Every female scientist has considered leaving academia at least once. My moment came when I was about to have my first child. Along with the wonders of being a new expectant parent, I also had professional concerns. How was I going to justify a gap in my publications? How was I going to do fieldwork while pregnant? (Because I am a marine biologist some of my projects involve diving.) It didn’t help that I had been diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum—severe nausea and vomiting—that confined me to bed for nine weeks. On my third week I was asked to leave the project I was getting my salary from because of my bosses concern about my ability to keep deadlines. I was left bedridden and financially unstable, and becoming a parent was suddenly even more scary and uncertain.
I remembered this moment vividly as I read James Damore’s recent memo on diversity at Google, in which he uses false biological differences between men and women to explain why there aren’t more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or leadership. Do women have less biological tolerance to stress ? Not at all. Here’s one true biological difference: Pregnancy and childcare can easily interrupt a STEM career when there are no policies in place to support expecting parents. Damore discusses interest, ability and education, but he ignores a pivotal piece of the puzzle: Academia systematically pushes women out by failing to provide institutional and individual support and inclusion of women, thus creating a leaky pipeline.
The leaky pipeline, which refers to women dropping out of their careers has been a topic in academia for more than a decade. No one wins when this happens. Women miss out on good jobs and salaries; institutions lose diversity of thought and research; and academia is left with a smaller talent pool for the next breakthrough. With an academic environment that lacked women, we wouldn’t know how to isolate embryonic stem cells and cultivate them in vitro, both discovered by Gail R. Martin , professor emerita in the Department of Anatomy, University of California, San Francisco, which opened the door to innumerable biomedicine studies and treatments; or how far away a star is from Earth based on its brightness, an idea known as the period–luminosity relationship, discovered in 1893 by Henrietta Leavitt, of the Harvard College Observatory.
Current interventions typically revolve around promoting girls’ participation in STEM—coding, to name one prominent example—and teaching. When they participate, they excel. Women are currently 50 percent of all STEM college graduates, which means the pipeline is healthy in its early stages. But leaks begin to appear almost immediately after college, as women steadily drop out of their career tracks. We need institutions and the people in them, men and women alike, to help us stem this STEM attrition. We need changes in both policy and perception, and we need women around the world to tell the true story of why they’re leaving.
Changes need to come from every actor: universities, businesses, research institutions, publishers and scientists. Here are four steps we can take immediately to help keep women in STEM:
- Academia needs to move away from a “publish or perish” model. The pressure to publish erodes the quality of research and creates an unhealthy environment within academia and the private sector that relies on academic research. Female scientists must be able to have publication gaps without punishment, and we need to have a more nuanced view of productivity beyond an H factor—the single number that all researchers are reduced to that supposedly demonstrates their productivity and impact (but not genuine contribution to knowledge). The 2013 Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Peter Higgs, says, “Today I wouldn't get an academic job. It's as simple as that. I don't think I would be regarded as productive enough.” A marginal solution could be, as pointed out by Emily Nicholson, to reshape our CV’s (curriculum vitae) to account for the time that we spend raising our kids, in order to be judged fairly.
- On an institutional level, women need more support from their workplaces during and after pregnancy. If you can’t work in the lab or go on a field trip, research institutions should give “pregnancy grants” to pay for replacements so that your whole project isn’t put on hold. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health have recently started piloting similar initiatives under their Career–Life Balance Initiatives and Family Friendly Initiatives, respectively. This small investment will help the institution be more productive and will ensure that the project is completed on time. Paid parental leave—for both parents—also needs to be a norm, and research centers and companies need to offer on-site child care.
- On an individual level, women in STEM need more mentors—people to actively help them advance in their careers. We need people we can trust, to talk to not only about our work and research, but also our career and dreams. We may have different mentors for different stages of our careers. We talk a lot about role models—someone to look up to, but not enough about mentors—someone to talk to. Academics of any gender need to think about mentoring, especially for women, as a crucial part of their jobs.
Men also play a pivotal role in sealing the leaky pipeline. As a first step, men can ask questions and listen to the answers. Where have my female peers gone? Why are they leaving? Start creating an environment where conversation replaces silence. If you already listen, it’s time to speak out and share what you see. Your voice is equally important in this conversation.
Larger systemic changes take time. Hiring practices, funding opportunities and workplace culture don’t change overnight. We need to take the scientific method we’ve honed in research and apply it to our industry, institutions, and ourselves. Create control groups and track changes. Experiment and refine. We can’t afford to wait any longer.
I am part of the biggest all-women expedition to Antarctica to fight gender inequality and climate change, Homeward Bound, and proud mother of an amazing one-year-old daughter. Help me create an ethical, inclusive, vibrant, productive and diverse field in which she and your children can work.