GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Posts Tagged ‘Norway’

Why Women Leave Academia

In Guest Blogger on 2012/05/08 at 08:06

Guest blogger, Curt Rice, writing from Tromsø , Norway.

Young women scientists leave academia in far greater numbers than men for three reasons. During their time as Ph.D. candidates, large numbers of women conclude that (i) the characteristics of academic careers are unappealing, (ii) the impediments they will encounter are disproportionate, and (iii) the sacrifices they will have to make are great.

This is the conclusion of The chemistry Ph.D.the impact on women’s retention, a report for the UK Resource Centre for Women in SET and the Royal Society of Chemistry. In this report, the results of a longitudinal study with Ph.D. students in chemistry in the UK are presented.

Men and women show radically different developments regarding their intended future careers. At the beginning of their Ph.D. studies, fully 72% of women express an intention to pursue careers as researchers, either in industry or academia. Among men, 61% express the same intention.

By the third year, the proportion of men planning careers in research had dropped from 61% to 59%. But for the women, the number had plummeted from 72% in the first year to 37% as they finish their studies.

If we tease apart those who want to work as researchers in industry from those who want to work as researchers in academia, the third year numbers are alarming: 12% of the women and 21% of the men see academia as their preferred choice.

This is not the number of Ph.D.s who in fact do go to academia; it’s the number who want to.

88% of the women don’t even want academic careers, nor do 79% of the men!

How can it be this bad? Why are universities such unattractive workplaces?

Part of The chemistry Ph.D. discusses problems that arise while young researchers are Ph.D. candidates.

Improving the Ph.D. experience requires taking account of these problems, including too little supervision, too much supervision, focus on achieving experimental results rather than mastery of methodologies, and much more. The long-term effects, though, are reflected in the attitudes and beliefs about academia that emerge during this period.

The participants in the study identify many characteristics of academic careers that they find unappealing. The constant hunt for funding for research projects is a significant impediment for both men and women. But women in greater numbers than men see academic careers as all-consuming, as solitary and as unnecessarily competitive.

Both men and women Ph.D. candidates come to realized that a string of post-docs is part of a career path, and they see that this can require frequent moves and a lack of security about future employment. Women are more negatively affected than men by the competitiveness in this stage of an academic career and their concerns about competitiveness are fueled, they say, by a relative lack of self-confidence.

Women more than men see great sacrifice as a prerequisite for success in academia. This comes in part from their perception of women who have succeeded, from the nature of the available role models. Successful female professors are perceived by female Ph.D. candidates as displaying masculine characteristics, such as aggression and competitiveness, and they were often childless.

As if all this were not enough, women Ph.D. candidates had one experience that men never have. They were told that they would encounter problems along the way simply because they are women. They are told, in other words, that their gender will work against them.

By following Ph.D. candidates throughout their study and asking probing questions, we learn not only that the number of women in chemistry Ph.D. programs who intend to pursue a career in academia falls dramatically, but we learn why. (See also Why go for a Ph.D.? Advice for those in doubt.)

This research and the new knowledge it produces should be required reading for everyone leading a university or a research group. The stories surely apply far beyond chemistry. Remember that it’s not just women who find academia unappealing. Only 21% of the men wanted to head our way, too.

Universities will not survive as research institutions unless university leadership realizes that the working conditions they offer dramatically reduce the size of the pool from which they recruit.

We will not survive because we have no reason to believe we are attracting the best and the brightest. When industry is the more attractive employer, our credibility as the home of long-term, cutting edge, high-risk, profoundly creative research, is diminished.

The answers here lie in leadership and in changing our current culture to build a new one for new challenges. The job is significant and it will require cutting edge, high-risk leadership teamwork to succeed. Is your university ready?

An earlier version of this post was also published on Curt Rice’s blog, Thoughts on University Leadership.


Curt Rice is Vice President for Research at the University of Tromsø in Norway. He is hosting the webinar How to get more women professors on May 2nd.

Thoughts on Going Rogue

In Guest Blogger on 2010/04/26 at 09:00

Guest blogger, Ellen Rees, writing from Norway.

In Nancy Mitford’s fictional universe one particularly memorable character earns the nickname “the Bolter” for her pathological aversion to commitment. I imagine that some of my colleagues apply the moniker to me as well, for I have the distinction of having resigned from not one but two tenured positions within a relatively short span of time. I went through the agony of a touch-and-go, but ultimately successful, tenure case only to resign two years later in order to take a more attractive position that—rather maddeningly—required going through tenure once again. One would have thought that the sheer amount of paperwork would have extinguished any latent desire I might have to change jobs yet again. After all, tenure is the big prize, the obscure but all-important distinction that sets us—and the kind of intellectual work we do—apart from nearly all other professions in the US. I am acutely aware of my privilege, and of how many of my peers struggle to cobble together careers out of temporary positions. Yet four years into that “more attractive” position I bolted again, this time without a new tenure-related position in the offing.

Despite what you might think, I am not a disgruntled academic or a social misfit. I love nearly all aspects of my work and can imagine few jobs that could give me as much satisfaction. The decision to resign from my second tenured position was entirely personal: I am co-parenting a child bi-culturally, and after much deliberation we felt that the myriad benefits (for the entire family) of living in my partner’s home country outweighed the benefits of having a secure job that I happen to like. After all, a job is just a job, right?

To my relief, I found an escape route that still leaves open a continued academic career. I am now a year and a half into a four-year postdoctoral research fellowship at a European university in what is arguably the best program in the world for my particular sub-specialization. The fellowship has been the perfect way to learn the intricacies of a new academic culture and position myself as best I can for a permanent position here. Although I have occasional outbursts of panic over my future, and struggle at times with the ambiguous status of being a “fellow” rather than a professor, walking away from the US tenure system has been enormously freeing.

The first time I went up for tenure, I coped with the uncertainty of my future in two ways: I did everything I could to get my personal finances in shape so that I could take the hit if I didn’t get tenure, and I put an enormous amount of effort into working out other things I could do with my work life that would give meaning and satisfaction (plans B through something like H). That coping process was invaluable to me because it forced me to examine nearly every aspect of my identity and values. Now, nearly ten years later, I’m still debt-free and back doing all that soul-searching again, this time with the added complications of expatriate life.

This experience has been made easier by the fact that my fellowship is in a program made up of supportive, interesting, and generally well-behaved colleagues who have from the very beginning shown great generosity toward me. I am seldom reminded of the fact that I am “just” a fellow. The learning curve has been steep, both in terms of my research field and in terms of comparative academic cultures. I’m sure that if I am faced with a long period of unemployment after my fellowship runs out I will experience some regret over going rogue. But I also know that taking the risk of the fellowship has already improved the depth of my knowledge, the quality of my research, my ability to communicate at a high academic level in a foreign language, and my international profession network to a degree that would have been impossible in my previous positions.

Ellen Rees

Ellen Rees is a scholar of Nordic literature and cinema. Born and raised in the US, she now lives and works in Norway. She is currently on a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Oslo trying to write a book about cabins.

Bookmark and Share