Career prospects of women in science have certainly improved in Australia compared with about 50 years ago when promising female faculty members were required to retire when they married. Overt discrimination such as this is largely a thing of the past in Australian universities and in many other countries. In most areas of science, the enrolment of women roughly matches that of men in undergraduate and graduate programmes, and this representation tends to flow through to junior academic positions. In some areas, such as QAECO, for example, there is even a slight majority of women.
However, the evidence suggests that women tend to turn away from academic careers in science at a faster rate than men, such that women are commonly under-represented at more senior levels. Of course, women who leave academia do other productive things with their lives, often using science in other career paths, but the loss to academia is large.
The reasons for the lack of retention of women in science are varied. A recent New York Times article about Maria Klawe, who is an inspirational computer scientist and academic administrator, finishes by discussing the impostor syndrome, where a person feels undeserving of their career. This and other social factors might contribute to the disproportionate loss of women from science. However, the impostor syndrome is also worrying for those scientists who remain. A prevalent sense of being an impostor is hardly a state of affairs that would promote bold and innovative science!
Child-rearing is one clear factor in the loss of women from science. Women’s careers are often just taking off at about the time that families are being born. Balancing child-rearing and a career is not smooth sailing.
So, what can be done to retain a larger fraction of talented scientists in academia? A greater gender balance in child-rearing would help. Of course, there are some child-rearing roles that men cannot fill. But those differences are surmountable once children are beyond about six months of age. That, however, is not reflected in parental leave arrangements in Australian universities, where paid and non-paid maternity leave is an order of magnitude more generous than paternity leave. The generosity of the maternity leave arrangements in Australian universities is commendable, but it does tend to reinforce the social norm of mothers as the carers of children and keepers of households. More equitable arrangements for parental leave exist in other countries, such as Sweden, and they seem to be one possible way to improve matters.
Edit (26/7/12): The University of Melbourne has “parental leave” rather than “maternity leave”, so things are much more equitable than they once were, at least at this university (http://policy.unimelb.edu.au/UOM0108#section-2.3). I imagine that similar arrangements for parental leave are rare in other professions within Australia.
Discussing gender issues is also very important. While discussions might not eliminate things such as the impostor syndrome, shining some light on these matters should help people manage them better. To that end, QAEG has been fostering dialogue about gender issues within our lab group. I’d encourage other lab groups to do the same. It is critical that men are actively involved in those discussions, while being mindful that leadership in this area is a shared responsibility. And that the vast majority of the active involvement by the men in those discussions should entail attentive listening.
In the interests of promoting discussion, I’m breaking with tradition for my blog and enabling comments on this post, so feel free to add your two cents, list relevant resources or information, or suggest practical means for achieving improvement.
There are many things to read on this topic. To finish this post, I’ll list some links that I have found recently:
The American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women has a list of resources and information that is updated regularly. It goes beyond astronomy.
I recommend reading an article by Beth Baker in BioScience titled “Having a Life in Science”. The pdf of this article is also available here.
The NY Times piece about Maria Klawe, which I mentioned earlier, is well worth reading.
And check out the article by Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci in American Scientist; this quote from it is a basic summary: “It is when academic scientists choose to be mothers that their real problems start.” There are also different points of view, arguing that other factors can also be important – there is no one factor.
Edit: Note, I am happy to post anonymous comments if you email them directly to me (email@example.com). I’ll keep your identity in 100% confidence.
Edit: I’ve just written a related piece about a discussion we ran in one of my subjects on “Women in Science”. Georgia Garrard and I have written a summary of that discussion on my teaching blog.