Gender Equality

Why women in science don’t want to work at universities

Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as PhD candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.

This is the conclusion of The chemistry PhD: the impact on women’s retention, a report for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Royal Society of Chemistry. In this report, the results of a longitudinal study with PhD students in chemistry in the UK are presented.

Men and women show radically different developments regarding their intended future careers. At the beginning of their PhD studies, fully 72% of women express an intention to pursue careers as researchers, either in industry or academia. Among men, 61% express the same intention.

By the third year, the proportion of men planning careers in research had dropped from 61% to 59%. But for the women, the number had plummeted from 72% in the first year to 37% as they finish their studies.

If we tease apart those who want to work as researchers in industry from those who want to work as researchers in academia, the third year numbers are alarming: 12% of the women and 21% of the men see academia as their preferred choice.

This is not the number of PhDs who in fact do go to academia; it’s the number who want to.

88% of the women don’t even want academic careers, nor do 79% of the men!

How can it be this bad? Why are universities such unattractive workplaces?

Part of The chemistry PhD discusses problems that arise while young researchers are PhD candidates.

Improving the PhD experience requires taking account of these problems, including too little supervision, too much supervision, focus on achieving experimental results rather than mastery of methodologies, and much more. The long-term effects, though, are reflected in the attitudes and beliefs about academia that emerge during this period.

The participants in the study identify many characteristics of academic careers that they find unappealing. The constant hunt for funding for research projects is a significant impediment for both men and women. But women in greater numbers than men see academic careers as all-consuming, as solitary and as unnecessarily competitive.

Both men and women PhD candidates come to realize that a string of post-docs is part of a career path, and they see that this can require frequent moves and a lack of security about future employment. Women are more negatively affected than men by the competitiveness in this stage of an academic career and their concerns about competitiveness are fueled, they say, by a relative lack of self-confidence.

Women more than men see great sacrifice as a prerequisite for success in academia. This comes in part from their perception of women who have succeeded, from the nature of the available role models. Successful female professors are perceived by female PhD candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless.

As if all this were not enough, women PhD candidates had one experience that men never have. They were told that they would encounter problems along the way simply because they are women. They are told, in other words, that their gender will work against them.

By following PhD candidates throughout their study and asking probing questions, we learn not only that the number of women in chemistry PhD programs who intend to pursue a career in academia falls dramatically, but we learn why.

This research and the new knowledge it produces should be required reading for everyone leading a university or a research group. The stories surely apply far beyond chemistry. Remember that it’s not just women who find academia unappealing. Only 21% of the men wanted to head our way, too.

Universities will not survive as research institutions unless university leadership realizes that the working conditions they offer dramatically reduce the size of the pool from which they recruit.

We will not survive because we have no reason to believe we are attracting the best and the brightest. When industry is the more attractive employer, our credibility as the home of long-term, cutting edge, high-risk, profoundly creative research, is diminished.

The answers here lie in leadership and in changing our current culture to build a new one for new challenges. The job is significant and it will require cutting edge, high-risk leadership teamwork to succeed. Is your university ready?

This post also appeared at The Guardian, as Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried.

Photo courtesy of: Light Knight

My interest in moving universities towards balance encompasses gender equality, the communication of scientific results, promoting research-based education and leadership development more generally. Read more



  • Louise says:

    Dear Curt,

    Thank you for writing about this issue.
    I want to share a story about what happened yesterday that made me, female grad. student, doubt whether I want to be part of academia. It is just an example of what happens much more often.
    I joined the coffee-hour at the institute that I am visiting at the moment. The people present were all men. Two are professors, one is the director, the other one just got hired. The other men present were lower in status (visiting fellows and grad students). The director was clearly sucking up to the newcoming professor, I thought he behaved like a small boy towards him. The newcoming professor in his turn was letting the director know that his sucking up was welcome by complimenting the director on his ‘geat villa’ and the other men were onlookers who could sometimes get a word in (always commenting in favour of the professors) when the director was not speaking.
    I have to say…this makes me sick. The constant need that these men have to establish the hierarchy. I see it happening all the time.
    I like to nonetheless be present at the coffee-hours (also at my home institution) because I want to know what is going on and i want to be able to join in and have some influence myself. But this sucking up to each other is something that I think is embarrassing, even though the men seem to think that it is normal behaviour. It also clearly follows a pattern in that the lower in status suck up to the higher in status and that the equal in status suck up to each other. These men behave like apes.

