the "why do I really do this"? settles in and maybe that would make it easier to leave. It's simply not worth it. Especially if you can move to something else where you aren't constantly on the Mrs/culture.

  • Kaija says:

    Incidentally, my partner is not exactly thrilled with his job either, as business and office culture has it's own soul-crushing elements. He talks often about saving up enough to quit and go back to study in an different area "just because it's interesting" and envies some of the autonomous and unstructured features of academic work. The bottom line is many people, regardless of gender, are dissatisfied with various aspects of "work culture" and would like more option to tailor their work to their particular needs. Expecting people to be cogs in the machine may be an archaic model that is shifting for the better...at least I hope so.

  • Having worked soul-crushing jobs AND experienced the sexist science culture, I don't think that they are painful in the same way. I found it much easier to separate myself from my soul crushing job--this is what I do for a living, and it doesn't really touch who I am. Many of the others in this job feel the same way, so it isn't so isolating.

    The sexist work culture sometimes creates a feeling of doubt ("do I belong here?") that I have a hard time keeping separate from my non-work time. As one of very few women, I sometimes feel alone and isolated. Many of my colleagues don't even see things that deeply impact my work environment (unlike in my soul crushing job). They laugh off when students disrespect me, or that I find the machine shop porn posters off-putting in a way that no one laughs off crazy work hours or the lack of privacy in a cube farm.

    I think there is a big difference between being dissatisfied with aspects of work culture, and feeling rejected by the culture at work.

  • MZ says:

    Thanks for this -- I am also concerned that the emphasis on "it's all the babies" means that people get to use any institutional lack of support for family-friendly policies as an excuse for not examining their own behavior.

    Besides, at least two things argue against it being all because of babies. First, the proportion of women in different fields of science varies enormously, but no one would say that child care is easier to obtain in, say, botany (where there are lots of women) than in mechanical engineering. And second, I've done quite a bit of work on this issue in Scandinavia, where social support is great and work/life balance issues acknowledged, but the profile of women in science, particularly at higher levels, is similar to that in North America, or even worse.

  • Kaija says:

    I think that if we could just agree that ALL people need some leeway to arrange their personal work-life mashup and instead of giving "maternity leave" and stopping the tenure clock for mothers, we could have "personal leave" as an option for all employees, and decouple it from gender or parental status. Some can use it when they have babies (and hopefully parents of either gender will feel that it's not a stigma to take it), some can use it to take care of an aging parent or help a sibling through a rough spot, and some can take it to climb Mt. Rainier or take a 6-month immersion course in a foreign country or whatever. Not all of us want to have babies, but we have other things in life that call to us deeply. Yes, it would take some tweaking and change to institute it but if we want work culture to stay in step with modern life, and if employers really want to retain the people they've invested in, this might be a good first step. Having lived in the US and Canada and with tons of Scandinavian relatives and family members, I can see the merits of "human-friendly" policies.

  • Skeptic says:

    My! What a shocking finding. More than 50% of women had experienced bias!!!!!
    Oh dear!

    I wish they did a survey of what percentage of academics feel like their work does not receive enough citations. I am sure more than 50% of those surveyed would also agree to that.

  • Helen Huntingdon says:

    I'm with prodigal academic. There's an enormous difference between, "All you peons are subhuman," and, "Among the peons, you are subhuman in a way the others aren't."

    And yet I still run across men who will say with a straight face that women just don't understand how emotionally draining men's jobs are and men really do need a quiet drink with their feet up at the end of the day while their wives do whatever extra work it takes to make this happen.

    "Really? When was the last time your boss assaulted you?"

    Blather about how often he *feels* assaulted.

    "No, really, when was the last time your boss physically assaulted you?"

    More about how he *feels* so very intimidated and assaulted by the workplace.

    "So, never?"

    Ringing silence or mumbling.

    "Shut up then, you big baby."

  • Helen Huntingdon says:

    Sadly enough, these exact same guys will get a bucketful of empathy from me when they just talk about how a workplace culture of dominance gets them down. It's when they somehow try to make it out that their pain is more special than those who actually have it worse that I start in with the snark.

  • The Absolute Truth says:

    that is a very good question, since there are so many very nasty women out there today.

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  • Rosanna Eid says:

    After hearing a similar comment 'Where are all the Feminist" I curated a group show called Matricidal Tendencies since that comment came all too often from media ignoring representation of positive feminist action and giving over play to radical racist women such as Pauline Hanson. At that same time local venues limited access or were ignoring to pay women DJ for sets played and later these same groups totally ignored any nomination of women DJ's in world 100 Best DJ awards. As part of that exhibition I included Eliane Raheb a filmmaker from Lebanon who had come to show a film in Sydney and was nearly completely ignored by government and commercial media. i also cut together positive action footage and created a womens TV area. I received many emails complaining of my chosen title and only one magazine wrote positive about the intent of the show. Since the show was for women and trans artists, the intent was to show the matricidal tendencies in all of us. I dont mention the date here since not much has changed.

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