Why do so many women leave biology?


December 11, 2012
Health, Uncategorized

One common idea about why there are fewer women professors in the sciences than men is that women are less willing to work the long hours needed to succeed. Writing in the January Issue of BioScience, Shelley Adamo of Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada, rejects this argument. She points out that women physicians work longer hours than most scientists, under arguably more stressful conditions, but that this does not deter women from entering medicine.

Why, then, do women leave the academic track in biology at higher rates than they leave the medical profession? Adamo blames the difference in the timing of the most acute period of competition in the two careers. In biology, the most intense competition is for the first faculty position. This typically occurs when women are in their early 30’s. Biologists have little financial and institutional support for balancing family and career during this stressful time. Women with children find this pressure particularly difficult, and it appears to be getting worse, because of a decrease in available academic positions. Strong career competition in medicine, in contrast, occurs earlier, before most women have started families.

Once women are in a faculty position in biology in Canada, they gain tenure at the same rate as men. Canadian universities, unlike US ones, have mandated maternity leave for women faculty and often allow deferral of tenure. In addition, the main Canadian agency supporting biology takes maternity leave into account when assessing productivity. Consequently, retention of women who have achieved tenure-track positions in biology is better than in the United States.

Adamo points out that if both countries decreased the number of graduate biology student positions, making competition for a biology career occur earlier, this would likely make access to academic positions easier later, and so increase the proportion of women choosing a scientific career. But bringing about such a change—for example, by providing fewer but better-funded graduate scholarships—would require a coordinated response involving granting agencies, universities, and individual professors.




Why do so many women leave biology?

One Response to Why do so many women leave biology?

  1. Randy December 11, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    I am curious what the rates are for women in biology academia vs women in biology industry. In academia, I see the tenure path coinciding with most women’s child-bearing years and being terribly unyielding if a parent wants to see their child while they’re awake. Perhaps women view this as a more life-critical element than men? I think the data about maternity leave and how parenthood is generally viewed/accepted in Canada vs the US is a critical data point and reinforces this concept. Additionally, considering the relatively low pay compared to other science and engineering professionals during this period of post-doctoral and tenure pursuit, it may make the decision of staying in academia vs leaving the industry or staying home with children easier.

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