    This is what is most devastating for my fun as a grad student. I refuse to take part in this sucking up contest and I fear that I will have to when I go on in academia. I also think that it must be a male thing because I see this happening in all male groups. I have never sat in with an all female group (they just aren’t there and whenever there is another female present at a coffee meeting she usually doesn’t dare to say anything. I have often seen women who do say something be put in their place by sexist jokes, so I understand these women’s silence although it pains me to see that they let themselves be conditioned to shut up) so I have no idea if women would behave the same.
    What also happened is that I made a joke yesterday (I will not be shut up), teasing the director a bit about his stories and his villa, and nobody laughed. I think that they had no idea what to do with it and decided to ignore it and go on with their sucking up game. Probably I acted in a way that was not appropriate for my status? In a normal situation the person being teased would have laughed and would have made a joking remark back.

    They are not only playing the sucking up game, but are serious about it too.
    The knowledge that I will be joining these men and will have to play their game makes me sick. (Let alone the sacrifices etc… ) I have seen other female grad students leave for similar reasons (one said “I am not going to work with these 50 year old geisers”) and others because of a lack of confidence, which is something that is probably enforced by the sucking up game.I feel my confidence dropping in these situations, but I have my stubbornness that keeps me from walking away.


    • Marge says:

      Dear Louise,
      Sorry to hear this. I’m a female professor in a field (engineering) dominated by men.
      I’ve had such experiences, surely, and have seen them in all types of demographic
      academic groups.
      However, I have certainly also seen this elsewhere! And heard about them from friends
      who ventured into industry or national laboratories, or teaching colleges.
      The sucking up culture I believe occurs whenever there is a power structure. Competition
      rears its ugly head then too. I do not believe that academics is necessarily any worse
      (or better) than elsewhere.

      As a student I never accepted it, nor participated in it willingly. In fact, I was sometimes
      called “irreverent” by faculty. It never hurt me though. I kept my sense of humor and
      did what I thought was right. I did good work and put my energy into that what I thought
      was important. The best way to disarm anyone, I found, is to be confident, sometimes
      openly sometimes quietly, calm, unfazed and with that most important sense of humor.
      Because, honestly, some of this behavior is pretty darn funny.

      Bitterness and frustration by such behaviors do not help in any way.

      Now, I’m in a leadership position and the only woman (and director) of a large group of
      academic men. I get by well. I found my place, I don’t feel isolated. I still find things
      rather entertaining at times.
      And oh, yes, I am at a rather competitive school, and am a mother too.

      It is possible and when you can cope, it is the most amazing career. I have much freedom,
      I work with very smart students, I can build what I think is needed, and I can share knowledge
      and learn along with the students and my colleagues.

  • d.t. says:

    Dear Louise
    I delt that I should comment in reply to your comment, because I reckon you’re really out on a limb here. I sympathise with your views on men’s cliqueness and, as you call it, ‘sucking up’. As a graduate student, working especially in the field of sciences, you are likely to brush up against a pretty silly academic culture. But you’re free to move on – if you’re a talented research student, any university will take you on. The thing is that you seem to imply that ‘men’ is your issue, not the particular academic culture you’re working in. Would you say that if this group was made up of women it would be better, or more inclusive or more civiliced for you? I suggest that it would not. I work in a mainly women (and some gay) academic group (social work), and the amount of bickering, back stubbing and bullying that I have encountered over the years I have been here as a senior academic is just incredible. So count your lucky stars that you’re among a bunch of what seems to be a bunch of fairly immature lot of acdemics (men in sciences and engineering have a higher incidence of low emotional intelligence, and autism).
    good luck

    • Asha says:

      I agree entirely with you. Democracy of opinion is just in name. I thought it was just an Asian phenomenon but from your comments and whatever little I have seen in Europe same applies. It is therefore perhaps universal or maybe U.S. could be excluded since I have heard that people are more forthright there. Whatever it may be if an expression of one’s honest opinion could not be achieved in academic circles, what hope can we offer to the ordinary, commercial, mundane set-ups. Considering we are the better educated at least in terms of educational achievements, we should be able to profess and enable change in perspectives. Would really like the situation to change where one can call a spade a spade once in a way without inviting trouble and the other educated and evolved person taking criticism in his/her stride as constructive and imperative for improvement. Welcome ideas and guidance on the issue.


