Where Do the Women Scientists Disappear To?

“I have a great deal of work, what with the housekeeping, the children, the teaching and the laboratory, and I don’t know how I shall manage it all.” ~Dr. Marie Curie

Obviously, Marie Curie did manage it all since she went on to become the first woman to win a Nobel Prize (in both Physics and Chemistry), but not all women seem to succeed at juggling it all.

Women, more than ever, have the opportunity to do whatever they want career-wise.  We are being encouraged to follow math and science oriented careers and are often given great opportunities.  It seems a lot of women are taking society up on this challenge and majoring in subjects like natural science, economics, and mathematics more than ever.  I’d say at least 30% of the people I started my career with are women.  What I have lately felt compelled to explore is the reason women seem to eventually leave the career though.  Why is the top tier of my industry only about 5% women?  Is society missing out on some of the most important intellect it has ever developed for some reason that can be addressed?

I haven’t really worked in another profession or industry, so I am curious if other women who are in technical or scientific fields tend to notice this same pattern.  I’d also be curious to know if women in more female-dominated careers have noticed anything like this?  Based on my outside observation, I would venture to say it’s not as commonplace there.  So allow me to explore the field I do know about.

Working as a corporate scientist, I can’t help but notice when I look around during the scientific presentations that there are only about 10% of us present that are females.  When I take a closer look at the women that are present, it seems that half have not yet had children.  I’ll first explore this half without kids.

Of those that end up leaving the profession before they have children, why did they go and where did they go?  Most of these women seem to leave this field to pursue professions or a lifestyle that somehow helps people and/or encounters less male-dominated ego posturing. This could be interpreted to suggest that women find other careers or ways of life more satisfying than science.  Or perhaps there is some undermining that goes on subconsciously in the minds of both males and females that creates a hostile work environment for women in this profession.  I wonder if there is some lack of satisfaction women encounter because of their job as a scientist and if they are able to find it elsewhere (as a teacher, stay-at-home mother, healthcare, etc.).  I don’t know the answer.

Of the half of the women I work with that do have children, a significant proportion of them have husbands who are the primary caregiver. The women in my profession who take care of the “traditional” domestic obligations as well as the more tradtionally masculine role of being the “breadwinner” are a very small proportion.   I could interpret this to mean that being a mother and being a top scientist aren’t particularly compatible (unless someone has family or a father/partner and/or nanny to be the primary caregiver for their child).

Many women do leave the profession around the time they start a family.  So if the timing of their exit is coincident with child-rearing I would venture to say, based on observations, that for a woman to be top-performing among her male peers and to be a happy and satisfied scientist, she feels she can not also be all the parent she wants to be.

Does child-rearing cause a woman to suddenly lose the energy, interest, and commitment to invest the brain power in performing good science and working in a competitive environment because biology requires her attention is somewhere else?  Do repeated failings (usually accompanied with snarky comments) in this competition eventually wear down her spirit so that she finally decides to screw it all?

Every stop toward starting a family might cause a woman to fall a little further back.   Perhaps I shouldn’t admit this publically, but I can’t tell you how many hours of work I’ve lost wondering if I was pregnant (15 of 30 days every month), being pregnant, miscarrying, and feeling shitty and hormonal.  And that’s months before real motherhood duties appear! Then mothers go on to go through the exhausting ordeal of labor.  They spend the next year physically and mentally wiped out from lack of sleep and adjusting to motherhood or a new member to the family, and possibly pumping or breasfeeding numerous times throughout the day. Their relationships with their spouses change, their relationships with their parents change, and their relationships with other women change. So I understand how commitment to work and important facts slip away; these same facts that the male counterparts always have at the ready to use as speaking points in meetings and in debates.

Is there something that can be done about this?  Do women want something done about it or do they find happiness when they move on and stop caring? Is our system failing because women who invested so much time and passion in to a profession suddenly realize their needs as women/mothers cannot be accommodated?  Are our companies and professions missing out because women are leaving positions that could have been great ways to bring something different to a male-dominated environment just as they are getting started?

I am not meaning to put down the hours men spend worrying about these same things or attending to starting a family.  I know a lot of men invest a lot of time and help with these things.  Biologically speaking, though, it is the woman that is responsible for the lion’s share of having a child.  And it is more often a woman whose self -esteem might suffer if her job doesn’t somehow involve helping people.

I worry about what will happen for me professionally when I have a baby.  Did I make a mistake pursuing something that isn’t very accommodating for women who want to do both?  Is there something inherent in femaleness that make the vast majority of women want to pursue careers that are somehow related to caregiving or provide flexible hours?  Have I screwed myself?  Is that the only reason for the lack of women in my work environment?

Sometimes I feel a frustration too that many of the highly successful men at work have someone devoted to taking care of their home and their children and, frankly, of them.  I have very seldom known a high performing man that didn’t have someone else taking care of him.  These guys are able to focus only on earning during the day while the woman takes care of the matters of the home.  He is throwing his energy in to performing well at work.  He has his role.  It makes me wish I had a stay-at-home wife!  How can I compete with this?

So I’m confused.  I feel pride and excitement about my career because I’m doing what I’m good at.  But is it sustainable if I were to be blessed with pregnancy?  How do I reconcile my feminism with feelings that are, I hope not misogynistic, but steeped in what society has considered to be typical roles for males and females.  Are my chances of me being ultra successful and respected in my career limited if being a devoted mother with a working spouse is also in the cards?

I don’t know the answers to these questions but I think about it a lot, mull it around and try and sample the people I know.  I would be very thankful for any comments or insights on this  – whether through life experiences in parallel but different fields or to learn about personal decisions (or forced situations) and how they did or didn’t work.  What was sacrificed, what was gained, and what might you have done differently knowing what you know now?

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