Re-cap: Why do women leave STEM?

Why do women leave STEM? We asked this question for our Diversity JC discussion on April 22nd.

First, by framing the discussion using this question, we (mostly me– Ian), didn’t really think about the fact that many people who leave the traditional STEM path don’t necessarily go that far– often ending up in STEM-adjacent careers, and still considering themselves a part of STEM. Perhaps we should call it the expanded STEM universe (ESTEMU).

Yet the fact remains that there are real barriers for women in STEM – even the ESTEMU. It’s true in almost all professional careers to one degree or another; as we’ve pointed out before (for example the discussion here), this is a cultural problem broader than just STEM.

However, DiversityJC is squarely focused on STEM, and this discussion was on how, perhaps in particular to STEM fields, more women than average leave the traditional academic path of Ph.D. to postdoc to the Tenure Track (compared to other career paths). Though as Melanie pointed out, a key point is that this trend isn’t unique to just the tenure track, and as Needhi elaborated, it was also along more than just gender lines:

The point is, the culture in STEM fields remains narrow, almost always defining success by tenure, grants, and publications (and little else despite all the other things academics do), and the stereotypical scientist is still white and male (until people actually meet some scientists and realize we’re actually not any one thing, other than perhaps universally curious! Check #thisiswhatascientistlookslike). Fitting in to this culture can be very challenging when you don’t reflect conventional expectations or value something outside conventional goals. This especially impacts women – and minorities. There is evidence for hope, particularly in the life sciences where women are half of Ph.D.s and almost half of postdocs now. However, these trends have yet to translate into professorships or other leadership positions, and women are less likely to be tenured and more likely to be in adjunct level positions where they are paid less, and therefore incur more debt, than men – trends that are not changing (these are all, of course, in addition to the cultural problems present at the Ph.D. and postdoc levels, and beyond).

Despite its central place in the traditional definition of success we argue here, the tenure track is becoming less and less likely for the majority of scholars regardless of gender. This is certainly a contributing factor for some women leaving STEM. In addition to fewer positions, smaller pools of money also mean that even for those part of a major discovery early in their careers – CRISPR, say– where success may be more likely, it is still far from assured. Even if you’re a scientist who also contributes to op-eds to the New York Times and writes a book about your time in science, funding is still hard to come by:

Increasingly, successful scientists are also successful at getting money. Yet being “able to compete” often still means those central goals of tenure and publishing – areas where women also experience bias (like this crazy example). The poor economics of academia on top of implicit biases (etc) are a hard combination to deal with throughout ones career.

In addition, like attaining tenure, acquiring money only rewards certain types of success – and negates others, like working for social justice, engaging in outreach, or caring for family members. This tied in with the majority of our conversation: the definition of success in science is too narrow to be inclusive of other life goals and commitments, and in consequence excludes people, including women, from STEM.

What can be done? We must address the disparity in pay and reasons why the greater numbers of women in college aren’t translating to higher paid positions, as well as sexism, harassment, and assault. Support networks are also important and some in our discussion reported having good networks that include more than just their immediate advisors. Even a Twitter network can be a supportive place. Developing, engaging in, and sustaining these networks, across gender lines, can be hugely helpful moving forward.

In addition, from a broad perspective, our discussion collectively revealed a deeper truth: the present values of STEM aren’t broad or inclusive enough, and this does drive women, and minorities, from the field. Our discussion made clear there is a need for an expanded definition of what we value in STEM as a field, and what it means to succeed there. We need to do better at understanding and valuing the intersection of science and humanity – whether that is via interdisciplinary research, outreach and education, or social justice work. We also need to note that it’s not work-life balance, but it rather that scientists have lives. As part of this, it is critical we acknowledge that the previous narrative of the workaholic scientist is outdated – not only because we have lives, but also because it likely meant that scientist had a wife at home to support him.

Finally, as we mentioned and connected to these points, when women do leave STEM graduate schools, postdocs, or professorships, it seems they often don’t go too far– at least not right away. Once a scientist, always a scientist. We need to recognize that leaving the traditional academic track does not actually mean leaving STEM. Especially with fewer tenured jobs and available grants, it’s time we realize there is more we can do with a PhD in the ESTEMU– and beyond.