  • d.t. says:

    oops, sorry about the typos, fat fingers made me do it 🙂

  • Those interested in the report cited here may also be interested in this related report, produced by the Biochemical Society with the Royal Society of Chemistry and UKRC

    ‘The Molecular Bioscience PhD and Women’s Retention: A Survey and Comparison with Chemistry’ is published here:

  • Patricia Paton says:

    It is a very good article and absolutely correct in all of its aspects. I am one of these women that was told when I finished my position as an international fellow from Wellcome Trust, that it would be almost impossible to follow a career in academy because of gender bias. I think I didn’t want to believe before but after hearing a Professor saying this to me, it woke me up further. After that I started paying more attention in the numbers of male and female professors where I worked. The majority if not all consisted of 95% men as Professors.
    Industry is not good as well and they pay terribly bad for what they want us to do.
    It is very sad when I think that I used more than 10 years studying, dedicating to science, reaching ‘senior’ level to not have a more secure position, with grants being so unpredictable and having to move almost every 3 years like a nomad. Nowadays I am not following the career anymore. I couldn’t success if I wanted to have a family and I opted for having a family and changing career.

    • Curt Rice says:

      What some call “work/life balance” is one of those factors that seems to play out quite differently for men and women, which is in some ways quite sad. I remember in graduate school in the US a professor once referring to new PhDs as “over-educated migrant workers!” I had no idea how accurate that might be.

  • Jadey says:

    I often wonder what this means in the context of the social sciences as well, especially as our disciplines become increasingly “feminized” (lord what an awkward term – but a fascinating concept anyway). As a recent grad student, my experience was that the faculty in my psych and sociology programs were fairly mixed still, reflecting the older generation after the gender shift began, but that the student population was overwhelmingly female, and moreso for every year advanced (i.e., even between my undergrad and grad school, with roughly the same age cohort, there were even more women at the higher levels then men – though this may have partly been a selectivity issue as different grad programs may be more “feminized” than others as people specialize – e.g., more women choose developmental and social psych while more men choose cognitive and neuro psych, whereas at the undergrad level things are relatively unspecialized still). Academic opportunities are still sparse and we’re dropping out at fast rates, but with the enormous disparity in gender already and without having access to a proper dataset, it’s difficult to tell if women are still disproportionately dropping out. Certainly even having female majority has *not* made social sciences a feminist safe haven by any means – we aren’t isolated from our sexist social context and there’s a lot of internalized and institutionalized sexism still.

    • Victoria says:

      I started a PhD in Sociology and I would say that it is similar in the social sciences. I already saw (and vaguely remember statistics on it) that there were a disproportionate number of male PhD students (whereas there were about 5 males to a class of 80, there were about 30-40% of male PhD students). I think that is a bias in selection of students to supervise, as where I studies you did not start a PhD unless you already had a supervisor. Also, women did drop out more I think because of the culture. The issue of long periods before becoming established cannot be overstated. When you see you might be over 35 before you get a permanent position it is very discouraging. You will be expected to be hopping countries every 1-2 years following post-doc after post-doc and know that partners do not follow and that those are your fertile years. If you happen to have a partner who is in academia, you know the chances of you staying together are slim, because you both can expect to be in different countries for 2-7 years. So the divide between a happy personal and professional life is very clear for women. If you add that the work itself seems solitary and difficult and your colleagues trip you up rather than help it’s a wonder that anyone actually wants to stay.

