The leaky pipe of female academia

Thursday 2 August 2012
Allison Shaw

Dr Allison Shaw, who will join the Kokko Lab (EEG) later this year, and current RSB postdoc, Dr Daniel Stanton (Marilyn Ball Lab, PS), created a mathematical model to test the ‘leaky pipe’ of academia and determine what level of female academic representation we should expect to see.

“We used data collected over the past three decades by the United States National Science Foundation to compare our simulated ‘gender-difference free’ situation to the actual numbers,” says Dr Shaw.

They found that due to the time it takes to establish an academic career, current ratios of male to female academics may not yet reflect the social and legal steps that have been taken to ensure gender equality.

“Academics spend many years studying and researching before they can join a university's faculty, and this slow career is likely to create significant delays in how fast demographics change,” adds Dr Stanton.

However, even though the data still needs time to catch up, it’s not on track for reaching parity.

“We should be approaching equality now, but none of the scientific disciplines we measured were anywhere near that level of female representation amongst faculty, not even close to 40 per cent,” says Dr Shaw.

Their research identified two key times when women exit the academic pipeline: when undergraduates choose a major and applying for faculty positions post-PhD.

“The biggest loss of women comes between their PhD and faculty positions. In a handful of disciplines - mathematics and computer sciences, physics, engineering - there are also very few girls entering the field as undergraduates. However those undergraduates that do enter the field are more likely to continue to graduate school than their male peers,” explains Dr Stanton.

“Interestingly, the differences seem to be absent at some career transitions such as the granting of tenure. This adds to a body of work suggesting that any innate gender differences are minor at most,” notes Dr Shaw.

While this research sheds light on the ratio of men and women at various points in the academic career, more research is needed to understand why these differences exist. Dr Stanton says other studies suggest a number of reasons why women are less represented at higher academic levels “such as discrimination in hiring practices, fewer women than men actually applying for faculty positions, or unfriendly environments or workplaces that aren’t family-friendly.”

“It would appear that despite societal pressures, discrimination or unfavourable conditions, those women who do take up science careers are already pretty tough in their undergraduate years and remain so throughout their career.” Dr Stanton concludes.

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