The pipeline isn’t leaky

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 goingWomen 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.




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32 Responses to The pipeline isn’t leaky

  1. dr24hours says:

    I’m definitely grateful that no matter what path I choose, I’m not described as failing my gender or my race or whatever. That seems an awful and unfair burden to bear.

  2. Scientists most always have to be doing science (in some form) to be happy. So as long as they get to leak out to some other fulfilling science career–let the gush begin. But all too often I see women scientists giving up on their careers and dreams altogether ending up in a puddle and not another pipe. So do away with the metaphor…but we still have work to do on equity of opportunity.

    • biochembelle says:

      One issue is the narrow interpretation of “doing science”. There’s a lot of that outside academia and even outside of being directly engaged in research (e.g. I have no desire to stay at the bench long-term, but I can find other ways to do the part of science that I love and got me started on this path in the first place).

      I think there’s plenty of work to be done, with regard to equity of opportunity – generally but especially in academia. It feels like much of the focus, though, is on what women are doing wrong, as opposed to the culture and the system. And along the way, the culture makes other paths seem less legitimate.

  3. kdel09 says:

    While I agree that “leaky” runs the risk of connoting that women who leave are “drips”, I think the metaphor admits the fact that there are problems with the infrastructure of academic science. Leaks point to a flaw in the system – they happen in unexpected places where pressure builds up and water has to escape. Many women leave because they find more fulfilling paths outside of science. However, I think there are still women who get squeezed out under actual or foreseen pressures that make work/life balance unattainable in academia.

    • Yes, this. Academia is better off when women don’t leave it. (Industry is better off when women join it.) From the perspective of academia, we want to stop women from being driven out. Not because going into industry is a failure for the woman or that she should feel guilty for choosing not to stay in academia (because industry can certainly use more women scientists as well), but because when women are driven out of academia, academia loses.

  4. Rebecca says:

    I “leaked” earlier than most of the women you’re talking about – I never even started a graduate program in science. I majored in science as an undergrad, and for a long time I was seriously interested in research as a career, but ultimately I went on to a master’s degree program in environmental education and now happily work for a non-profit. A big part of what turned me off of research was the poor mentorship I received in that area through most of my time as an undergrad, working with an (older, male) professor who regularly did things like fail to show up for scheduled meetings with me. Anyway, as a “drip” who still loves science but has found happiness in another career, thanks for writing this post!

  5. Thanks for articulating this thought better than I have managed to so far. One of the biggest selling points of doing a science degree, especially physics, is that you gain such good skills “you can do whatever you want to”. Those were word my careers advisor said when, in the last year of my Masters, I went for a careers interview. Now, coming towards the end of my PhD I decided I finally know what I want to do: enthuse young people about science and maths. However, because I read so much about Women in STEM, I feel like I’m letting the side down by leaving. I’m capable and willing to do research as a career, it’s just not what I want to do. I shouldn’t feel guilty about it!

    • Although I do realise that a lot of people probably leave academia for other reasons other than they want to do something else – it remains a question whether this effect is greater for women rather than men, or some other reason. I agree we need to think about where all the women go. There must be information out there on the careers of post-masters and post-phd people, universities usually try to keep track of these things.

      • biochembelle says:

        “…universities usually try to keep track of these things.”

        You’d be surprised. NSF collects quite a bit of data, but IME, it becomes daunting to pull out relevant info beyond their biennial report, which – and I’m not sure whether it should come as a surprise or not – highlights employment in professor positions.

        The problem for universities is keeping track of people after they depart. And for postdocs, it becomes even more complicated since there’s no uniform designation – sometimes even within institutions.

  6. Stephen says:

    Pamela cautiously advises a carreer in astronomy. While the number of slots is small, the skills you build heading in that direction are useful elsewhere. As one who has done little (but not zero) directly with my degree, i have to agree.

  7. I agree that referring to a ‘leaky pipeline’ in academia can make other careers seem like you’re ‘wasting talent’. I prefer it’s use when talking about STEM careers as a whole, rather than just academia: although women constitute a fairly large proportion of undergraduate and postgraduate STEM students, many move on to work below their level of qualification, work in a non-STEM field, or become unemployed or economically inactive. Whilst not making any judgements about these alternative paths, it remains true that high-level training in STEM careers is costly, so it is a shame to lose such a large number of talented people from fields, especially when there are concerns about current and future skills shortages in these areas. So from a policy stand-point, I do think that it is a ‘leaky pipe’ that needs to be fixed: not to diminish the value of alternative careers, but to ensure that if women want to progress in STEM careers to the highest ranks, they can do this without being impeded by cultural or institutional barriers.

