The Chicken, The Egg, The Woman In Science

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 3, 2008 10:04 am

veruca%20salt.pngAccording to ABC, a new study reports that women tend to drop out of research between their postdoc positions and running their own labs. I can’t say I’m shocked. While personal anecdotes are not reliable evidence, by age 28 I’ve already seen this trend firsthand among my peers many, many times.

We ladies make up approximately 45% of postdocs, 29% of tenured faculty, and only 19% of those running independent labs. Yes I’ve written about this topic before, but what’s different here is that researchers found no evidence of gender bias, but rather ‘women’s desire to be with their children trumped that of men’s desire.’ And most interesting is the suggestion that ‘more women mentors could be a solution to the “dropout” problem‘. Ummm, yes please.

“I think there is a paucity of ‘role models for women’ of accomplished researchers who have kids that turn out to be normal, because women don’t go into the system, that just doesn’t trickle down.”

Right on! We need more visible women in science (and policy for that matter) blazing a trail by setting the example for the next generation that we can be independent and successful without sacrificing a desired lifestyle–whether as mothers, wives, or even fashionistas. Because the truth is, it’s up to us (and that includes the fellas) to establish our own identities, which yes, can include taking on leadership roles in research and innovation.

So while I don’t think a lack of role models accounts for the entire gender gap, perhaps it is, at least in part, the classic chicken and egg problem. We must place more bright and capable young ladies in the public eye who break the mold of what we’ve come to expect of a ‘female in science‘…

The question then to readers is, how do we get there?


Comments (29)

  1. James

    Answer: We present young well-spoken women in science in the mainstream media more.

    The more obvious question I have would be, how do we find them?

  2. RichB


    Why must they be “young”? (Actually, I just noticed it was in the post as “bright and capable young ladies”). So why young?

    As for “where do we find them”, do you read this website much?

  3. RichB,

    I wrote ‘young’ with regard to the chicken and egg concept–meaning it’s important to promote early career female scientists who are succeeding in other roles as well to the younger generation of girls thinking about career choices and lifestyle.

    That said, I’d love to see more coverage of women in science across the age spectrum.

  4. Sylvia Ann Hewlett Is Right

    Women’s “desire to be with their children” is frequently related to the paucity of the following:

    Excellent, affordable child care with flexible hours.

    I left academia fifteen years ago because of childcare issues. Achievement-oriented work — not just in academia, but in business — just does not accommodate the realities of motherhood. If you find great childcare, and can afford it, and it’s within a reasonable commute, you are lucky. A relative of mine and her husband, who live near Washington
    DC, pay $20,000 a year for childcare for their two young children, and someone still has to pick them up, from two different places, by 6:00 p.m. So much for evening meetings or classes, eh?

    I don’t think it’s so much of a desire that drives well-educated women with good careers home, as it is perceived to be the best of several bad options.

    Mentorship is a nice idea and all, but I’m telling you, the issue is childcare, childcare, childcare.

  5. and then there are women who don’t have children who are treated as freaks because they are childfree. so add a contentious issue to an already competitive environment where any one thing will result in a woman being forced out of science forever, and you have a recipe for gender disparity where the old guard stands around, scratching their heads, wondering why?

  6. Randy

    I am going to say this again and again.

    LIVE ON ONE SALARY!! It is what you will do if you drop out of the workforce anyway. So, if you want excellent childcare and other help, give up entire salary of one of the parents to pay for it for the first several years. OR, encourage the husband to take the break from career.

  7. Last night, Nova Science Now on PBS did a profile of Pardis Sabeti. I am surprised that Sheril has not mentioned her. Sabeti rocks, in more ways than one.

