This, the third article in a series about women scientists in the academy, attempts to answer the question, 'Why do women leave academic science in greater numbers than men?' The first article presented data on women in the academy and the results of a study (conducted by The Project on Faculty Appointments at Harvard) that showed that, all else being equal between two academic job offers, women are more likely than men to choose a nontenure-track position over a tenure-track one. The second article presented data showing that women are underrepresented at the top faculty ranks at the most prestigious institutions and that they are more likely than men to drop out of the sciences during their undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral training.

Why Women Leave

Scholars have proposed several reasons why women disproportionately leave science. They include:

Lingering stereotypes and culture clash

"The barriers to women's full participation extend to the deepest and most basic questions about gender. Society must confront lingering stereotypes such as, 'Women don't belong in science.' " (AAC&U, 2000). It has been argued that the culture of academic science challenges many women's core sense of self. Women students are "put off by combative conversational styles" and resent a "climate of individualism" that prevails in science, engineering, and technology (SET) courses (Hoffman-Kim, 1999). Women scientists are perceived to be "less aggressive, combative, and self-promoting in the pursuit of career success in comparison to male scientists" (Kitts, 2001). A seven-campus socialization study of undergraduate students showed that men were motivated by competition with their peers, whereas women were seeking praise from their teachers that they rarely got (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997). Still other women say they were actively discouraged, typically but not always by males, from continuing their studies and faced inequitable treatment especially (but not exclusively) in science and math classes.

Gender bias in the classroom, lab, and beyond

Studies have shown that both male and female faculty members favor males in classroom settings by making more eye contact with men, nodding and gesturing in response to men's questions, assuming a posture of attentiveness when men speak, and locating themselves closer to men than to women. Faculty members promote and reinforce the invisibility of women students by subtle practices such as calling directly on men but not women, giving men more time to answer a question before moving on, interrupting women more frequently or allowing them to be interrupted, and crediting the contributions of men but not those of women (Association of American Colleges, 1982).

Gender bias in academic laboratories

"Many women scientists believe that achieving equity in academia is a far more difficult challenge than making inroads as scientists and technicians in business and industry" (Thom, 2001). The academic science lab is a microcosm of the greater academic culture where "maleness" dominates and women are often left on the sidelines, excluded from the center of activity. The exclusion of women is not entirely a "simple function of overt discrimination. Rather, it is linked more subtly to the character of dominance and control within higher education" (Fox, 1995). In the wider world of academia, studies have shown that 1) male qualifications as listed on vitas are worth more than those of females (the same data are interpreted differently depending on the sex of the applicant); 2) men are taken more seriously than women by both male and female senior scholars; 3) senior faculty members are more likely to pass on important information to men than to women and also to intervene helpfully in the early careers of men than those of women; 4) men are more likely than women to be identified as rising stars and groomed for success (Valian, 2000).

A male milieu, research model, and reward structure

"The history of science documents the intellectual history of Western white males from privileged backgrounds, who fashioned rules and expectations without economic or family constraints. The culture of science promotes competition, and it promotes intellectual inquiry for its own sake rather than for human welfare. Many argue that this culture often operates as a deterrent to women" (Hollenshead et al., 1996). As a result, many studies show, women feel isolated or even harassed, ridiculed, or humiliated in male-dominated fields of study (Hollenshead et al., 1996).

As professionals, men choose protégés or apprentices "in whom they see a reflection of themselves. In such a system of mentor/protégé relations, women are more likely to be 'outsiders' and, as such, are infrequently identified as successors of the men in control" (Fox, 1995). Furthermore:

Science is framed within a system that we [women] did not build. Science does not take our beliefs, wants, and needs into consideration. We are forced to work in an atmosphere that is incompatible with our psyche or get out. Subtle limitations seem to arise from the fact that the architecture of academic science was created by males for a male constituency. The 'rules' are based on a 'male model' of 'doing' science that requires an absolute time commitment from the participator and an aggressively competitive attitude toward peers (Kitts, 2001).

The tenure system was predicated on a model designed by and for white males at elite institutions early in the 20th century, when women and minorities were not a part of college faculties, and few were students. The sciences, perhaps more than other fields, adhere to this model and, as a result, exclude women.

