Sexist culture drives women out of science

by Helen G // 11 May 2008, 11:17

As something of a geek, I’m a little perturbed to read this piece in the The Sunday Times, Sexist culture drives women out of science.

The gist of it is that "[a] time warp of 1970s sexist attitudes is driving women in their late thirties from careers in science and technology and undermining key sectors of the economy". It’s hard to abstract full details of the report itself, but the ST quotes the lead author of the study - Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist at the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York - as saying:

"It is the hidden brain drain. We have this amazing, talented pool of women who have left the industry. It is highly destructive to our society and economy."

The study, which will be published in the Harvard Business Review on Thursday, found that "while women made up 41% of newly qualified technical staff, more than half dropped out by the time they reached their late thirties".

I can’t help but wonder if the study’s conclusion is a bit simplistic, to say the least. A sexist culture is only one form of discrimination faced by women at work, and I don’t see how a woman in that environment is going to be forced to choose between "family life and pushing for promotion at work".

(Cross-posted at bird of paradox)

Comments From You

Anne Onne // Posted 11 May 2008 at 13:22

This issue came up a while back on one of the feminist blogs I frequent. I hunted for the post, but in vain, so I'll just have to summarise what the general gist was.

Apparently there's a name for this: the leaky pipeline.

The general consensus on the thread was that women are brought up differently to men, brought up to value time raising a family, and that they will have to work around family commitments. That the best jobs are the ones that give them time to raise a family. Whereas men are brought up believing that there will always be someone else to care for any children should they have them, that someone else will do the housework, and that the best jobs are the ones that are most prestigious, most well paid, and tend to have the most antisocial hours. Men are conditioned to desire these pressurised jobs more than women, and society works in a way that they are more supported should they choose to follow this path.

This also explains why many young, promising medical school female graduates (and family-orientated male ones) are specifically targeting fields such as dermatology for more flexible hours, and staying out of fields that require much more sacrifice, more overworking and are less sociable.

That's not even starting on the sexism of the Old Boys' Club, and how difficult it can be for women in any field to get ahead if they have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously as the golden boys.

But there is also definitely an underlying unconsious sexism in that mentors are more likely to choose someone like themselves, something that affects women negatively when those in high positions are mostly white men. And it's been found that when research is peer-reviewed without the reviewers knowing the name of the authors, more women get published:
http://blogs.nature.com/peer-to-peer/2008/01/doubleblind_peer_review_reveal.html

Clearly there are many factors, and it won't be easy to get past them. So I would think that although it's simplistic, it does have a point. For many reasons, women are literally forced, like water in a high pressure pipe, out of many fields, and the higher echelons of science is one of them. If it brings the issue up, and promotes discussion, then it's a start. :)

Sian // Posted 11 May 2008 at 13:24

Do you think the same applies to the UK?

From my own (limited-I am but young) experience in the scientific field (and admittedly Biology, which is more female dominated than the other disciplines, although the older and therefore more senior people are more likely to be men) I've not personally found a sexist culture-that could just be good luck, or it could be a cultural difference between the US and the UK. I've personally found, in research at least, people to be very respectful to each other on these matters-it's whether you're good at what you do. But that's only my own experience.

I would definitely think that the long hours culture attached is going to have a big affect on women with children though, since they're usually expected to do more of the childcare. And with the low pay associated with research, then perhaps those in relationships make a decision to stay at home because their partner earns more? Or go into different professions with a better work-life balance? I know a few women scientists who have gone into teaching instead.

Sian // Posted 11 May 2008 at 13:26

But irrespective of the reasons it's shame, and we should look at ways to retain women in the profession-hope my last comment didn't look like I was completely happy with the status quo!

Helen G // Posted 11 May 2008 at 13:40

Anne: The ‘leaky pipeline’ concept is not one I’ve heard of before (not that that means anything very much!) but makes quite a lot of sense to me. It’ll be interesting to see if this study reflects it.

Actually, it’ll be interesting to see if it gets any further mainstream media coverage of any sort...

Sian asks: "Do you think the same applies to the UK?"

The ST article (link here) says "In Britain more than 225,000 science, engineering and technology (SET) graduates are not working in the industries for which they are qualified, and 50,000 of those are not working at all, according to official statistics."

Although it might have been helpful if we’d also been informed about the number of people who are working in jobs for which they’re qualified...

Qubit // Posted 11 May 2008 at 15:55

I have recently started as PhD in physics and I have never encountered sexual harassment or had any problems with sexism in physics in the UK and in fact I would say the culture was very encouraging and welcoming to women for the most part.

However the long work hours culture specifically in the lab (I am a theorist) is incredibly obvious. As is the idea that to get ahead you need to be prepared to move (country/continent) to get a new job probably limiting not only having children but any long term relationship.

I think in many cases it is impossible to have children although for theorists who can easily work from home this is less of a limit and in fact one of the lecturers in our group has recently given birth and occasionally brings her baby into work.

The statistic about a large proportion of science and engineering graduates not working in the industry for which they are qualified seems irrelevant to me. There is no specification they are talking about female graduates and the majority of graduates (both male and female) leave to go into industries such as accountancy and banking where there is more opportunity to make money.