Join us on May 20, 2pm ET for our discussion. and subscribe to the DiversityJC newsletter to keep up with all of the Diversity JC topics! 

Ian Street (@IHStreet)

Doctor_PMS (@Doctor_PMS)

Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein)



Why do women leave STEM?

Reminder that you can be kept up to date and get #DiversityJC content delivered to you by subscribing to our newsletter that comes out 1-2x each month.

The #DiversityJC discussion will happen on Friday, April 22, from 2-3pm ET.

Last month, we talked about being being an ally.

This month we’re going to discuss a topic that follows on that and discuss why women leave their chosen career paths – in STEM or otherwise, as this is observed and studied beyond science.

Spoiler alert: it may well not be the reason you think. Compensation is a big factor, as it is for men.

Related to unfair compensation is of course, culture. A new study found that our common ideas about science, women, and men may mean we “perceive women as incompatible” with science. The exception to this was when the survey takers were at a women’s college where the bias disappeared. Think Progress has a write up of the study.

More evidence? Sure. Paige Jarreau recently wrote about how even facts can’t convince people about gender bias, citing a 2015 study that explored comments on Discover Magazine and the New York Times articles on studies demonstrating gender bias. While a majority of comments in the study were positive, those that were negative were really negative, and these, especially from men, simply denied the facts presented or justified the system as was (i.e. women aren’t “built” for science…).

Also recent and related, research has found women are penalized for promoting diversity. For men, it’s of no benefit, but does no harm either. This is yet another example that could well contribute to women leaving STEM. Even if allies exist, they may not be sufficient in a system with a lot of in-built biases as this story about Dr. Nettie Stevens, a 19th-20th century Geneticist shows. Stevens had at least one supportive ally in Thomas Hunt Morgan– a rock star of genetics as we might say today, but nowhere else.

This month on #DiversityJC, we’ll look collectively to this recent research and discuss findings, and ask – why do women leave STEM careers?

If you were a woman in STEM but left the traditional academic career path, what is your story for why/how you left?

How do you feel about it now?

If you are/were a woman in STEM, do the above studies and stories resonate with your experiences?

If you are/were a man working in STEM – do you see evidence, as well? What have you witnessed – and what of the experiences of your friends, colleagues, and significant others?

If facts aren’t sufficient, what else might work to promote inclusion in STEM?

Join us for the discussion on April 22, 2-3pm ET!





B.o.B says the Earth is flat…

By now you may be aware that hip-hop artist/rapper (I honestly don’t know if those are one and the same thing) had a long series of tweets about how the Earth is flat, citing “flat Earther” sources.

Neil Tyson, as he often does, stepped in to tell B.o.B that he was wrong about this particular issue.

And let me back up Tyson on this point: B.o.B is wrong. The Earth is round. So are the other planets (perhaps easier to confirm with another planet. Have B.o.B track the Galilean moons as they disappear and re-appear periodically as they orbit Jupiter…indicative of spherical nature of the planet itself– and planets generally).

However, I’d like to ask why B.o.B might feel that way, what makes him so suspicious of science (at least this science)?

In his tweets and his “Flatline” track he released today, there is a strong bent of conspiratorial thinking as well as invoking the idea that scientific knowledge is just another authority hiding the truth of the world.

I don’t know B.o.B.’s biography or his thoughts, but can imagine he faced a lot of bias, rationally learned not to trust authority, and did not feel welcome in the world of academia, seeing it as just another part of a racist/flawed society. So even if he were in school, hearing about science may have made him tune out the knowledge because he saw it as a questionable source.

This post may be reading too much into B.o.B.’s flat Earth beliefs, but may be indicative of why STEM has a diversity problem. It may be seen by those that might have entered it as just another institution where they are not welcome (as well as the fact that there aren’t many URM astronomers out there, Dr. Tyson aside). Admittedly B.o.B. has taken it a step further to also stating that no real knowledge can come from such an institution. Though, perhaps he is demonstrating some curiosity about the world and has incomplete information.

It’s sad that STEM seems to have failed– this is partly why inclusiveness and diversity matter. And though I’m sure B.o.B. has plenty to write about in his songs, it also seems like he’s limiting himself too. Unable to see the deep and wide universe from his flat Earth. He also may be unaware of times when science really can and does challenge authority. He might be interested in those stories.

