Women of Science

Copyright Jorge Cham

I don’t have a title for my latest book yet, but I know it’s about a woman who is doing a science PhD and wondering whether or not to stay. It was inspired by a conversation I had with a friend about why women leave science.

Every year there are hundreds of women with PhDs who hang up their lab coats and go do something else. It could be something science related (science teachers, lab technicians, that sort of thing) or something totally unrelated – there a lot of accountants and actuaries and lawyers who have science degrees or PhDs.

There are a lot of reasons why women leave science. It’s hard to fit it in with raising a family for a start. A lot of places now have flexible working hours, part time working etc etc etc. But it doesn’t change the fact that you’re expected to do the equivalent of a full time job in the hours you have. If not (or even if you do manage it) you’ll be treated as someone for whom work is hobby. Besides all that, what happens to your experiment if you have to suddenly disappear to pick up a sick child? You’d have to repeat the whole thing when you get back, or ask someone to look after it for you. For women who care about their career, that sucks.

I left science well before I had children. What made me leave? I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m not sure I know, even now. I could say it’s a man’s world. But my PhD supervisor was female and she was very very good.

One thing I noticed is the difference in the level of confidence between men and women. The guys would stand up with results that they weren’t 100% confident in and talk as though it was conclusive. They believed in themselves enough that when challenged, they would face the challenger down and confidently predict what was going to happen. Me, if someone challenged by work, my first reaction was to doubt myself. HAD I made a mistake in my calculations? HAD I misread something? I would always falter in my responses. Invariably, when I went back and checked, I was right all along. But by then, it’s too late. I’ve already shown weakness. Somehow that diminished my integrity as a scientist.

So much of what happens in scientific circles is down to ego. What my friend calls ‘Willie waggling’ (which would be, by definition, something men are better suited to…). What you’re saying seemed less important than who was saying it and how confidently they said it.. I’ve worked in industry and it happens there too, but not as often.

So, there you have it, my reason for leaving science was a lack of confidence in my abilities. And I think I’m fairly easily bored (useful for a writer, not so much for a scientist). If you left science after a PhD (be you male or female!), what was your reason for leaving?

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6 Comments

Filed under rant, Science

6 responses to “Women of Science

  1. Heather Brosnan

    You are absolutely right! I don have a PhD, but have experienced those things. I am aHistology Technician, When my children were babies, I got flack for pumping breast milk on my breaks(never taking longer than I should), I’ve never complained about those whom go for numerous smoke breaks. There is always a concern that I will call off b/c I have children-yet never have. I’ve never nada bad review, told my work is very good quality-yet I still question & second guess myself.

    • My employers have always been very good about the childcare commitments thing, but I know I’ve been lucky. Mind you, I left the lab well before I had kids. The tendency to question myself hasn’t gone away. Even though I have no reason to believe I’m not good at what I do, I still wonder. Perhaps women respond better to the positive and men respond better to adversity. Who knows.
      My current WIP (set in a molecular biology lab :-)) is about a female PhD student and her lack of self confidence. It started out looking at sexism in the workplace and ended up being about psychological abuse. Ho hum.

  2. I still don’t know if I’ve turned my back on the the lab yet but I do know that I suffered from “impostor syndrome” – that feeling that if I was doing things then they couldn’t be that good. Publications and awards made no difference – past of me always felt like a fraud.

  3. I don’t fall into the category of being a science-leaver, but having studied Human Resources at undergraduate level I thought you might be interested in something I discovered while on my course. I sadly can’t find the reference now, but a study of job applicants in the 1990s discovered that while the majority of female applicants would only apply for a role if they met 100% of the job requirements, the average amongst men was application if they fulfilled 75% of the criteria and for some it was as low as 25%. I definitely think there’s something to be said for gendered expectations on men and women and how that translates into self-confidence. I’m sure there are plenty of academics out there who could talk at length about it and provide acres of citations to back it up. I just think it’s interesting!

    • I’ve heard from a number of people (who emailed me directly) to say ‘me too’. I’m glad it wasn’t just me, but it is rather sad that it happens at all.
      Yeah, I find it interesting too.

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