Why do women leave academia after completing a PhD?

Woman holding baby and writing at a desk
While women during a relatively short time span work to build a career as well as have children, men at the same age can focus on their career. This is a contributing factor to many women leaving academia after completing a PhD.Foto: istock / FatCamera

KNOWLEDGE AT KRISTIANIA: Women in academia

The proportion of women in academia progressively decreases with advancing career stages. This phenomenon is known as the «leaky pipeline», meaning that women are «leaking out» of the academic pipeline.   

It affects all research fields. However, the problem is particularly accentuated within Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – the STEM disciplines. 

 

Table showing the decrease in number of female academics at the higher the level.
The above table shows the ratio of female to male at STEM (FTE), Radboud University in the Netherlands in 2014. Starting with 35% female to 65% male at PhD-level, the number decreases to 11% female to 89% male at the highest level of permanent position.

The number of female candidates dramatically decreases from master’s to PhD, and continues declining at the postdoc/researcher level, reaching the lowest point at full professorship.  

The higher the level, the lower the percentage of women – it’s a lose-lose game 

Although the number of female candidates reaching PhD-level is higher than the number of male candidates, the reduction slope for women in academia intensifies at the higher levels, as shown in the figure below.

It is the opposite for men.

So, we have two lines showing male and female numbers in the career path crossing each other, creating a further distance at the highest academic level, giving a scissor-shaped curve. 

Figure showing decline in women in academia, while the number of men increases - forming a scissor-shaped curve.
The Leaky pipeline shows a scissor-shaped curve representing the percentage of women and men in academic careers in Switzerland and the European Union in 2016.

The numbers are different from one discipline and university to another. However, the slope remains. 

Metaphorically, women are being cut away from the high end of the academic career development path. So the question is, are we losing something here? 

The clear answer is: Yes.  

And this is serious for several reasons: 

  • We lose the benefits of gender balance. 
  • It is against UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance (ESG) objectives. 
  • It means we fail at equality and fairness. 
  • It represents a loss of talent and diversity in academic fields. 
    Toktam Ramezanifarkhani
    Toktam Ramezanifarkhani is an associate professor in cybersecurity. Her education, research and working efforts are eagerly dedicated to information security in general and aspects of cybersecurity. Ramezanifarkhani’s research interest is the wide area of theory to practice, such as software security, application and language-based security, vulnerability analysis, penetration tests, IoT security, and formal methods in information security to human aspects.

    Why are we losing women from academia at the higher level?   

    Several factors cause this problem. There are biological factors, as well as cultural factors. Biologically, women have age limitations for fertility, which unfortunately tend to match the career development period in academia.   

    So, while young men aged 25-45 can focus on achieving success in their careers, especially at the PhD-level and after its completion, women must also consider maternity. 

    Women also tend to consider themselves more successful when they manage to foster several aspects of life in this short time; starting a family, giving birth to a suitable number of kids with good age differences, and raising them, while at the same time remaining healthy, youthful and physically attractive, as well as pursuing a successful career.

    Society and culture tend to expect the same from a woman.  

    Men, on the other hand, are not to the same degree expected to expand the other aspects of life during this age period such as achieving “settled paternity” while pursuing a successful career at the top stages in academia.  

    While all researchers may face well-known syndromes such as imposter syndrome and depression, female researchers struggle to succeed in various areas of life during a relatively short time slot.  

    As a result, women often struggle to progress in their careers and are more likely to leave academia altogether at the last career development phases. 

    If academia itself is not the direct cause by actively pushing female researchers out through exaggerated expectations of publications, supervision, teaching, etc., academia is no doubt losing them. The numbers are clear. 

    Biology, society, and culture combined create the leaky pipeline problem for women in academia, resulting in the scissor-shaped curve, revealing the dramatic difference between male and female careers within academia. 

    What can be done?  

    Historically there have been many attempts at gender equality measures within many professional areas, with no exception in academia. One example is giving women priority when hiring in cases where two applicants have equal expertise.

    However, academic women must gain competence, survive in academia, and apply to reach the hiring step. Hence, rather than waiting for a hiring opportunity, academia should create incentives that fit female researchers better to prevent them from “leaking out” of academia.

    Apart from broadening the hiring strategies, the rules of promotion should be changed in order to keep valuable female researchers who are eager scientists for the future.  

    Considering that the biological, social, and cultural expectations are different for women and men, how can we justify the rules and processes being the same? 

    It is crucial to address this issue not only to provide equal opportunities for women but also to promote diversity and excellence in academic research and teaching.  

    Let’s not lose PhD women in academia, as they are the low-hanging fruits! 

    Author: Toktam Ramezanifarkhani, Associate professor, School of Economics, Innovation and Technology

    References:  

    Fox, M. F. (2010). Gender, family characteristics, and publication productivity among scientists. Social Studies of Science, 40(5), 879-900.  

    Xie, Y., & Shauman, K. A. (2003). Women in science: Career processes and outcomes. Harvard University Press.  

    Dubois-Shaik, Farah, Bernard Fusulier, and Caroline Vincke. “A gendered pipeline typology in academia.” Gender and Precarious Research Careers. Routledge, 2018. 178-205.11:42 

    This text was published on forskning.no/sciencenorway.no on the 27th of June under the following heading: "Why do women leave academia after completing a PhD?".

    We would love to hear from you:

    Send your comments and questions regarding this article by e-mail to kunnskap@kristiania.no.

    Siste nytt fra Kunnskap Kristiania

    • The pervasive dangers of autocratic responses to crises
      Kunnskap Kristiania

      The pervasive dangers of autocratic responses to crises

      Misinformation and manipulating tactics in order to consolidate power were widespread during the pandemic.
      Les mer
    • Retorikk: Hva kan vi lære av Donald Trump?
      Kunnskap Kristiania

      Retorikk: Hva kan vi lære av Donald Trump?

      Trump driver ikke med politikk, men med massesuggerering av mennesker som føler avmakt. Men ingen har monopol på effektive kommunikasjonsformer.
      Les mer
    • Fire steg som kan hjelpe deg å skille kunnskap fra synsing
      Kunnskap Kristiania

      Fire steg som kan hjelpe deg å skille kunnskap fra synsing

      Å forstå hvordan forskere “designer” forskningsprosjektet sitt, er nøkkelen til både å vurdere og å utforme forskning vi kan stole på.
      Les mer
    • Er manifestering en formel for suksess eller rent kvakksalveri?
      Kunnskap Kristiania

      Er manifestering en formel for suksess eller rent kvakksalveri?

      Manifestering handler om psykologiske mekanismer, ikke om semi-religiøs kvantefysikk.
      Les mer