  8. Oh dear. Please excuse the use of “it’s” in the second sentence. The hideous use of the apostrophe was due to chopping and changing the text.

  9. biochembelle says:

    I’ll admit to the use of a little hyperbole with the title. There are certainly issues with equity – though again a large focus is on academia. (In fact, I’ve written on this recently with a <a href=""repost at CENtral Science. I would be really interested to hear more about how this is playing out in other sectors, as well.

    That being said, I still think we need to consider how we phrase it – moving the focus from pushing women through to a particular endpoint, instead thinking about how to open up the system and make it more broadly supportive while also encouraging women. And in general, I think, in academic training phases, we need to start thinking more broadly about training for science careers.

  10. I definitely agree with that – as a PhD student, I get the impression that it’s unwise to openly explore options outside of academia – as if this will mean that if I do choose to go into research, employers will somehow think that I’m less committed to the job. This might just be my flawed perception, but I do think that referring to the ‘leaky pipeline’ as a phenomenon in academia in particular, rather than STEM fields as a whole, can encourage these really unhelpful thoughts!

    Anyway, really interesting post – it’s definitely got me thinking!

  11. behrfacts says:

    I’ve never been a fan of the term ‘pipeline’ particularly with respect to STEM. A report by a NI STEM advisory group of a few years back ( talked about a STEM education artery and when at the Royal Society we used the term ‘pool’ to describe potential future scientists. Perhaps it’s time to move on?

  12. Elena Bennett says:

    Thanks for writing this. I believe this issue of where women are going and why is a (the?) critical one. Sometimes the pipeline *is* leaky — women who truly want on the academic path aren’t making it for one reason or another. But many times, women are simply seeking out better options, opportunities that fit better with overall life goals, or that allow them a bigger, better, or more interesting impact than academia would. The key, it seems to me, is distinguishing between those who are going on to do other kinds of awesome and are happy about that, and those who feel unhappily pushed out. And then making those who are doing any kind of awesome work feel like part of the pipeline, while still adjusting the system so those who want in academia can get there. (Some flexibility in moving between the two wouldn’t hurt, either.)

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  14. Lindsay says:

    I’ve never thought about it that way, but you’re right — a successful career in the sciences doesn’t have to mean academic research, and “leaky pipeline” discourse assumes that it does. I can see how that would make women who do have successful careers in the sciences, but not in academia, feel like they’re letting the side down, and it shouldn’t.

    At the same time, I’m glad there *is* a “leaky pipeline” discourse because there is a lot of sexism in the STEM parts of academia, and I think it’s largely invisible sexism that people won’t see unless we give them numbers like “out of ### women getting undergraduate degrees, ### stay on to do Ph.D.s, ### do post-doctoral work and ### become tenured professors.” Maybe what we need is a more specific way of arriving at those numbers, such that women who are doing kickass science outside of academia aren’t counted as failures of science education.

    And, of course, “leaky pipeline” discourse should focus the discussion on what institutions are doing wrong that makes it so much harder for women to navigate them, not on what women are doing wrong.

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  16. Acclimatrix says:

    Thanks for this post. I still like the leaky pipeline metaphor, and here’s why:

    Pipes aren’t usually straight. They fork, have turns, and different flow paths. There can be multiple options, and I absolutely agree that those all need to be respected, validated, and given adequate training for. A woman who leaves the STEM pipeline because her goals are education, for example, merely heads down another pipe. But leaks, to me, are fundamentally different than taking a different path. They’re caused by weak places in the pipleine– faulty gates, clogged areas, intentional or unintentional filters, holes, etc. A person may be a drip and not be a failure — but they may have been failed by the system (the pipeline).

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  19. biochembelle says:

    “Pipes aren’t usually straight. They fork, have turns, and different flow paths… But leaks, to me, are fundamentally different than taking a different path.”

    I agree with you on both points, Acclimatrix. But, IME/O, the pipeline discourse (a) doesn’t take into account other flow paths or (b) doesn’t distinguish between different paths taken by choice and those forced out (granted, I think it’s very difficult to distinguish those differences, in general). The pipeline metaphor has its uses, but I think there should be a shift in how it’s used – expanding to more than just academia and shifting the focus off individuals and onto the systems at large.

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