Searches for the reasons behind the ‘leaky pipeline’—the structural failures, such as equal representation, that drive women out of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)—often focus on large-scale problems such as work-family or work-life balance. But insidious psychological strikes also contribute to the outflow.
A study involving interviews and online posts of 28 women in the later stages of PhD studies in engineering and physical sciences in the United States, published 31 January in the journal Social Sciences, revealed many day-to-day slights that left them feeling alienated and undervalued. Some said they were contemplating leaving research as a result. “There’s a culture in male-dominated environments,” says Bianca Bernstein, a co-author of the study and a psychologist at Arizona State University in Tempe. “Some women feel it’s not for them.”
Even though they were already deep into their PhD studies, 12 of the 28 women indicated that they didn’t want to pursue research careers. Five cited personal or work-life balance reasons, but six chalked up their decision to change course to the workplace environment and culture, including two who specifically expressed a desire to escape a male-dominated field. Hypothetically, Bernstein says, more women would finish graduate school and remain in research careers if the gender balance wasn’t already so skewed, but noted that any such scenario is difficult to test.
The interviews and posts, which took place over seven months, highlighted many of the positive aspects of the scientific life, including feelings of accomplishment and mastery. But the women in the study also reported “frequent” instances of feeling ignored, dismissed or excluded. One woman reported that a male colleague reacted rudely when she won a scholarship. “He blamed it on the fact that I was a woman and that they probably gave me a scholarship to fulfill a quota,” she said in an interview as part of the study.
The women reported that they were disproportionately asked to perform “women’s work” such as cleaning up the lab or performing clerical duties. “We’ve been hearing that complaint for decades now,” says Bernstein, who is also a principal investigator with the US National Science Foundation’s CareerWISE programme, a coaching initiative for graduate-level women in science and engineering. “It’s surprising that it hasn’t changed.”
A few women reported unwanted sexual advances in the workplace. Bernstein notes that the interviews and posts tracked only study subjects’ recent experiences, not everything that had ever happened with them during their graduate programme. Also, the interviews and posts took place before the rise of the #metoo movement, so women may have been more reluctant to report such events than they would be today.
Kevin Miller, a researcher with the American Association of University Women based in Washington DC, says that even seemingly minor grievances can add up. “Women in STEM have to fight an uphill battle that starts when they are girls and their interest in the sciences may be discouraged or ignored,” he says. “The experiences described in this study show that women face bias both subtle and overt as well as systemic factors that make them more likely to exit STEM fields.”
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.