It doesn’t take long in science to hear the questions. Why are women in science leaving academia? Why are they leaking out of the pipeline?
Periodically there’s something that makes me think about the language we use. The more it comes up, the more I think about it, the more I feel like we need to change how we talk about women in science and where we land.
This simple pondering seemed to resonate with many people. So what’s the problem with how we’re framing the situation?
The pipeline metaphor contributes to the perception that, regardless of claims to the contrary, there is one respectable endpoint for scientists – tenure track research. Never mind that it’s utter bullshit. That it’s utterly unreasonable. That only 1 in 6 PhDs will reach that point. Discussions of the leaky pipeline almost invariably focus on the lack of women in tenure track positions.
When a woman doesn’t pursuit the tenure track, she “leaked out” of the pipeline. Consider that terminology for a moment and the connotations it carries. When you have a leak in a pipe in your house, you have to fix it. If you don’t fix it, that leak can cause all sorts of problems – water damage to sheet rock, wood rot, mold. When we say that women leak out of the pipeline, it can sound as if we’re saying that they are making the wrong decisions, ones that are harmful to science. It’s almost as if we want women to feel guilty about leaving the academic track.
Many women internalize the mentality. One postdoc commented she wasn’t sure “whether to stay in the game or leak from the pipe[line]”. Regardless of whether the academic research track is what we want, regardless of whether we can imagine finding career happiness elsewhere, regardless of how often we try to remind ourselves (and one another) that there is exciting and worthwhile science-related work outside the tenure track, we can still oft find ourselves fighting the feeling that, if we walk away from academia, we’re giving up on science, failing the establishment.
Many scientists, men and women both, experience this sense of guilt and failure when considering or pursuing careers outside academia and especially outside research. But I think that there might be an added weight for women. There’s such a tremendous focus on women “dropping out” on the way up the academic ladder, and we observe the resultant reality every day. Success on the tenure-track (or lack thereof) becomes a women’s issue. And if we choose a different path, we become another number for the statistics. Another leak, another drip. Not only do are we a failure to the scientific establishment, we’re a failure to women.
Admittedly this might be a hyperbolic response. It’s certainly not a necessarily a weight that we (consciously) carry with us every day. But I suspect that, for many of us, a similar idea is there, percolating under the surface. We’ve experienced or heard stories of PIs expressing disappointment because a female trainee chose another path over academia, because she chose family over career, because she had the talent but lacked the confidence to stay in the pipeline. All the while the focus is on women leaving.
Maybe it’s time we started reframing the conversation.
Maybe we should start taking more time to talk about women are going. Women who leave the path of academic research don’t simply disappear. They’re not drips absorbed by the walls or the soil. They go places. They do things – cool, interesting, exciting, valuable things! Let’s talk about those things. Let’s celebrate those paths and discuss how and why they chose them.
This is not to say that we should stop working toward parity in academia. It’s an important issue, but I think the conversation can inadvertently take the tone of “What’s wrong with the women?”. I think there needs to be more consideration of institutional practices, implicit biases, and departmental environments. But as we have these discussions about women in academia, we need to take care that we don’t devalue women’s desires to pursue other careers as well.
It’s time to acknowledge that the pipeline isn’t linear. It’s divergent. The branches are numerous. The women who choose another path aren’t leaking out. They’re choosing other adventures.
You can check out other Twitter responses to the “leaky pipeline” metaphor here.