Lack of mentoring, role models, encouragement, confidence

Attrition from doctoral programs in SET occurs among both men and women, and both sexes complain about a lack of interaction with and mentoring from faculty members. However, the absence is experienced more acutely by women.

Because confidence plays such a large role in how students perform in college at all levels and in all programs, it is logical that those who receive encouragement are likely to perform better than those who don't. Girls get little or no encouragement in the sciences, in part because they lack mentors and role models. Many women abandon plans to major in science during their first year of college (Thom, 2001) because they experience science and engineering as "male" fields where competition is rewarded and cooperation is not. Mentorship plays a key role in success, as evidenced by the perseverance of women in the sciences mostly at women's colleges and of African Americans at historically black colleges and universities.

Because the presence of women faculty members and mentors can change the balance of interaction and support (Fox, 1995), women's retention in SET programs may be greatly affected by the amount and type of interaction with faculty members and their integration (versus isolation) into their department (Land of Plenty, 2000). Studies have shown a strong positive correlation between the proportion of female faculty members and the number of women students who excel and succeed. Studies have also shown that women who had female dissertation advisers publish more than do women who had male advisers (Fox, 1995).

Inability to balance work and family life

According to Fountain, "38% of women and 20% of men transfer out of computer science programs because of concerns over lifestyle. We're failing to attract women and losing the ones we have. Women perceive a career in the field as socially isolating and one that would be difficult to balance with life" (AAC&U, 2000).

Statistics show that Ph.D. women scientists and engineers are far less likely than men to be married: 66% of women compared with 83% of men. And women with doctorates are twice as likely as men to have never married (19% versus 9%) or to be divorced (12% versus 6%). If married, doctoral women are more likely than men to face problems accommodating dual careers: 84% of women but only 42% of men have a spouse who works full-time. Only 10% of married women, but 38% of married men, have a spouse who doesn't work. Finally, women scientists are more likely than men scientists to be married to another scientist (55% of women versus 32% of men) (NSF, 1996).

In the fourth and final article in this series, which will follow in 2 weeks, I will consider why the exclusion of women from science is important and propose solutions.


Association of American Colleges and Universities, On Campus With Women 29 (4). AAC&U, Washington, D.C. (Summer 2000).

Association of American Colleges, The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One for Women? (AAC Project on the Status and Education of Women, Washington, D.C., 1982).

M. F. Fox, "Women and higher education: gender differences in the status of students and scholars," in Jo Freeman, Ed., Women: A Feminist Perspective (Mayfield Publishing Co., Mountain View, CA, 1995).

D. Hoffman-Kim, "Women scientists in laboratory culture: Perspectives from an academic scientist in training," in C. C. Selby, Ed., Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Women in Science and Engineering: Choice for Success 869, 66-74 (1999).

C. S. Hollenshead, S. A. Wenzel, B. B. Lazarus, I. Nair, "The graduate experience in the sciences and engineering: Rethinking a gendered institution," in C.-S. Davis, A. B. Ginorio, C. S. Hollenshead, B. B. Lazarus, P. M. Rayman, Eds., The Equity Equation, (Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1996).

A. Kitts, "Career selection for women in science: Is it really Hobson's Choice after 30 years of progress?" Association of Women in Science Magazine 30 (2) (AWIS, Washington, D.C., Spring 2001).

"Land of plenty: Diversity as America's competitive edge in science, engineering and technology," Report of the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development, Washington, D.C. (September 2000).

National Science Foundation, Women, Minorities, and Persons With Disabilities in Science and Engineering: 1996. Arlington, VA (NSF 96-311), 1996.

E. Seymour and N. M. Hewitt, Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences (Westview Press, Boulder, CO, 1997).

M. Thom, Balancing the Equation: Where Are the Girls in Science, Engineering and Technology? (The National Conference for Research on Women, New York, 2001).

V. Valian, The advancement of women in science and engineering, in Women in the Chemical Workforce: A workshop report to the Chemical Sciences Roundtable (National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 2000), pp. 24-27.

Cathy Ann Trower, Ph.D., is the research director of Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education (COACHE) at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.