Ian Street (@IHStreet).



If it’s outdated, it’s still voiced. Speak up: #DiversityJC recap.

This week in Diversity Journal Club, we had a discussion about the importance of addressing outdated comments and attitudes (like this and this). Both had such strong and negative responses – so did that mean we’ve moved on? That they might not really matter?

Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) and Ian (@IHStreet) got us started..

Should we indeed be paying attention to the outdated comments like those of Tim Hunt and Ask Alice? Should we just ignore them, wish they would evolve, or wonder how they didn’t know better? Perhaps we should be able to filter out these wrong opinions, given that it is hard to change, and that they do have deep expertise in some areas (Nobel prize = expertise). But…

Indeed. It can be difficult to filter someone, especially if the comments are not all that blatant. Subtle comments like microaggressions can be hard enough to even identify on their own. When it’s someone you respect and admire, subtle comments can be even more difficult to distinguish and weed out. Moreover, it’s not our responsibility to be someone’s filter – for our own sake or for a larger community, no matter how much you and others respect them. We also discussed this initial idea of it being comments of an “older generation” and if we give them a pass as being from a “different time” (my words). Several took issue with this “older generation” stuff – which is totally correct. Age and generation can mean nothing in these cases, and age is relative. We shouldn’t use age as a blanket clause either, basically. The reason I raised this “older” stuff is because I personally have avoided conversations and used this excuse – I wondered if others had as well, and if there was something to the “well that’s an outdated opinion, it’s not very important, look at the backlash, clearly we’ve come far from there, from that time.

So perhaps it’s not just me who has used this as an excuse?

So maybe I wasn’t the only one. But it is still an excuse. It also brought up an important point:


In the end, we’d more or less agreed age really wasn’t the issue, and learning was a two-way street. We also agreed that, no matter your age, these comments and attitudes do need to be addressed.

Yet these teachable moments can be really challenging.

In addition, as Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) pointed out, change can be tough and painful – and may not be worth our ATP. It may actually be problematic for us, especially as early career scientists, let alone draining. Ian (@IHStreet) reminded us you can’t be sure who is willing to change or be open to the discussion at the onset. On the other hand, as Ruthie (@ruthiepbirger) pointed out, initiating the conversation can be a good litmus test for how ingrained the attitude is, and how open the person is to further dialogue. But back to the first hand, Benjamin Carr (@BenjaminHCCarr) said some people are actively resistant to change.

And, yeah, as Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti) noted, people in leadership and power positions are often people of privilege. As others agreed, they are also the ones with the most control. Over us, over our careers…

I understand these challenges. I know it’s scary. I still think it’s critical. We have to say something. We can’t allow these comments to go unchallenged even when we don’t have twitter ready to back us up. Why? Because other people beyond you are listening. Because if they say it to you, they have said it to others. Because those others might be students, early career scientists, just getting their bearings. They may think statements like that are ok, or are hurt and demeaned by them. When we fail to speak up, we allow those statements to enforce especially unconscious biases and stereotypes of some, and allow others to have their self-worth undermined.



In addition, some listening don’t realize these comments, or their larger experiences, are due to bias and stereotypes and are not personal. Without someone speaking up or calling out, these can be internalized.

So how to go about addressing comments? Moreover, SometimesScienceSux (@SmtimScienceSux) questioned whether correcting someone would really change their mind – which begs the question if you can engage them in further dialogue beyond just the correction. Will they be open to it? Are you be prepared? Perhaps a gentle nudge, as Ian (@IHStreet) suggested, or offering your perspective on the comment, as V. Siva (@DrVidSiva) recommended. Ian (@IHStreet) further noted it’s likely easier if they know you personally, and I agree. I’ve had the most luck with heart-to-heart conversations. In addition, or if you don’t have a personal relationship to draw on, ask people questions, try not to just tell , find out what they think is behind what they’ve said or done. And remember what you learned in elementary school: use “I” statements. Wandering Scientist (@wandsci) also made a great suggestion:

