Just a few days ago was the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. There are countless programs intended to get young girls interested in science, or to support women to succeed in academia. Still, a very overproportionate number of women drop out of academia. The phenomenon is called the “leaky pipeline”: Up to the PhD, depending on the area of study, the number of men and women is almost equal. But after that? Why do more women than men leave academia after the PhD, and then even more after the first postdoc, and so forth?
I think a lot has been said and written about some of the reasons. For example, a hostile, sexist work environment, about which thanks to #metoo more people dare to speak up about, can play an important role in scaring off non-male scientists. The difficulty of combining being a mother and the competitive world of grant- and paper-writing is another. It caused many grant programs to consider child-raising in their academic clocks, which might help to alleviate the inequality somewhat.
But one issue I am seeing a lot in my peers is a different one and also concerns female scientists without children. It is an issue that made many women that I know drop out of academia after their PhD. And that “issue” is: Having an older partner.
In the majority of cis-heterosexual relationships, the male part is older than the female part. Which means there is a high likelihood that the man gets a permanent or at least a somewhat secure job before the women does, and thus his job decides where the couple lives. This is true if both are scientists, and even more so if the man is not. But an academic career requires you to move. Doing a postdoc at the same institution where one did a PhD is not good for one’s career. Trying to start a junior group at one’s “home” institution, where the PhD supervisor is around, is difficult to sell in a funding application, and even ruled out by many funders. Academia asks for flexibility, for moving around and proving that one can perform in different environments.
But how does this account for the realities of life? It is obvious that uprooting a family with kids is difficult. But I think what is often disregarded is that even without kids, in this flexibility criterion, women scientists have a clear disadvantage: Because of their, on average, older partners, who they met at some point in their life in some place where they were studying or doing a PhD. If that partner has a secure job in this location – which is, again, likely, due to the on average further progressed career of the older partner – it is easier for the female scientist to leave academia and look for a job in the region than to convince her partner to start a new life in a new place, for just a few years of postdoc. Or for a non-tenured junior group leader position.
From my personal anecdotal observations, this happens a lot. A lot of talented young female scientists convince themselves that the life and partnership that they have where they are is more important to them than staying in academia. And who can blame them? Yes, there are lots of men choosing to stay where their loved ones are over an academic career, too. But I feel like more of the men at least have the choice. The women feel like they don’t, because it would be insane to make their partner give up a secure job so that she can pursue an insecure career in academia.
This is why I think we need a change in culture and grant conditions. The junior group leader program of the German Research Foundation, DFG, allows for applying to found a group at one’s “home” institution only for very well justified scientific reasons, e.g. the use of rare research facilities. All I am asking for is that the criteria can be broadened to include the location of partner or family as a valid reason. Of course it is important to have, at some point during the career, moved around, experienced different institutional cultures and changed perspectives. But isn’t this enough at some point? I have done a semester abroad during my Bachelor’s, a research semester abroad during my Master’s, moved across the country for my PhD, and now I am doing a postdoc abroad. After all this, is it really necessary to deny me the option to go back to where I did my PhD and where, incidentally, my partner has a permanent position?
One other – again, anecdotal – observation of mine is that women are more often ushered into science management than men. The institution where I did my PhD has a serious problem with underrepresentation of women from the postdoc level on, and has no female department head at all. But do they do anything to make female PhD graduates stay in academia? I have the impression that the opposite is happening, that the junior scientist support person in that institution’s HR actually recommends female PhD graduates to look into science management jobs instead of postdocs. Science management, i.e. administrative, positions seem to be the ideal jobs to “park” women – in the background, not in the spotlight where the men collect prizes for scientific discoveries. More female PhD graduates that I personally know are now going down the science management path than are staying on to try and climb the academic career ladder. And their male partners? Are staying in academia. Statistics show that, while the number of students at universities and PhD graduates increased over the last few decades, the number of academic researcher and professor positions has been almost stable. But the number of administrative positions has increased enormously, e.g. at UC Berkeley by more than 100% within 15 years. Are we creating these positions to get rid of talented female scientists that could otherwise compete for one of the rare scientific positions?
I wonder if I should be cynically glad: This means less competition for me, because for various reasons many other women are discouraged from going where they may have dreamt going… before they found out how many obstacles academia is putting in their way.