Women, Minorities More Likely to Flee Academic STEM Careers

Inside Higher Edreports on yet another hand wringing study of the difficulty of “diversifying” (that is, employing more women and certain minorities) in academic STEM fields. This time, however, the obstacle or barrier is at the end, not the beginning, of the pipeline: women and minorities themselves choose to abandon STEM careers in academic research institutions even after they receive their PhDs.

At the point of Ph.D. completion, after controlling for factors such as research productivity, mentoring, confidence, and so forth (all factors that could affect career choices) women and members of under-represented minority groups are 36 to 55 percent less likely than white and Asian men to report high interest in faculty careers at research-intensive universities. Furthermore, under-represented minority women are nearly twice as likely as all other groups to report high interest in careers outside of research.

One can, almost, sympathize with the would-be diversifiers: what’s the point, they might allow themselves to think (but never admit), of giving diversity-justified preferential admissions, hiring, etc., if the preferred wind up saying “no thanks” and move into other fields?

Indeed, since academia is not the only area of American life trying mightily to attract underrepresented groups, is the fact that women and minority STEM PhDs disproportionately do not choose to pursue “academic careers at research-intensive universities” necessarily a problem that needs to be solved? “The article seems to assume that competing for an academic position is most desirable outcome for a well-qualified female and/or minority biomedical scientist,” as one commenter pointed out. “But considering the postdoc rat race, the ratio of new Ph.D. biomedical scientists to open tenure track slots, the demanding schedule, and the mediocre salary, is such an assumption justified?”

Finally, it is worth noting that these findings raise serious questions about one of the most ubiquitous justifications for preferential treatment of women and minorities — that we now live in a “global world” (where did we formerly live?) and that in order to succeed in global competition we must attract more women, blacks, and Hispanics to the STEM fields. Set aside for a moment whether that claim is actually true. Even if to some degree it is, who is more likely to make a bigger contribution to our global STEM competitive efforts, woman or minority applicants or Asian or white men who are “36 to 55 percent” more likely to stay in the field?

I do not propose discriminating against women and minorities — such discrimination would be wrong and is and should be illegal — but it would be foolish to pretend that such discrimination is always irrational or based on bias and that equal treatment is always cost free.


3 thoughts on “Women, Minorities More Likely to Flee Academic STEM Careers

  1. The biggest discrimination comes from mother nature. Reproductive years for females are short. If you want to have 2-3 kids, how can you do it as a PostDoc?

    It is much easier for man. They can wait until they are 40, well established, tenured or tenure-track.

    Women don’t have this luxury.

  2. I left STEM after Ph.D. Reason? Family. Pregnancy, kids, I wished to have a stable income and predictable working hours. Currently, I earn more than in academia. All (yes, surprisingly !all!) my girlfriends left academia. All of them are successfully employed in the industry.

  3. “after controlling for factors such as research productivity, mentoring, confidence, and so forth (all factors that could affect career choices)”

    I genuinely wonder if that is possible.

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