Why do so many women leave biology?

December 11, 2012

The retention rate of women in the biological sciences, both in the United States and Canada, is lower than would be expected from the number of female doctoral students who graduated within the last decade, and lower than it is in medicine. Early-career competition for positions in biology is the likely explanation, as it is especially unattractive for women with children. Training fewer biologists would alleviate this pressure and may lead to relatively more women staying in scientific careers.

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 for 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 easier later, and so increase the proportion of 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.

Explore further: Study of social science PhDs recommends changes for 21st century

Related Stories

Many top US scientists wish they had more children

August 8, 2011

Nearly half of all women scientists and one-quarter of male scientists at the nation's top research universities said their career has kept them from having as many children as they had wanted, according to a new study by ...

Recommended for you

Just how good (or bad) is the fossil record of dinosaurs?

August 28, 2015

Everyone is excited by discoveries of new dinosaurs – or indeed any new fossil species. But a key question for palaeontologists is 'just how good is the fossil record?' Do we know fifty per cent of the species of dinosaurs ...

Fractals patterns in a drummer's music

August 28, 2015

Fractal patterns are profoundly human – at least in music. This is one of the findings of a team headed by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization in Göttingen and Harvard University ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Bob_Kob
1 / 5 (1) Dec 11, 2012
Biology wins over biology..

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.