It can be frustrating, especially as we do end up being the ones careful of our words. As Nicole Morgan (@coralnerd) said, for some reason, people can respond really negatively to something as simple and true as “I’m offended by that“, and Ruthie Birger (@ruthiebirger) reminded us about gaslighting and that we’ll like hear “you’re being too sensitive.” So be prepared. We also talked briefly about the need for a safe space to voice our thoughts – but how this isn’t always available. Ruthie Birger (@ruthiebirger) and I agreed that we can actually make spaces safer – when we feel comfortable, we should more apt to speak up about diversity, or share our own (like me being out as bi, even though I present as straight) to make spaces safer for others. Wandering Scientist (@wandsci) also noted that they are often taken more seriously when talking about racism, whereas they feel less comfortable talking about sexism. This likely has to do with when you have the privilege in a situation, so take advantage of that. If you don’t feel like you can speak about a subject, like racism if you’re white, simply ask questions about it – what your institution is doing – and raise other voices up to speak. We can also spend a little more time being introspective, and thinking about advice and feedback we get and how we take it. About how the feedback you’d give to would feel (do unto others…). And we should encourage others to do the same…

We still need support in speaking out. We still need a community to back us. It will always be scary, and you never know the impact or backlash that may come of it – there’s a reason we haven’t made as much progress and we should: paradigms are entrenched (that’s why they’re paradigms), old biases die hard. You never know when someone will take offense. We should think carefully about how we address these issues.

I think perhaps a real key is bringing up diversity well before it is a personal issue. Find out if your institution has a diversity statement, and if not why not. Initiate discussions around diversity, unconscious bias, and microaggressions. Talk to leadership about opening up these dialogues, or even bringing in speakers or doing workshops. You certainly don’t need an incident to start this dialogue – look to the increasing body of literature on this as a problem (some here on this blog), or the many, many incidents in the news these days (oh where to start… #BlackLivesMatter, on campus sexual assault..).

Don’t want to start out negative? You don’t need to! There’s also more and more research about how diversity helps us all and why it is critical. You can start talking about diversity as a strength, in terms of so many things from problem solving to attracting new talent. Start there!

No matter your tactic, start before an incident – even if leadership is iffy, I promise you, there is someone, likely many someones, quietly thanking you for your forward thinking. And just imagine the next generation.

Additional links shared by the group included

From Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti): Six Tings You Can Do When People Say Stupid Sexist Shit To You

From Ben Carr (@BenjaminCarr): Stories of sexism in science: ‘sorry about all the women in this laboratory’

Thank you to everyone who participated (as usual in no particular order, and please let us know if someone was missed)!

Ruth Hufbauer ‏(@hufbauer)
Ruthie Birger (@ruthiebirger)
SometimesScienceSux (@SmtimScienceSux)
Ben Carr (@BenjaminCarr)
V. Siva (@DrVidSiva
Wandering Scientist (@wandsci)
Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti)
Nicole Morgan (@coralnerd)
Cassie (@mosquito_chaser)
Dr. Q (@DrQualls)
Dr. Wrasse (@labroides)

Until next time!

Emily (@DrEmilySKlein)
Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS)
Ian (@IHStreet)

Student evaluations – how bias shows up when you’re just trying to get some honest feedback.

This week’s Diversity Journal Club (#DiversityJC), we discussed student evals and bias

What’s in a name? In student reviews of their professors, something that can be important for improving your teaching and potentially for your institution, do they rate men better?

Is this just another way in which bias manifests? Is this study just another example of the way we all bring stereotypes to bear in our everyday lives?

Ian Street (@IHStreet) further wondered if student evaluations of their professors might be a “particularly keen” way to identify implicit bias, because students rarely spend much time on them – they’re answered quickly and on impulse (I remember them being administered generally at the end of class, for instance).

And it’s not along gendered lines just for the students

Agreed. We are all subject to culturally constructed biases. As Ruth Hufbauer (‏@hufbauer ) pointed out, “the bias goes both ways.” Simply because we below to one group or another does not mean that we are immune to them.

Student reviews of teaching may be a clear indicator of bias, but they’re also another example of how that bias affects us. These evaluations are used by professors – and sometimes by schools. While not used in every institution and sometimes only in extreme cases. They still can mean something.


Biased student evaluations could be harmful beyond just the individual, too.