Sian // Posted 11 May 2008 at 17:12

Helen-those figures don't refer to women only though do they? Correct me if I'm wrong! Like Qubit, I took that to be a general exodus to other professions for money/time etc. Still bad for UK science though.

Helen G // Posted 11 May 2008 at 17:26

Sian: Good question! "Graduates" is all the ST says, suddenly all coy about their gender...
Looking at those numbers, though, I'd have to agree with you and Qubit. It is bad, and it's hard to think of any 'quick fix': if sexist workplace cultures are to blame, then it's going to need a major shift in attitudes. Even though things like the Sex Discrimination Act have helped to some extent, clearly it's not enough.

Qubit // Posted 11 May 2008 at 17:41

I think one of the key things that put off both men and women is science is a difficult promotion structure for relatively little pay. You could certainly earn more, easier for leaving science. The figures aren't good for science but I think the relatively poor pay scales will factor in far more than potential sexism.

Lucy // Posted 11 May 2008 at 18:15

I agree with the other scientists that as a biologist i've never experienced anything other than a welcoming attitude from the industry/field. It wasn't hard for me to find a female supervisor for my PhD, but of course there are a lot fewer overall.

If science comes off worse than other professional sectors (does it?) i think it's probably got more to do with the nature of the work than any ingrained sexism... afterall scientists tend to be more liberal than the folk in other professional industries.


You have to really love research to make a career out of it because the training lasts forever and the wages are crap - this does weed out people who don't want to devote all their time to their "job", but i'm not sure that's necessarily a bad thing.

For the most-part researchers in biology work very independently - we don't have office hours, so noone is forcing us to meet strict deadlines, but the work itself, by nature of its unpredictability, is very difficult to fit around other aspects of your life.

The large pharmaceutical company i worked for last year actively encouraged men AND women to reduce their hours to care for children - a lot of people worked school hours, which sounds like a really good idea, but it resulted in a dramatic productivity drop. I couldn't imagine how i'd do my job working scheduled hours.

Feminist Avatar // Posted 11 May 2008 at 18:57

I think that the expectation within research that you will move around the country to follow the work can mitigate against women more than men (although not exclusively), especially if you are thinking about starting a family. Jumping into a decade of temporary contracts after PhD does not create an ideal situation for getting maternity leave or raising kids, not least because you rely on getting a good result from the contract your on to get the next post.

I also think that 'sexist' work cultures do not necessarily mean cultures that are overtly exclusionary or discriminatory, but that have core values that often make it difficult for women to work in them. Employment where long hours are de rigeur or that are totally work-focused (so there is little consideration that people have lives outside of work) can often discrimate against women who have the double (triple?) burden of housekeeping, child-rearing and work.

I know a few people who have said that they never thought they were discriminated against as women, until they had kids.

Suzi // Posted 12 May 2008 at 11:01

Like Qubit, I'm doing a PhD in physics and I have yet to experience any sexism in my department. I have been sexually harassed here, but that was by one guy and everyone agreed his behavior was out of line. I've been quite lucky.

However, I don't think I'll go on to do postdocs after this. This is partly because frequently moving cities will be a problem for my partner's career and we want a situation where we can both be happy in our work, rather than him following me for the rest of his life. I think if I was male, my female partner might just be expected to pack up and follow me and make do. It's the little things like that that can push a person out of the system.

(Though that's not the only reason. Even if I was single and free to move, I don't think I would enjoy the unpredictability of the academic world.)

Soirore // Posted 12 May 2008 at 15:53

www.set4women.gov.uk is a good resource for women in science, engineering and technology. Lots of good events around the country including workshops on returning to work after a career break. At least there is some acknowledgement that effort needs to be made in the industry to retain women scientists.

jo // Posted 13 May 2008 at 03:49

I work in the NHS, although I am MoD, in a discipline that is femle dominated (BioMedical Science). The NHS also has a very family and female friendly work and employment ethic. Having said all that, the male members of my profession occupy a disproportionate number of senior posts and managerial posts. Often in a way that can't be accounted for by women opting to leave our profession. Women seem to continue 'on the bench' while men are promoted within very few years to senior status. The few men there are populate the higher positions and there is an obvious bias amongst them to promote other men. I do not think it is even diliberate on their part, but a result of their socialisation together. The 'lads nights' bring them to one another's attention.

USPediatrician(exUK) // Posted 13 May 2008 at 18:30

@anne onne
Dermatology is one of the most sought-after and competitive fields in the US, receiving the cream of each year's crop of US medical graduates.
Want to guess why this may be so?
(No, it isn't because it afford thoughtful caring men and women more time with their families).

It's because you make a huge amount of money while doing a minimum of work (unlike neurosurgeons etc who also make a lot of money but work long hours) .

Doctors in the US are rewarded according to a bizarre system which rewards 'procedures' rather than thoughtful care. So - spend you day winkling out moles and blemishes and these 'procedures' rack up thousands of dollars for you.

What a country!! Give me the NHS any day.

Anne Onne // Posted 13 May 2008 at 22:22

But isn't doing less work (and therefore more free time) and more money exactly the same thing, because in the end, it means less time at work, and more time at home, and less stress overall? I don't think that's very different from what I mentioned.

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