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I posted another piece about this issue yesterday. The discussion about the gender imbalance in science is finally gaining some traction. The piece below discusses the findings from a small piece of research (by Rotem Ben-Shachar, a fourth-year student in the Computational Biology and Bioinformatics graduate program at Duke University) on why women are less likely to pursue and advance in science careers. The findings are supported by other research.

When I look around the offices of the Duke Biology building where I work, I see graduate students working fervently on data analysis, finishing papers, or writing grant proposals—and the majority of these students are female. Throughout my academic training, never have I felt out of place because of my gender, even though the majority of my courses were in math and statistics—classes, as new research confirms, that are dominated by men.

And yet, I am often insecure about my abilities as a female scientist.

I’m not alone. Female scientists across the country are leaving prestigious paths. At each stage of the scientific ladder—undergraduate to graduate to postdoc—more women than men leave the academic sciences, a phenomenon that has been termed “the leaky pipeline.” In 2010, The National Science Foundation reported, women earned 49 percent of doctoral degrees in all science, engineering, and health fields. But they held just 39 percent of postdoctoral positions and 32 percent of full-time faculty positions. This national trend is echoed in the Duke biology department. From 2003–2013, 54 percent of Ph.D. graduates were female, yet 28 percent of these women left academia, compared to only 20 percent of men.

The reason for the “leaky pipeline” is a combination of social, cultural, and psychological factors—but they all contribute to a confidence gap that plagues female scientists, just as acutely as it plagues other professions. A recent survey of 193 graduate students in STEM fields at Duke showed that women consistently underestimate their abilities compared to men. In this study, Psychologist Lindsey Copeland found that 41 percent of men indicated that it is “definitely” true they have good technical skills (defined as the knowledge and abilities needed to accomplish mathematical, engineering, scientific, or computer-related duties), compared to only 11.5 percent of women.

Based on interview evidence, Ben-Shachar concludes that family commitments (perceived, predicted or actual) are more likely to affect women than men and more likely to interrupt women’s science careers:

[…] The persistence of this type of attitude largely derives from the persistence of gender-based norms relating to career and family. Female scientists, says psychologist Alysson Light, may be more inclined to sacrifice their careers for the sake of their partners’ because women tend to define themselves in terms of their relationships more than men do. And research by psychologist Bernadette Park has shown that women perceive conflict between their work roles and parenting roles, while men, comparatively, do not.

She further concludes that gender stereotypes and expectations affects women scientists, and that they are less well mentored (than their male colleagues) and less confident in their abilities as scientists (emphasis added):

In many of the interviews I conducted for this piece, I saw evidence of these gender-based norms among my colleagues. When Duke biology professor Kathleen Pryer was a graduate student at Duke in the early ’90s, she was told by a male professor that women should be at home baking cookies, not messing around in the lab. While much improved, Pryer says the academic environment for women in the sciences is still more difficult than for men. Hertweck says that colleagues complain that she is too harsh when she gives strong feedback. Yet, if Hertweck is emotional, she says, people don’t know how to react. Beth Sullivan, a professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke, told me she was close to leaving academic science at a moment of personal distress; it was only because of a fierce and supportive mentor that she remained. Yet Sullivan points out that this is rare. “Women are not mentored as well as men,” Sullivan says. “Men get supported very differently. Women have to ask, but men typically get mentored without asking.” […] The lack of self-confidence among female scientists ultimately stems from a conflict between the stereotypes associated with a woman’s role in society and a woman’s perception of herself as a scientist.

On New Republic.

Why There Aren't More Top Female Scientists: The Leaky Pipeline