Why women leave academia and why universities should be worried

Facebook is not only a good forum to keep in contact with friends and family, or to post more or less strange pictures and videos, but also a source of information that would otherwise be easily overlooked. One of my FB friends recently posted a link to a page in the Guardian, where Curt Rice , the vice president for research at the University of Tromsø in Norway discussed why many more women than men leave academia.

Curt’s short summary is based on a report made for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK. The bottom line of this report is that women, during their time as PhD students, realize that an academic career is unappealing, that the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate and that the sacrifices they will have to make are too great.

Percentage of first year PhD students, who express an interest in an academic career in industry or academia:
72% women
61% men

Percentage of third year PhD students, who plan for an academic career in industry or academia:
37% women (12% of these would like to chose a university career)
59% men (21% of these would like to chose a university career)

This means that 88% of the female PhDs and 79% of the male PhDs don’t even envisage an academic career at a university! What are the reasons for this? And which negative aspects do the PhD students cite?

The constant hunt for funding for research projects seems to be one of the reasons for both men and women. However many more women than men find academic careers too competitive, solitary and all-consuming. Many female PhD students also find the idea of post-doc years unattractive, since it means moving frequently from one university to another without any security regarding future jobs. Moreover they think that success in academia comes with great sacrifice and that women who have had success are childless, aggressive and competitive, i.e. display typical masculine characteristics. This statement actually reminds me vividly of a conversation I once had with PhD students many years ago, whom I had reminded that they would need to work a bit harder if they want to succeed in academia. The answer I got was: “Who wants to become like you?”

Below I copy/paste from Curt Rice’s well-written text from the Guardian:

Universities will not survive as research institutions unless university leadership realises 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?

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