Today, for the departmental journal club, a PI noted for being a family-focused male PI (yes, they do exist!), presented a paper on the retention of women in science. Called "Falling off the academic bandwagon", the paper described the results of a self-report survey focused on identifying factors which affected the loss of women from life sciences and engineering.
One of the first things that the paper noted was that among the postdocs surveyed (over 1300 postdocs, men and women, at the NIH), women were three times more likely than men to state that plans to have children (or more children) were extremely important considerations in planning their career. The authors note that "this indicates that more women than men foresee family responsibilities as a possible source of conflict with their future professional life."
The paper itself was an interesting (if depressing) read, and served as a reminder that family concerns are a significant factor in the continual loss of women from the upper levels of science. While some institutions have given a nod towards family friendly policies (like Tenure-clock extension), in practice, most women are afraid to take advantage of such programs for fear of being viewed negatively by their department.
In my opinion, one of the major barriers to making true progress in retaining women in science is that the (largely male) powers that be have yet to truly accept that there is a problem. It's easy to hold up some of the amazing women who do combine family and tenure track (like ScienceWoman, Jane, and FemaleScienceProfessor) and say, "if they can do it, anyone can. You just have to want it enough."
But that attitude isn't productive. Yes, there are women out there who are able to find situations where they can make it work, but the numbers don't lie. It's not a matter of not wanting it enough, it a matter of not having the support necessary to raise and family and pursue a tenure track position. The female postdocs who participated in the NIH survey were 4.5 times less likely then the male postdocs to have a stay at home spouse. That factor alone will significantly impact the number of women who choose to pursue tenure track positions.
Dr. Bruce Alberts, the former president of the National Academy of Sciences, was quoted as saying "If you're going to be successful in science, it helps a lot to have a wife." (Note that most women do not have wives... or stay at home spouses) He goes on to imply that women are dropping out of science because they are not up to the challenge and leave science for motherhood because they don't have the same fortitude as men. "Science is really hard work, and if you don't feel this is the only option, you'll do something else."
When this kind of sexist crap is coming down from the top, it's no wonder that most of the top research institutes haven't made the changes that are really needed to keep women on the tenure-track career path.
The attitude is one where it's the woman's loss for not having the drive to stick it out. But I think it stems from a fundamental undervaluing of the contributions women could be making in science. When well-trained, talented women fall of the path to become leaders in science, it's not just their loss. It's a loss to science.
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