  • Good article and lots of great comments. I’ve posted a link to this on my FaceBook page. 🙂

    • Curt Rice says:

      Thanks for the support on Facebook. I’ve been getting hundreds of hits via Facebook the last couple of days, and wondering where they’re coming from. Now I know 🙂

  • Curt Rice says:

    Thanks for all these terrific heartfelt reflections, and for taking the link further onto Facebook and Twitter.

    One of the most fascinating issues to me as I think about university leadership is how very tough the culture of universities can be, and many of you are making comments that illustrate this. I continue to be fascinated about why this is the case as well as being committed to the view that is not necessary. Indeed, I’m committed to the view that universities can be better at what they do if they rebuild their work culture.

  • I worked in an organisation in Bangalore, India where I live with my two kids. This organisation offers a PhD to its employees in affiliation with an University in Belgium, Antwerp. The criteria for the PhD was that one had to spend 4 months a year in Belgium and the rest of the year in Bangalore. So guess who got into the PhD every time ?? – a male – pack bags, leave.

    Really could a woman just drop off her kids at foster care for like four months every year, or may be she could take them along – their schooling be damned. The organisation director actually said at an annual meeting that the men were ‘up there’ and the women researchers ‘down below’!! They also of course have a mission statement or whatever which says ‘We believe in equity, equality, whatever’

    • Curt Rice says:

      That would be frustrating! This is a good example of “structural discrimination.” It’s (probably, hopefully) not the case that they are thinking “we don’t want women.” But the structure of the situation is such that it will play out differently for men and women. That’s the kind of thing I have in mind when I talk about discrimination. Terrible story, but a great example of the kinds of problems that we still face. Thank you!

    • Anna says:

      Dear Sylvia, I do understand what you are saying, and I actually agree with the reply of Curt on the structure discrimination.

      But it always puzzle me and I always wonder why men do not seem to have such problems. That is, in many (or I dare to say in probably most) of the cases the kids do also have fathers yet the situations such as the one you are describing seems to be frustrating only for women. Does it mean that men have no problems with dropping their kids at foster care, expect their wives to take most care of the kids who in fact need to leave their careers, or simply it is just socially accepted (and also well put into our heads) that it is OK for a man to leave his kids for a few months because of work and the same is not OK for women?

  • Michelle says:

    I know it’s not what anyone wants to hear, but I am in this boat in part because I do not see how I could have a child that I would be able to spend time with if I follow the academia track. My husband has a high powered career as well and we are frequently apart. This means I would be a essentially a single parent while doing a postdoc. If I waited until after, during the tenure run, I fear I would be at a grave disadvantage relative to my peers. We have a woman faculty member at my institution who started the year I began my PhD and the word on the street is that she will be denied tenure for her lack of dedication, because she took the 1 yr stop on the tenure clock after she gave birth. According to the other female faculty in the department, the stop on the tenure clock is not, in fact, a pause at all and because her pubs rate fell during this time, she will be punished.
    I look at things like that and a 6-figure salary in industry, with decent hours (60 hrs a week seems like a blessing), and onsite childcare sounds like a dream come true. I am dedicated. I want to work hard and do good science, but not at the expense of a family.

    • Jael says:

      Michelle, I’m exactly the same: I’m doing a phd in computer science, my man is doing a phd, too. I’d love to stay at university, I love research, but given that he wants to do the same, I’ve all but decided to go to industry, simply to be able to afford childcare. Even if he were prepared to make sacrifices in his career (work part-time/ move to university close to my job) and be the main child carer, to support my career, I don’t see how any of that would help me to stay in academia; fact is that children cost money and mean a reduction in publications, at least for a few months, which are exactly the two things I cannot afford at early stages in a university career.

  • Curt Rice says:

    Thanks for taking the time to share this, Michelle. It’s a classic story and exactly the kind of thing that makes me worry deeply about academia. How can we make it better?