  8. Wes, Great link on Pardis! Thanks

  9. Lee

    I definitely agree with Sylvia, no matter what news media says, at least to me, it is always childcare. I have one child and been post-docing for a year and half and my productivity is directly correlated with childcare issue. (And probably so is my husband’s)

    We spend $20k per year only for one child (If you can find $20k for 2 children, you got lucky) and yet we still have to pick him up around 6 pm and if he gets sick he has to stay home. We were in a very difficult situation last year, because it wasn’t easy to find a good daycare so my child had to go through different daycare centers and then he had a very rough time adjusting himself to a new center. (It turned out that the center wasn’t good fit for him) We are much happier and able to focus on our research these days, since we found a very nice daycare center in a walking distance with a reasonable price (yet it is still around $1700 per month) and my child likes it too.

    When everything is going well, I have nothing to complain, but if my child gets sick or the daycare is on vacation, my husband and I have to alternate our schedule. (e.g.- one person goes in the morning, the other goes in the afternoon) Usually when a little kid gets sick, it takes 3 days up to a week to go back to the daycare. They also get sick frequently because there are so many kids around at the center. That sometimes affect my research progress substantially, even if I work at night and weekend and my boss completely understands the situation. The problem is that we can’t afford a nanny and it is very difficult to find an emergency (or sick)childcare in such a short notice.

    If people can find a flexible/affordable/accessible childcare with good quality, it would greatly improve many young scientists’ productivity, not just women’s but also men’s – fathers who are willing to share child caring responsibility just same as mothers.

  10. R E G

    I second the posters who said child care. Not just for scientists, but for everyone.

    The irony is that for several years you structure your entire life around child care, and do not have a moment to devote to the political or social changes necessary to make it available to women coming after you. When your children are raised, you no longer need it and lack any incentive to promote it.

    Consequently, women 30 years younger than me are dancing through the same hoops I did in the 80’s, trying to keep work on track, children healthy, and babysitters happy.

  11. Randy,

    Scenario 1: One salary, neither parent spends time with children (other salary goes to child care)
    Scenario 2: One salary, one parent doesn’t work and takes care of the kids.

    I’m guessing it would take a supreme dedication to career to choose scenario one.
    In other words, I’m with you on the ‘encourage husband to take a break from career’. That’s certainly my plan 😉

  12. Sylvia Ann Hewlett Is Right

    Elise and Randy,

    Re one salary solution, if women plan to stay in the workforce and hope their husbands will stay at home to provide childcare, then those women had better be the higher earners by a good margin by the time the couple has children.

    There are three stay-at-home fathers in my neighborhood, but in every case, their wives brought in significantly higher incomes (two of the women were in finance, one was in insurance).

    Not that that’s terribly scientific, an N of three — but I’m betting the career that usually gets sacrificed is that of the lower earner. Which is still usually the woman.

  13. Scott

    To those of you casually suggesting ‘taking a break from career’, know that its not nearly as easy to return to a career as it is to keep it. Businesses tend to brush aside potential employees that for ANY reason don’t have a current history of continuous work. Even hoping to get a new job at a fraction of your previous salary, which is depressing enough, you usually get passed over for that too because you’re overqualified for those. It was important enough to me to be the house-dad, but I wish it was easier to get back on track.

  14. randy


    People are more addicted to money than time. there does not have to be a big differential at all in income. Single income families exist. we just live a hell of a lot tighter than duel income families (at least the ones I know).

    Elise, as for senario one. I have seen it play out as you say… both parents work all the time, not time for kids. Even saw the kids chose to go live with grandma and grandpa (I was friends with the nanny), I have also seen it work out (in most cases) where it frees up the parents to be more productive in less hours and spend more time with kids. You can have time or money, hard to have both.

  15. My wife (a lawyer) and I (scientist) talk about this sort of thing fairly often. I don’t think we’ve reached complete agreement, but a couple of the better-tested notions:

    First, go back to the comment about women tending to drop out between post-doc and lab-chief. Thing is, it’s also the case that men tend to drop out in that chain — there are far fewer lab chiefs than post-docs. Ditto between recently hired lawyers and senior partners. Also my understanding that it’s like this in business.

