Apr 3, 2015

Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried

Young women scientists leave university more than men due to three reasons. As PhD candidates, lots of women realize that (i) the characteristics of academic degrees are unattractive, (ii) the impediments they will meet are unbalanced, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.

This is the conclusion of The chemistry PhD: the impact on women's retention, a report for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Royal Society of Chemistry. In this report, the results of a longitudinal study with PhD students in chemistry in the UK are presented.

Men and women show completely different developments according to their future careers. When the study started, 72% of women stated an intention to pursue careers as researchers, both in industry and academia. Moreover, 61% of men express the same intention.

Three years later, the amount of men planning careers in research was 59%. However, only the 37% expressed their intention in scientific careers because of the small number of women finishing their studies.

Comparing the numbers for those who want to work in the industry field to those who want to work as researchers in academia, the third year numbers are alarming: 12% of the women and 21% of the men choose academia as their main option.

Consequently, 88% of the women don't even want academic careers, nor do 79% of the men! What is the reason? Why are universities so rejected?

Part of the chemistry PhD complaint about the period when young researchers are PhD candidates includes too little supervision, focus on achieving experimental results rather than mastery of methodologies, and much more. All these behaviors are reflected in the attitudes and beliefs about academia that appear during this stage.

The constant search for funding for scientific projects is a significant impediment for both men and women and a negative aspect that most younger academics don’t like. But more women than men consider academic careers as intense, solitary and unnecessarily competitive.

Most of PhD candidates come to realize that a series of post-docs is obligatory as part of a career path, and they see that this can require frequent moves and a lack of security about future employment. This fact affects women more negatively since the competitiveness in this phase of an academic career and their concerns about competitiveness are fuelled due to a lack of self-confidence.

In addition, women more than men see great sacrifice as a requirement for success in academia. This comes in part from their perception of women who have succeeded from the nature of the available role models. Successful female professors are perceived by female PhD candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless.

To make matters worse, women PhD candidates are also told that they will encounter problems along the way simply because they are women.

After following PhD candidates throughout their study and asking probing questions, we find that the number of women in chemistry PhD programs who intend to pursue a career in academia is decreasing noticeably and we learn why. (See also Why go for a PhD? Advice for those in doubt.)

This study and the new knowledge it produces should be mandatory reading for everyone leading a university or a research group. The stories, without doubt, are far away from chemistry.

Universities will not survive as research institutions if university leadership doesn’t realize that the working conditions they offer dramatically reduce the number of people interested in academic careers, even more when the industry is the more attractive employer.

The answers are clear and lie in leadership and in changing our current culture to build a new one for new challenges. The job is vital and it will require a prepared teamwork to succeed. Is your university ready?

Written by Dr. David Alcantara and Paula Ruíz for The All Results Journals.

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