  • EarlyToBed says:

    I’m an associate professor in the physical sciences at a research university. I juggle: a sizable research group, a lab, teaching, my (mostly male) colleagues, my teenage son, husband, family, friends. I drop a lot of balls but I also get to do a lot of wonderful things. I am surrounded by many brilliant and accomplished people.I get to learn new things every day. I strive to become a better scientist, better communicator, better mentor. I call my own shots for the most part. There is nothing about the job I have that would/should favor either gender. The skills involved are so multivariate, that many different types of people and styles of doing things can–and should–have a place. No, the job is not for everyone. But–if you’re a woman (or a man) and think you might want to stay in academia–please do! Do your best work, Take some risks. There is a lot of good work to do and fun to have. And then help us make it better for the next generations.

    • Hatch says:

      Early to bed, I agree with you, and love your positive comments. I’m a Professor in a Russell Group university, and I greatly enjoy my job in academia too. I juggle two children, a research group of about 13, many collaborations, fairly busy social life, and a significant admin load in my Institution. I don’t feel disadvantaged by being female and never have. I’m sure there are lots of us who feel like this but we stay quiet, we don’t complain, so our voices are rarely heard. My advice is to focus on the positives, recognise your career is as important as your partner’s and don’t place unrealistic expectations on yourself. Look at your own choices and how they affect your career progression, and don’t be too quick to blame external factors when things don’t always go to plan. This creates a negative outlook that can be counterproductive to women. Find good advisers, male or female, and be positive and helpful to all equally. If you want recognition then work hard and show your managers you are capable and it will come to you.

  • Early to bed, I know you say that women should hang on there, but it’s about the odds one has to go through.

    I also acutely feel that the requirements for a woman to be promoted seem to be much different from what a man needs to be promoted. I have found that simpering, flirtatious female colleagues do advance much more than those of us who dont have great looks to rely on or even if we do, would consider it unethical to use those assets !. The problem is that all these issues don’t have a forum for redressal.
    In India, caste and religion are two other big barriers – so if you are from a minority religion, an ‘inferior’ caste, and female, you can as well say goodbye to any hopes of a career. But the fun is in breaking all these boundaries and saying ” **** you too’. It pretty much works and more fun than simpering towards an upper caste, majority religion male boss !!!

  • Curt

    the solution lies in having a really honest good look at oneself and one’s organisation. At the end of the day, it is quite simply about attitudes and a sense of fairness and justice.

    These are simple enough concepts, but not enough of them to go around.

    Organisations that are self introspective and open to criticism are the ones that break these age old boundaries and barriers – not too many of them at all, but they do exist !!

    One lives in hope !!

  • Marie says:

    This is not my real name. I am actually afraid to use my real name or identify my institution. Suffice it to say I am a first year graduate student in a physical sciences department in the United States. It is the top in our country for this program. I’m an NSF Graduate Fellow and graduated summa cum laude from an Ivy League undergraduate institution. Today my first peer reviewed paper was accepted for publication in a major journal. By these measures I might have a chance at working in academia. For years it was my dream, until I got to grad school. It became very clear very quickly that wanting a family is taboo, unless you are a man. Four male graduate students are married; 2 have children. Two female graduate students are married; none have children. There are about equal numbers of men and women at the graduate level. Among the faculty, two of twenty-five are women. One of those has a child and she never discusses her family. Life is competitive and the boys are extraordinarily clique-ish. I realized sometime last quarter that the men were studying without me after meeting up to lift weights together. At a party recently a male professor noted that women who had children couldn’t possibly be good researchers.

    I don’t have all that many data points and most of my evidence is anecdotal. But I have a very strong gut feeling that wanting a family is not okay around here. My vagina is a career liability. I don’t even know if I want my PhD any more. Maybe I’ll just get my master’s and try my luck elsewhere. I think I made the wrong career choice, and I hope it isn’t too late. I’m afraid to talk about my husband. I’m afraid to coo at babies on campus. When grad school is hard, I start to think that no matter how hard I work, ultimately I’ll still be screwed when I have a kid. And if the choice is family OR a career in science, I choose a family. I want to believe both are possible and I have known women who did it. But there are so many structural barriers. I’m still young enough to try another career. I wish this wasn’t the choice.