    So, what is that filter process like? Part of it, for all three, is that you have to largely abandon your family (spouse, if any, children if any) to work 60-70+ hours a week for several years or more until you ‘make it’, whether as tenured lab chief, senior partner, or high up in the company management. Of the three, any more, it seems that it’s the scientists who have to bail for the longest. Not that all scientists (etc.) totally forget about their family, but it’s a lot more difficult to be there for them and with them when you’re sleeping (remember that?) a third of the day and at work half the rest of the day.

    I’ll suggest that this is a terrible filtering basis for finding good scientists, lawyers, or business people. Also terrible on their families. Irrespective of whether there were gender-disparate effects (which there are), it’s something that warrants change. Of course the senior people in all these areas are those who ‘passed’ that selection process themselves. So I don’t hold my breath.

    Second, and even less mutable by the efforts of scientists, is that matter of child care. This is national, through many layers of society. The thing is, while there’s a certain (not infrequently grudging) acceptance of women being in the work place, there’s still next to nil for men being the primary caregivers for children. If it isn’t the husbands taking care of the kids, it isn’t higher math to figure out who is left to do the job. Even in the 80s, it was realized that ‘superwoman’ is not a real person.

    There’s a minor conjecture I’ll throw in, prompted by Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s last (10 AM, 4th) note. That is a shaky (my own observation) bit of sociological observation: While men tend to marry fairly indiscriminately with respect to spousal profession, women bias towards more ‘successful’ men (than themselves). So, while the men I know in science/law/medicine/… have spouses who are homemakers to in charge of the lab, the women are all married to someone as or more eminent in the field than they are (and it tends to be the same field, not just science to science, but meteorology to meteorology, which seems even odder). Two things this does are to reduce the spousal support possible for women in such professions (as he’s out doing the same insane 70 hour weeks) and abet the wage disparity (as he’s got to be pulling in at least as much as she).

  16. Sylvia Ann Hewlett Is Right

    Just to clarify, I am not the economist and author Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

    Randy: I gave up my science career to become a stay-at-home mother in a one-income family for ten years. Now I have a little “Mom job” that pays the monthly grocery bill but allows me great flexibility in dealing with family issues while my husband works the long hours required in his profession. Scott is right that the on-ramp back into a real career is difficult.

    Penguindreams: The writer Linda Hirschman ticked off a lot of people with her recent manifesto ‘Get to Work.’ Two of her recommendations to women who want to keep careers were for women to marry men who were not ambitious and who earned less; and second, to have no more than one child. I think Hirschman is an entertaining writer because I like a good polemicist screed now and then, but I don’t take her very seriously — she’s a poor researcher.

    Sylvia Ann Hewlett, however, is a good researcher and imho she’s right about the devastating effects of current childcare policies on the workforce. 😉

  17. randy


    I did not mean give up job to live on one income (unless you want to give up job), I meant use entire income of the one wage earner to help with child issue and so forth.

    Obviously bottom line is everyone needs to find their own personal set of priorities. I gave up research career to work at undergrad institution primarily due to the fact that my family needed a lot more of my time due to chronic illnesses of two family members. Life is about choices, often between two good options, not one bad and one good. Few people get to “have it all”.

    But I agree, women are most likely the ones to have to pay the price which is something that society needs to change. again, personally, i would like to see more men staying at home to support their wives efforts.

  18. junk

    Science is fiercely competitive, particularly in terms of funding. I know a lot of people (both male and female) who left science because they didn’t think they had the necessary skills or drive to generate a steady flow of money coming into their lab. Your (admittedly) short argument doesn’t consider the other side of the coin – women are arguably more pragmatic than men, and may have concluded that continuing science after their postdoc means doing little else but work for the next decade or two, just to support a lab that may end up doing research that they now think of as being only moderately interesting. Men find the competition almost as stimulating as their research and, as a result, stay in the game?

    As several people have pointed out, its all about choices. Should someone stay in science and (for what ever reason) limit their work to a strict eight hour day, five days a week knowing they can’t possibly compete for funding, tenure or publications with someone who works 12 hours a day, 7 days a week (and even longer to meet a deadline)? Research is all about being the first to publish. Being second is almost irrelevant. Only the truly brilliant can work minimally and be successful, and even then, its not likely such people will be experimentalists!

    So, I have to be very critical of your statement ‘successful without sacrificing a desired lifestyle’ and say while someone is off being a ‘mother, wife or fashionista’ their competitors are in the lab working frantically on experiments and manuscripts. That is the reality of the situation. And its not going to change any time soon. Will the funding agencies want to target resources towards ‘working mothers’ who are producing second tier publications? Perhaps. Will peer review support it? I doubt it.

  19. I’m not sure my experience is relevant here. I’m a scientist, but I’m in industry. I’m also in a computational field, so I don’t have to worry about when my cells need to be harvested, or anything like that.

    With that said, I will give a little bit of hope to those younger than me contemplating mixing a career in science with motherhood. It can be done! I have one child, age 15 months. We plan to have another. I work 8:00-4:30 every day, and my husband works from 9-5:30. Our daughter goes to a day care center near where we work. It costs ~$1350/month. My husband drops her off and I pick her up, so she’s at day care from about 8:30-4:45 every day, and she is doing great.

    I am at the associate director level in a biotech company, and while I experience the usual stress related to balancing work and home (particularly when our daughter gets sick, as one of the previous posters noted), my career doesn’t seem to be suffering, and neither is my husband’s. Of course, it is hard to know what would have happened if we hadn’t had a baby. Maybe I’d be a director by now. It helps that my husband is a scientific software engineer and has some flexibility in his hours and a willingness to use that flexibility to contribute his fair share to child care needs. It also helps that we both make good money, so we can buy some convenience now and then.

    This is not to discount the difficulties others have mentioned. I absolutely agree that access to quality day care that fits your work needs and that you can afford are key. I also think that the laws guaranteeing time off after having a baby and also time and space to pump breastmilk after going back to work need to be strengthened. I live in California, so I had slightly better protections that many in the US.

    For those looking for a perspective on life as a scientist and a mother in academia, take a look at Female Science Professor’s blog. She sometimes posts about this issue.

    I have friends with arrangements like mine (some already have >1 child). I think the most important is to have a partner committed to truly being a partner in child rearing, and to figuring out how to make things work in your particular situation.

  20. Jennifer

    I agree with the comments above that it is all about childcare, but I’m even more specific about it. ON-SITE childcare. We recently had a survey by parking operations (what .edu doesn’t have parking problems?) and they were asking what would encourage employees to ride the bus to work. Sadly, I wasn’t one of the chosen few to actually respond to the survey, but had I been, I would have said “on-site childcare”. But how many (academic) institutions have enough spaces at their on-site childcare for all the little ones?

  21. I suggest we work on the men. The men who don’t desire to stay at home with the kids. The men that think that they will be punished at work for spending time with the kids. The men at work that will punish men who stay at home…

    Childcare and other services will help, but raising kids is a two-sided coin.

  22. Regarding the question – how do we find young well-spoken women in science to feed to the mainstream media?

    L’Oreal sponsors research fellowships and awards for women – Pardis Sabeti (mentioned above) and I both were awarded grants, for example. They do a good job promoting their winners to the media and also connecting us with opportunities to speak to groups of young people interested in science. Their website is a good place to point the media to find female scientists who have been selected based on scientific excellence and ability to convey their research to non-scientists.
    Then click “For women in science” at the top bar, then US Fellowshop awards – there are also awards for older scientists, including international scientists

    It’s a start. Does anyone else know of ‘lists’ of female scientist role models?

  23. freddy

    I agree with Innoculated Mind. I think we need better role models for working parents both men and women. We need male role models who take time off from their careers to care for children as much as we need women who do this. Many men feel social pressure not to take childcare leave. In many places men aren’t even eligible for childcare leave.

  24. This topic is the subject of a new book, Motherhood: The Elephant in the Laboratory.

    I think that by talking about why women leave the sciences is an important first step. So thanks for the post, Sheril.

  25. SAH-is-right: Sounds like Hirschman is just describing for today’s women what career-oriented men have been told for a century — Get a ‘corporate’ spouse, don’t have many kids, [and whatever kids you do have, don’t spend much time with them (as that would detract from serving the Company)].

    Innoculated mind: You’re about 80% off-track, imnsho. Plus, you’ll get better mileage if you try to work _with_ men, rather than _on_ them. The 80% is about the fraction of the obstacles to men being at home taking care of children come from women. (Of course that’s a made-up number, but …). One of the larger scale public demonstrations of that was Barbara Jordan’s Democratic National Convention keynote speech, in which she noted that men just couldn’t be good parents. Not that she hated men, just they ‘didn’t have the emotional equipment to be good parents’ (I paraphrase, but not as much as I wish I were). Now that’s her opinion and welcome to it, and just one opinion. What was informative was the deafening silence from women, women’s groups, etc., nationally. If men are intrinsically incapable of parenting … well, guess who that leaves.

    A more concrete and current aspect — almost all day care is owned and staffed by women. If we were talking about an industry with this level of gender bias in favor of men, hackles would be raised quite high at the ‘obvious’ discrimination. I do know a guy who is works in day care. He does, as, say a woman in engineering in the 1970s did, get gender based crap for being in the field. The men get hit with an additional novelty, though. There is a widespread reflexive ‘you must be a child molester’ response to men who say they like children. This is much greater, in my experience and the guys I’ve talked to, coming from women than men.

    I’ve got quite a few more examples, but will stop here. Suffice it that even though my wife doesn’t agree with me about all the gender issues w.r.t. workplaces and homes, this is one that she does agree on.

    I’d as soon that it all be resolved shortly, as my daughter is thinking about a physics PhD. So far, though things are better than when I was in school, for both men and women, there’s a lot of room for improvement (for both).

  26. HydroDoc

    I am a female scientist with a 18 month old child, working part time. Through this I have come to the (rather obvious) conclusion that you can’t have both a family and a career to the same extent as choosing one or the other. Clearly we all have a limited amount of time and both a science career and motherhood take a massive amount of that.

    Yes, if I had more access to childcare I could work as much as I did before my son was born. But I don’t want to. Not because I don’t love my career (I do) but because I want to spend time with my child and raise him myself. And unarguably, being cared for by a parent is the best form of care that a child can get (with some kind of balance with the mental relief that work can often bring).

    Some of the issues that I am experiencing are:

    1. That motherhood (or indeed fatherhood) is seen as inferior to running a lab. I put on my feathered PhD cap and I am an internationally relevant part of the scientific community. I put on my mother hat and I disappear (and am paid nothing but love). I am a damn fantastic mother and I don’t want to deny the world these skills! At least that’s what I’m going to say from now on. And there are so many management skills that you learn as a parent! Multi-tasking, sorting out temper tantrums, thinking on the run….

    2. As a woman, why do I want to put all my efforts into rising to the top in a workplace that tends to have a more masculine paradigm (aggressive, competitive, long hours sacrificing time with my family). I did once. Now I’m happy just quietly writing papers. Perhaps my goals have changed after having a child. It’s probably all those hormones.

    3. Even if I had access to enough child care hours, I want to know that the people caring for my child are constant (so they can form an emotionally essential attachment to them), skillful and really really really love my child rather than being just an employee who follows institutional protocols. For me, family day care at one person’s home is a good model, or having grandparents care for my child. But these are off-campus arrangements, meaning extra car trips. Quality of care is just as important as quantity.

    4. I earn more than my husband. I still can’t get him to become a house husband full time while I work (again this doesn’t let me spend as much time with my child either). Bless those wonderful men who can, but I think it’s a guy thing to have work so central to their sense of identity.

    Anyway, back to writing my papers in the corner.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry.Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.comFor more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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