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Why Women Leave Science

By Diane Hoffman-Kim

June 2001

Diane Hoffman-Kim is Assistant Professor in the Department of Surgery and the Department of
Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biotechnology at Brown University. She received her B.S. in
Optics Engineering from the University of Rochester in 1988, her Ph.D. in Medical Sciences from
Brown University in 1993, and held postdoctoral positions at MIT, Harvard, and The Bunting Institute
before joining the Brown faculty in 1998. Her research spans the fields of biomedical engineering,
cellular and developmental biology, cardiology, neuroscience, and tissue engineering. She is currently
director of the Collis Cardiac Surgical Research Laboratory.

IN THE COURSE OF MY CAREER in engineering, applied medical science, and cell
biology, I have come to see myself not merely as a scientist but as a woman in science. As a
result, I have come to value collaboration and openness to different perspectives and fields — in
short, dialogue and community — that can better promote scientific inquiry. While the numbers
and prestige of women in science are rising, we are still immersed in methodological paradigms
of scientific research that were developed in eras when most scientists were in fact white, middle
or upper class men. As a woman in science, I have lamented the isolating scientific culture that
valorizes individualistic, competitive, and specialized approaches.”

The previous paragraph was from a personal statement for a postdoctoral fellowship application
I wrote in 1997. Three years later, as a junior faculty member, I find that it still sums up
much of my thinking about the relationships between scientific culture, the process of doing
science, and women’s success.

I was asked to consider why women leave academic science. I took an informal survey of
my female teachers, colleagues, and students in science, and received responses from a group
diverse in race, culture, sexual orientation, and age. Themes that emerged include: overt
discrimination manifested in lower salary, less prestigious projects, etc.; sexual harassment;
assumptions about women’s lack of scientific abilities from early education onward; lack of
female role models; and difficulties finding livable means of reconciling the demands of work
and family; just to name a few. These issues still strongly influence women’s lives, and women
scientist’s lives in particular. I ask you to consider how much more productive these women would
be if we did not have to expend vast amounts of energy considering these work-related issues,
rather than considering the actual work!

What I’d like to focus on is what I find problematic on a different level: the more subtle,
more deeply internalized views of women, and of science, that make the two seem mutually
exclusive and incompatible. Sue Rosser and others have stated that younger women are often
not taken seriously in their work environment, and many women are excluded from important
informal information exchange that goes on in the laboratory. This resonates directly with my
experience and with that of my female colleagues. Often styles of discourse that were
created, maintained, and dominated by men, ultimately function to exclude women, to impede
their confidence, communication, and access to information essential for their careers.

For example, many women have told me they are interrupted and drowned out during laboratory
group meetings, the primary settings for communication, learning, information gathering,
and self-presentation within a research group. These anecdotes are strongly supported by
studies of group meetings, that demonstrate that women are interrupted by men and have their
contributions ignored or misattributed more often than are other men. Many women interviewed
described discomfort with male-dominated combative communication styles. And if
discomfort were not bad enough, the fact remains that if these women wait to speak, they
lose opportunities for dialogue that are essential for their learning. Sheila Widnall stated this
distinctly in her address as president of the AAAS: “[Students who avoid] such professional
experiences as opportunities to present and defend research results in regular and productive
group meetings, to evaluate and criticize the work of peers, to formulate and carry out
research tasks of increasing importance, to participate in dialogues and debates about
scientific and technical issues, and to discuss further career plans as they relate to current
interests and activities ... because of a lack of selfconfidence or because they find them painful, are
deprived of an important component of the graduate experience ... and they are unlikely to
be recommended by their mentors for important opportunities in their profession.” I would add
that in addition, such women are perceived as not having that vaguely asserted but all-important
quality — “what it takes” to succeed in science.

Many women are also put off by a reverence for exclusive individualism and a scorn for collaboration in the process of doing science. It is not the case that these women do not want to
work independently; however, they find it offensive to be told by a fellow male student, “I
spent many hours figuring that technique out; I’m not going to show it to you just because our
advisor said you should ask me. Learn it yourself.” Nor do women appreciate having their
requests for technical advice from a colleague referred to as “getting too much free help around
here.” When an advisor gives two students the same project without telling each of the other’s
assignment, or when a supervisor takes a brainstorming session about why an experiment
has generated unexpected results, and turns it into a competition to see who can “make the
project work,” many intelligent, highly capable women wonder where the spirit of inquiry has
gone, and indeed, wonder whether they have the right personality for this work. They feel that
they do not belong to this club of scientists whose accepted practices are largely
unarticulated, difficult to learn, and often clash with many aspects of themselves that they bring
to this pursuit.

Research has shown that as women experience the world of professional science, they find that
science still runs as a ‘boys only’ enterprise. This is not surprising, since Western culture socializes
boys, and not girls, to develop characteristics typically assumed to be masculine: independence,
emotional toughness, objectivity, and pure rational thinking — the characteristics most
valued by scientists. Consequently, becoming assimilated into the prevailing culture of science
is an integrative process for men, in which they have to adapt in some ways, but they face no
challenge to their identity as men in our society. For many women, however, the experience of
entering and assimilating into the scientific culture challenges their core sense of self.

Some women work through the laboratory culture and training environment and thrive,
creating and maintaining a strong sense of self. However, many of these clearly successful
women articulate similar problems with the established paradigms of doing science.
A colleague of mine, who is one of three women in a male-dominated lab group, told me that her
male co-workers complain to her “You’re fine, you’re confident and great to work with. It’s
those other two that are a pain; they’re timid, underconfident, we have to be sure they get
to speak, and we have to coddle them.” In response, she has said, “If you want to have a
‘me’ for a colleague, you had better figure out how to help them develop. They are me, as I
was five years ago!”

I do not believe that coddling women and eliminating all competition from science are
useful ways to address these issues. I would like us to continue to find ways to help women
develop their strengths as people and specifically as scientists. Leslie Barber, among myriad
researchers, raises the question that women in science desperately want answered: “Is equity for
women in science and engineering, then, an impossible goal? If the culture of science is
assumed to be immutable, it may be. However, there is little reason to believe that existing
cultural norms are necessary to the pursuit of excellence in science and engineering. More
likely, they provide a comfortable, supportive, and familiar environment for those who have
traditionally been scientists, that is, men.” To this end of changing the culture of science, I will
come to the point raised many times before — the need for a critical mass of women in science
at all levels. I would assert that the current definition of at least 15 percent falls far short of
what is actually needed to bring about qualitative changes and improvements in conditions.
Etzkowitz and colleagues have explained why this is so following interviews with 30 academic
science departments. “The fallacy of critical mass as a unilateral change strategy is that female
faculty pursue strikingly different strategies. Despite some progress, organizational structures
within departments, and the divisions they engendered, continued to isolate women.
Furthermore, the dispersal of women students into male-dominated research groups sustained
isolation even when there was a critical mass in a department.”

I find that to mentor and to give examples to younger women, working toward full demographic
representation of women, is essential for women’s success in science. Otherwise, with one
established and dominant norm of what a scientist does and is, who in the male-dominated
research group will be chosen for a project, nominated for a fellowship, sent to a meeting? In
terms of opportunities and careers, the stakes only rise from here. Clearly and historically, the
chosen one has been the person who most easily fits the norm and the model. I believe that with
full representation, this model can evolve to include the woman scientist among all creative,
productive scientists.


Portions of this article were published in “Women in Science and Engineering - Choices for Success” Ed. C. C. Selby, The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Vol. 869, 1999. It has been reprinted here with permission from the author.

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