Where are all the women going?

A new report finds that 52 percent of female scientists in the private sector are dropping out of their fields. Why is this happening -- and what can we do about it?

By Catherine Price
May 13, 2008 9:30PM (UTC)
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Female scientists out there, this one's for you: a study, to be published this Thursday in the Harvard Business Review, called "The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology." The study, which followed the careers of 1,000 women in America with qualifications in science, engineering or technology, surveyed 3,000 similar international employees and organized 28 focus groups around the world, found that things are not looking good for female scientists.

While 41 percent of scientists, technologists and engineers on the "lower rungs of the corporate career ladder" are female, 52 percent of those women drop out. Why? According to Forbes, the survey found five common "antigens" to women's success in corporate culture, including feelings of isolation (respondents reported often being the only women on a project team), a lack of female mentors, a macho and hostile work environment, and long hours that conflict with family responsibilities. The authors report that women drop out most frequently about 10 years into their careers, when they hit a "perfect storm" in their mid- to late 30s of career hurdles and increased family pressures.


Clearly, scientists are not the only women struggling with the challenges of juggling family responsibilities with professional obligations. But it seems that in science, the culture can be less forgiving than elsewhere -- as study author Sylvia Ann Hewlett said to the Times Online, "It has been a bit like a time warp. This predatory or condescending culture [toward women] was more common across the workplace 20 to 30 years ago but has somehow survived in an engineering, science and technology context."

Taking gender out of it for a moment, though, the dearth of female scientists contributes to a bigger problem: As Forbes reports, many U.S. science, engineering or technology companies are complaining about an overall lack of American talent -- a situation that will only get worse if the Bureau of Labor Statistics is correct in its prediction that from 2006 to 2016 jobs in these fields will grow "five times faster than other sectors." Last June, Bill Gates, Intel's Craig Barrett and National Semiconductor's Ed Sweeney lobbied Congress to allow a higher number of foreign workers to be let in to do these jobs.

I think it's great to encourage talented, motivated people to come to America -- but it also seems like a shame not to do more to preserve and encourage the talent we're losing when qualified women drop out of their fields. The study's authors propose 13 programs and interventions companies could use to keep their female employees on board, including a mentoring program between female Pfizer scientists and Yale graduate students, and ways to create "on-ramps" for women who want to return to work. So I've got two questions for our readers. First, are there any female scientists (or engineers or technologists) out there who can speak to their personal experiences with the trends reported by this study? And second, what ideas or suggestions do you have for ways to prevent this "brain drain" from happening in the first place?

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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