Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why do women quit science?

A week ago, I got forwarded this NPR article called "How Stereotypes Can Drive Women To Quit Science".  It was sent to me by a friend from undergrad, female, successful, with both an undergrad and a grad degree in engineering.  She found it frustrating, and so do I.

Essentially, the article is about a study that tracked female science professor's discussions at work (using some very cool/mildly creepy in ear recording devices), and came to the conclusion that women left science fields not because they were being overtly discriminated against, but because they're scared that they might be.  This panic is apparently called "stereotype threat", and is explained thusly:
When there's a stereotype in the air and people are worried they might confirm the stereotype by performing poorly, their fears can inadvertently make the stereotype become self-fulfilling.
I figure this is why I only routinely make typos when someone is watching me type (interestingly, I made two just trying to get through that sentence).

Anyway, the smoking gun (NPRs words, not mine) was that:

When male scientists talked to other scientists about their research, it energized them. But it was a different story for women. "For women, the pattern was just the opposite, specifically in their conversations with male colleagues," Schmader said. "So the more women in their conversations with male colleagues were talking about research, the more disengaged they reported being in their work."Disengagement predicts that someone is at risk of dropping out. There was another sign of trouble.When female scientists talked to other female scientists, they sounded perfectly competent. But when they talked to male colleagues, Mehl and Schmader found that they sounded less competent.
The interpretation of  this data was curious to me. I wasn't sure that social identity threat was the first theory I'd jump to, but I figured I'd read the study first.

It took me a little while to find the full paper free online, but I did it.  I got a little hung up on the conversation recording device part (seriously, it's a very cool way of doing things....they record for 50 seconds every 9 minutes for the work day to eliminate the bias of how people recall more here).

Here are the basics:  The sample size was 19 female faculty from the same research university.  Each was then "matched" with a male faculty member for comparison.  I couldn't find the ages for the men, but they were matched on rank and department.  It appears the 19 women were out of 32 possibilities.  I'm unclear whether the remainder were unavailable or whether they declined. Genders did not have a difference in their levels of disengagement at the beginning of the study.

Unfortunately, they didn't elaborate much on one thing I had a lot of questions about: how do you define competence.  They only stated that two different research assistants ranked it.  Since all of the researchers in this study were social psychologists, presumably so were their assistants.  It concerned me a bit that science faculty was being rated by people that wouldn't know actual competence, merely the appearance of it (the study authors admit this is a weakness).

Another interesting point is that job disengagement was only measured up front.  When I had initially read the report on the study, I had inferred that they were taking data post conversation to see the change.  They weren't.  They took it up front, then found that the more disengaged women had a higher percentage of total discussions about work with men than the other women were.  It occurred to me that this could merely be a sign of "female auto pilot mode".  Perhaps when women are at ease they share more about their personal life?  The researchers admit this as a possibility, but say it's not likely given that they sound less assessed by people who didn't know what competence sounded like.

One point not addressed at all in this study was the seniority of the people the participants were talking to.  In traditionally male dominated fields, it is likely that at least some of the men they ran in to were the chairs of the department, etc, meaning that these women were probably talking to a more intimidating group of men than women.  Women who talk heavily about research and less about personal lives may have run in to more senior faculty more often.  As the study took place over 3 days, it could conceivably be skewed by who people ran in to.  Additionally, I was wondering about the presence of mentoring and/or women in science type groups.  Women in science frequently meet other women in science through these groups, and there could have been some up front data skewing there.

It's also important to note that for every measure of disengagement in the study, the results were between 1.5 and 2 (on a scale of 1 to 5).  While statistically significant, I do wonder about the practical significance of these numbers.  If asked whether you agree or disagree with the statement "I often feel I am going through the motions at work", how accurately could you answer, on a scale of 1 to 5?

Overall this study seemed very chicken and egg to me.  I'm not convinced that it's implausible that women simply share more of themselves at work, especially when they're comfortable, as opposed to the sharing itself making women more comfortable at work (there's nothing worse at work than an awkward overshare).   I'm still not sure I get where you'd extrapolate stereotype threat unless it was the explanation you'd already picked.....I did not see any data that would point to it independently.

I'd like to see a follow up study in ten years to see if these women did actually drop out at higher rates than their male colleagues, and what their stated reason for leaving was.  Without that piece, any conclusions seem incredibly hypothetical to me.  One of the things that drives me a bit bonkers when discussing STEM careers is very few people seem interested in what the women actually doing these careers think about why they choose what they do or do not do.  I've never seen a study that walked in to an English class and asked all the women why they weren't engineers.  Likewise, if more of these women quit than the men, I'd like to see why they said they did it.  Then perhaps we can get in to the weeds, but won't somebody tell me why women actually think they're quitting?

I looked through the references section and couldn't find a paper that addressed this question.

Anyway, I think it's important to remember that when reading a study like this, you have to agree with all the steps before you can agree with the conclusions.  Is measuring snippets of conversations and having them coded by research assistants a valid method of determining how women function in the workplace?  Is 19 people a big enough sample size?  Should level of disengagement at work be controlled for possible outside events that might be causing them to feel less engaged?  Should the women in question be asked if they felt stereotype threat, or is that irrelevant?

Most importantly, should NPR have clarified that when they said "stereotypes can drive women out of science" they meant "theoretical stereotypes that may or may not have been there and that women may or may not have been afraid of....and none of these women had actually quit we just think they might?".  You know, just hypothetically speaking.


  1. I think that was a remarkably astute run-through of possible confounding factors.

    Let me add that even if true, the effect would likely diminish over time, as more senior, highly-placed colleagues are more commonly female. Even if that didn't go as quickly as we think it should, it would like have at least some effect on younger female faculty.

  2. Did anyone ever consider that much of the time, because of the evolutionary pressures for the sex with the smaller gametes competes/goes after the sex with the larger gametes that take more of her resources if bearing a child as a result of that mating, that females in general are "put off" by male colleagues talking to them, because they might think that the only reason the males are conversing with them is to get into their pants? As a female scientist, I've experienced this everywhere, whether in a professional or social environment. It's just how we've evolved.