Are student evaluations really a tool we should be using? Kim Hannula (‏@stressrelated) and Anne Jefferson (‏@highlyanne) noted they didn’t think they were useful to identify good teaching, but perhaps to denote really bad teaching or inappropriate behavior. R. Deborah Overath (‏@scienceknitster) agreed that they weren’t a good metric – but raised the question of what to use in their place? Because even if they aren’t used heavily by a school, student feedback remains very important to professors who want to improve.

Moreover, they do have impacts on professors beyond giving incorrect information instead of helpful feedback. In a profession where we are already critiqued by our peers, negative feedback that has no real basis in teaching ability can be really impactful –

I’d say this is probably even more problematic for someone early in their careers (or is that just me?).

To work on the problem of evaluations, Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer) shared some ideas she had on evaluations: giving one to students that she read, and one she said went to her boss.

Others agreed that student evaluations needed to be improved, and some shared ideas on how to do that, such as evals designed specifically for each class (Anne Jefferson, @highlyanne), and as before and after “quizzes” (Ruth Hufbauer, @hufbauer). In response to bias in evals in particular, Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci) recommended institutions stay informed on the research, and use it to improve the format and content of evals, e.g. to be very careful about wording and phrasing. AnalyticallyFabulous ‏@analyticallyfab noted an easy one: throw out any comment about appearance (this sounds a bit silly, but I can only imagine just how important this small step probably is!). Later, Abhi (@abhichand) noted:

Regardless of the method or how to address the evals themselves, the issue still remained. As Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) reminded us…

In addition – stereotypes go well beyond gender!

And this makes for a really, really complicated picture.

And we’re back to understanding this study, and that similar conclusions would result if you could look along other stereotypes, as another to demonstrate how bias infiltrates how we live our lives and the actions we take.

And this, my dear twitter friends, is what we’re all here for and it’s not a problem we’re going to solve in an hour.

But we can start talking about it – and student evaluations are one way to really start doing that. In my opinion, they actually provide a really clear example of stereotypes that might prove useful for starting the conversation, and starting initiatives that get at the systemic problem…

Even if it’s tough, and even if it will take time, and those initiatives are about way more than student evaluations.

Moreover, as Laura Williams (@MicroWavesSci) further pointed out, faculty collectively need to be on board, and I’d add the administration too. I think this collective effort is critical, and Laura also noted that students need to hear about bias and its implications and importance in many classes. It needs to be a collective and repeated statement. In addition, there can be ways to get students thinking about bias as it pertains specifically to their evaluations.

Although, again, this would likely be far more effective if part of a larger conversation about bias that was happening at that institution. Part of education, and of a message students had heard and discussed before.

For me, this was another reason to have these conversations and to study bias with students as part of their education – as early as possible, certainly, but at the very least in college. We all arrive on campus as children, and leave looking forward towards being adults (or maybe you were one – I still had some ways to go). It’s where we screw around and screw up and learn on our own – where we discover, hopefully, what we want to do with our lives. Why not also start learning about being socially responsible too? At the very least, it might give your professors some more productive and real feedback.


Finally, a few articles shared by the group:

Dynamic Ecology on teacher evaluations: “Evaluating Teaching
NPR Blog “If Your Teacher Likes You, You Might Get a Better Grade

Another reference in response to how the RateMyProfessor tool has been reported came out after the convo, but is also of interst!

Thank you all for another great discussion, those that joined and just followed along! As always – hope I got everyone, let me know if I spelled anything wrong or missed any body. Give these kids a follow and hope to see you all at the next one!

Ian Street (@IHStreet)
R. Deborah Overath (@scienceknitster)
Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer)
Anne Jefferson (@highlyanne)
Rebecca Pollet (@rmpollet)
Kim Hannula (@stressrelated)
Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci)
Amy Lossie (@ilovepigenetics)
AnalyticallyFabulous (@analyticallyfab)
Abhi (@abhichand)
V. Siva (@DrVidSiva)
Cassie (@mosquito_chaser)
K.A. Woytonik (@SonicWoytonik)
And even… PinkGlitteryBrain (@aiquintero) just under the wire! 😉


Please leave any additional thoughts or questions in the comments – or if you have more to say, consider writing up a guest blog and we’ll post it!

Til next time kids!

Emily (@DrEmilySKlein)
Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS)