HAVERFORD PROFESSOR ADDRESSES FACTORS
BEHIND WOMEN’S EXITS FROM SCIENCE CAREERS
Over the past 20 years, women have been actively
encouraged to study the natural sciences and engineering. Then
why is there such a high exit rate of women from science careers?
Anne Preston, associate professor of economics at Haverford
College in Haverford, Pa., addressed this question in a presentation
entitled “The New Influx of Women Into Doctorate Science:
Career Patterns,” which was delivered at the Annual Meeting
of the American Association for the Advancement of Science,
Feb. 13-18, 2003 in Denver, Colo.
Preston discussed results from an
empirical study of 1800 science and engineering graduates of
public universities between 1970-1990, and the major factors
behind the occupational exit of women from the sciences. “Little
attention has been paid to how well these women fare in the
science workplace,” said Preston.
Statistics based on data from the
1980s show that the occupational exit rate of women from the
sciences was consistently twice as high as the exit rate of
men. More recently, in 1999, a study focusing on individuals
under 30 whose highest degree was a bachelor of science and
those under 34 who held a master’s or a Ph.D. showed that
women were one and a half times as likely as men to leave science.
Preston described four significant reasons behind these exits:
high rates of changing knowledge, family responsibilities, mentoring,
and discontent with science.
Change is one of the most defining
characteristics of the field of science, but it brings hindrances
as well as benefits. “Change can be stressful to employees
in a discipline with constant pressures to remain current with
new developments,” said Preston. “Permanent exit
becomes a way out for those who can’t keep up.”
In fields with low rates of knowledge growth, the probability
of permanent exit for women was 10 percent, and 15 percent in
fields with high rates of knowledge growth.
Women are still more likely than
men to be limited by a spouse’s career aspirations, and
to accept a larger share of family responsibility. Preston found
that the most difficult periods for balancing career and family
occur at different stages for women and men with varying levels
of career aspirations and education. Women with doctoral degrees
encountered more obstacles early in their careers and marriages,
because a typical career for Ph.D.s requires geographic flexibility.
These women were more likely to be in a dual-career marriage
and to be younger and less established than their husbands,
so career compromises may have led to permanent exits. However,
women with bachelor’s or master’s degrees who found
employment outside of academia had more difficulty later in
their families’ development, forced to balance the demands
of children with inflexible work situations.
A third of the interviewed women pointed to an unsatisfactory
mentoring situation as a main reason for their exit from science.
Seventy-three percent explained how either positive mentors
helped advance their careers or hostile, indifferent mentors
impeded them. Mentors were also important in determining success
in graduate school. Only 13.5 percent of the women had guidance
as an undergraduate, and 20.5 percent of women in graduate programs
were assisted by senior scientists. Mentoring relationships
were present in 53 percent of employment situations.
Many women also became disenchanted
with science as a career over the course of time. Some were
unhappy with the narrowness of the field, or the competition
among scientists coping for grant money. Others rejected the
personal isolation and lack of personal contact associated with
Preston proposed several solutions
to these factors, such as an alternative to the high-mobility
work path of Ph.D.s, family-friendly work environments, more
workplace mentoring programs, and human resources practices
that emphasize connections among employees.
was based on her manuscript Leaving Science: Occupational
Exit of Scientifically Trained Men and Women Between 1970 and