Women in neuroscience-why do they leave academia?

18 09 2010

My entering class of 2002 at Emory University consisted almost entirely women with the exception of maybe 2-3 men in a large group of maybe 15 or so people.  This was a complete fluke–almost everyone who received offers from Emory chose Emory as their top pick that year to the chagrin of many fine graduate neuroscience programs. In retaliation, other schools moved their deadlines up the following year. I felt lucky to have such a large diverse class,  like I had a better sampling of the population of future neuroscientists.

In a class full of intelligent, driven women, I wonder why most major university departments continue to be filled with men.  Maybe there just hasn’t been enough time you say.  But I think the problem may run deeper still.  According to the findings presented at the National Summit on Gender and Postdoctorate fewer women from the get-go are considering becoming a Principal Investigator (P.I.) and running laboratories.  I wouldn’t at all say that the men in my program were obviously more capable then the women in my program of running a lab. In fact, I’d probably say the strongest scientists were women-no surprise, when most of the class is women–the odds are in their favor. According to this same data set, equal number of men and women of equivalent age are in the postdoctoral workforce spending an equivalent period of time in postdoctoral positions.

The differences become unveiled when you look at the demographics of married men vs. women.  The married women with children are underrepresented in the workforce. According to a general census in 2004, 75% of women and 60% of men between 30-34 have children. Most of these women are not postdocs.  Do female postdocs have the resources they need to be postdoc moms?  What about childcare? According to this study, about 40% of male postdocs have a female spouse who does not work, whereas 8% of female postdocs have a spouse that stays at home. Further, 42% of male postdocs have spouses who shoulder the childcare whereas women on 16% of women have a spouse who can provide free childcare.  Why is childcare such a big deal?  Have you seen an average postdoc salary?  Well, I’ll give you a clue–working at Starbuck’s or Dollar General as a manager would give you equivalent if not more pay.

But all right, is this something that’s important to women?  Do female scientists want to have babies? 60% of female postdocs felt this was important. Yet 30% of women polled said they would be more likely to make concessions for their career than their spouses while 30% of male postdocs expected that their spouses would be more likely to make the concession.  A PhD is, after all, not an easy road. Once you get it, you want to make use of it.

These data show that most women want to have a baby and with the average postdoc age of 30-34, the clock is ticking. And as progressive as you’d think an educated woman with a PhD might be, their spouses don’t always tend to be equally progressive-meaning man men feel they should be working and not in the home.  However, these statistics may be changing.

Emory University is touted as being voted one of the “Best Places to Work for Postdocs”.  At the time women are graduating and making that commitment to go the P.I. route what kind of options do they have if they consider having children. Here’s what Emory’s  Office of Postdoctoral Education states (this goes for almost any academic institution though):

“…postdocs must use both paid vacation leave and disability leave before sequentially taking unpaid leave up to 12 weeks” and “By the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), Emory University postdoctoral fellows have a save position for twelve (12) weeks of leave for family reasons.”

Their HR website  states for faculty that they understand that having a child is a “natural process”, blah, blah.  However for subhuman postdocs, they also allow you to apply for “disability.” Semantics or not, this is really abhorrent and rampant sexism at it’s finest. But that’s just what this kind of insurance is called, you say? Yes, but this also implies having a child is not at all natural, but a “disability” that women bring with them into the workplace. What does the popular mind think of when hearing the term disability?  Broken bones, thrown-out back, something that’s not supposed to happen to your body. At least the FMLA ensures that you won’t get fired during this time. At least not for up to 3 months. Wouldn’t it behoove society to have it brightest procreating and raising more bright minds?

But here’s some food for thought :

U.S. Only Industrialized Nation With No Paid Leave For New Parents

That’s right, according to the International Labor Organization, you could get better maternity leave in Somalia or in the Congos as a postdoc or otherwise.

The second big issue reported by these data is lack confidence, which can be intimately related to the pressures of trying to raise a family.  Women report feeling inadequate in a number of characteristics deemed necessary to succeed including “competitive drive” and “aggressiveness.”  Academic success is directly related to publications and successfully getting funding.  As these are all extremely time sensitive, the “competitive drive” must translate into prioritizing the timing of grants acquisition and publications over the timing of starting a family.

This is not to say that every female scientist wants to have a baby, but it should be considered as “natural” to want one.  The overall dwindling female colleagues as one progresses through the ranks of graduate student to faculty does not inspire confidence is women floating in a sea of male dominated institutions. However, to be fair, while insecurities and the “imposter syndrome” are a problem for women, it also is an oddly prevalent sentiment in both male and female high-achieving academics.

We have a long way to go, but solutions to these issues are beginning to get addressed with forums such as the Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate hosted by the National Postdoctoral Association and with the development of forums and mentorship encouraged by local chapters of organizations like the Association of Women in Science and Women in Neuroscience. Perhaps, the most important immediate, daily  line of action is to keep these topics in regular rotation in conversations at workplaces in academia. Throughout their training, women (and men) in science should continue to have open ongoing discussions about these concerns with both female and male role models. Most of all, these conversation should feel normal and natural rather than a feeling that alienates women from their peers.