    • Dan says:

      Hey Marie
      I don’t care how near the ‘top’ your institution is, it isn’t worthwhile staying with it – if you’re a good graduate student and you know this, then move to another institution, it sounds like the place is a male-stream bully nest. Do your ground research before you move on, though. Unfortunately, because you’re in the US this is probably going to be the case at many institutions, but I am sure there are some that foster a better culture than what you’re describing. I am a (male) graduate research coordinator for my school at an Australian university, and I can tell you that what’s happening to you would not be tolerated for one day at our university (though of course the gender issue is still there in a very much under-grounded format). One of my colleagues has been on maternity/parental leave for two years now (because of complications with her twins), whilst another has just taken another year (half of it paid) off to have her second child. Their positions are secure, and they can get on with what’s important in their lives in knowing that they have a job and can resume their careers when they get back. Most academics on my team are women, and equally with their male colleagues have been encouraged to complete further studies by the university and to build their research and scholarship of teaching profiles – they are given paid leave to do this! So women can develop their academic careers regardless of their family or parental status, it is possible! – it sounds like you’re in the wrong place, and I would encourage you to think of moving rather than throwing away your dreams just because the backward institution and the retards that you’re with are treating you in this way! Besides, why should another institution miss out on your talents if these nineteenth century troglodytes want to throw them away because of your gender? Don’t abandon your dreams, you’ll probably regret it one day.

  • Noriko Cable says:

    Academic job market (what I know) is quite saturated. There are numbers of studentship, but no academic jobs to follow because of funding cuts! Fellowships are competitive, and being awarded with a postdoc fellowship is needed for them to be successful in academia. Working on a PhD is NOT about getting a degree in the end. They have to be ‘groomed’ to be successful academic researchers (publication, user engagement, networking). How many of supervisors/mentors are actually passionate about taking their students forward? It is not all about gender inequalities here. Some are simply due to misunderstanding (or incapabilities in seeing the future) of supervisors/mentors.
    Here, I see a great opportunity for women researchers to be a supervisor for female PhD students to form a line of ally. It is all about supportive networks where members can help and nurture each other. And, it is our duty to form such academic networks without boundaries of academic disciplines, universities, or countries.

  • I was a chemist, and this is my story of why I left:

    I wish I’d been able to stay.

  • GA says:

    The conclusion that women go from being more likely than men to want to stay in academia to less, because of ‘female’ stereotypes like lack of competitiveness or put off by aggressive, child-less role models, is a bit easy and offensive. It also takes the responsibility off of the institutions and those in power and puts it on female PhD students. No one thinks its reasonable for an industry/field to become less competitive or implement girly-girl vs. butch female diversity measures- the suggestion is that women should fix their attitudes.

    What this and all academic institution investigations ignore is that they are exhibiting gender bias, whether they realize it or not- especially if they refuse to realize it! Women start out their PhD having been primarily students, an area where women excel (despite their supposed lack of competitive spirit) to primarily employees/researchers later in the PhD. This is where the gender bias really starts. Women see this, face constant subtle discrimination from people who consider themselves liberal and refuse to believe it…leading the woman to believe its just her and not gender bias.

    Its easy to guard against overt discrimination or blatant gender bias- women in science are on guard for this. But, the subtle discrimination and attitudes that go un-checked are harder to guard against and do the most damage. The fact that liberal academics are the least likely to see themselves and each other as biased makes it that much harder to overcome.

    • Curt Rice says:

      Most of what I write here is of the “fix the system” approach, where responsibility lands firmly on the institutions. I think your analysis about the transition from being a student to being a PhD candidate is right on target. Regarding subtle discrimination, you might like my piece on microaggression.

4 Trackbacks


I encourage you to republish this article online and in print, under the following conditions.

  • You have to credit the author.
  • If you’re republishing online, you must use our page view counter and link to its appearance here (included in the bottom of the HTML code), and include links from the story. In short, this means you should grab the html code below the post and use all of it.
  • Unless otherwise noted, all my pieces here have a Creative Commons Attribution licence -- CC BY 4.0 -- and you must follow the (extremely minimal) conditions of that license.
  • Keeping all this in mind, please take this work and spread it wherever it suits you to do so!