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Women and Science December 10, 2008

Posted by Sarah in science.
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This article appeared in today’s Guardian, about the reasons why women leave science careers after their PhDs. I take this problem very much to heart and can often relate to the reasons why women quit science – and like most people, male or female, I’ve often considered it myself. But I get so …. tired … with the whole argument. Let’s look at this article more closely.

It’s now a month since Bhatti, 27, took her PhD viva and turned her back on lab work. She has instead moved into science policy and spends her days meeting with politicians and scientists, and drafting submissions for government consultations on anything from biofuels to genetically modified crops.

Ms Bhatti got disillusioned with her research and decided a research career wasn’t for her. But oh no! She went into science policy. Does that even count as “quitting science”? Don’t we need talented scientists deciding on science policy and funding strategies? I think it would set the minds of many academics at ease knowing that it’s not just a bunch of politicians deciding where the money goes.

About 450 molecular bioscientists (all female) and 610 chemists (male and female) took part. All were either studying for PhDs or had just finished them. They were quizzed on what encouraged them to pursue a research career, or what put them off. Several women said they had been warned they would encounter problems if they chose to continue on an academic path, because of their gender.

Really? Someone tells you your career might be tough because you’re a woman – and that makes you quit? Personally I’ve never let someone else’s opinions put me off something I really wanted to do; if I had I never would have become a scientist in the first place, as nearly all my school teachers told me I wasn’t good enough at science and maths.

For women who do want a career in academia as well as a family with children, I do believe governments, and employers too,  should do more to make science careers more family-friendly. And it would be great if societal attitudes could please change a bit too: the notion that a woman should just follow her partner around the world with a string of babies in tow is really getting a bit old.

Of course it can be done, enough women with good careers in science as well as a family are the proof of that. But it doesn’t come easily. At a conference on Women in Science and Industry I attended some time ago, a female top-level executive from a large multinational summed it up nicely: “You can have it all, but it won’t look anything like what you expected”. What annoys me too is that people don’t realise how much control they have over their own situations, and instead choose to complain about “the system” that put then in this difficult position. And yes, sometimes choices are really hard, but at least they’re yours to make and there are billions of people in the world who don’t have the luxury of choice that we have in the West.

I know this is a one-sided view and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t fight for more equality and better provisions for scientists with families. But I think this victim attitude of women in science that often seems to be adopted is very counter-productive.



1. Alasdair Allan - December 10, 2008

Actually as a new father I’m finding things fairly interesting as well. There is an inbuilt assumption that your wife is going to do all the heavy lifting in this area, and that after a few days off work you should be back in harness and working those long hours again. If anything the discrimination against new fathers is as bad, if not worse, than against new mothers. At least people generally acknowledge that there is a problem with discrimination against women.

While I’m not saying there isn’t a problem with discrimination in academia against women, I guess I’m saying that you’re not alone.

2. Sarah - December 10, 2008

Yes – and that really needs to be said too! It’s not just women having to make choices and sacrifices. There’s plenty of men in my department who leave early to pick up kids, or work part-time, or take extra-long holidays to spend time with families. It’s not exactly easy for anyone.

3. Alasdair Allan - December 10, 2008

Yup, which of course means that when us men hear complaints about (more?) serious discrimination we’re not very receptive. No one, after all, is making any accommodation for our needs.

The fact that new fathers, at least those who are white, young, and (generally the case with fathers) male, might be facing discrimination for the first time their life makes things rather interesting. I know I found the experience confusing to say the least…

4. andyxl - December 11, 2008

Hmm.. I have sometimes heard the childless complain that they are discriminated against in the workplace. “If you leave early to pick up your kids then of course thats ok isn’t it, but try leaving early to take your rabbit to the vet” etc. But we are getting somewhat off Sarah’s point …

5. Sarah - December 11, 2008

Alisdair – I think “not being very receptive” when other people are given a hard time, just because you’ve experienced something similar, is not particularly constructive either though. If we’re all having the same problems, men as well as women, surely things can be changed?!

Andy – oh no, I was making a point? I’m not sure I remember what it was 🙂

6. Alasdair Allan - December 11, 2008

I don’t think it’s particularly constructive either, which doesn’t mean I haven’t seen it happen… 😉

7. Nicole - December 11, 2008

Woo hoo! Bravo!! I get tired of the “victim” attitude, too. Since I’ve never run into discrimination because of my gender, I don’t want to seem insensitive to those that might have. But all I see are open opportunities for scientists of both genders.

Lots of people, male and female, during the course of graduate school, realize that the research-based, tenure-chasing life is just not for them. Does anyone study the men who decide that? And, we all know, coming into grad school, that there will only be jobs for some percentage of us at universities when we get out (and do our post-doc rounds) and so some people will inevitably do something else. (Including those ever-important not doing research but actually working in science, like policy and education, jobs!)

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