An alternative argument for why women leave STEM: Guest post by Karen Morenz

Scott’s preface: Imagine that every time you turned your blog over to a certain topic, you got denounced on Twitter and Reddit as a privileged douchebro, entitled STEMlord, counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie, etc. etc. The sane response would simply be to quit blogging about that topic. But there’s also an insane (or masochistic?) response: the response that says, “but if everyone like me stopped talking, we’d cede the field by default to the loudest, angriest voices on all sides—thereby giving those voices exactly what they wanted. To hell with that!”

A few weeks ago, while I was being attacked for sharing Steven Pinker’s guest post about NIPS vs. NeurIPS, I received a beautiful message of support from a PhD student in physical chemistry and quantum computing named Karen Morenz. Besides her strong words of encouragement, Karen wanted to share with me an essay she had written on Medium about why too many women leave STEM.

Karen’s essay, I found, marshaled data, logic, and her own experience in support of an insight that strikes me as true and important and underappreciated—one that dovetails with what I’ve heard from many other women in STEM fields, including my wife Dana. So I asked Karen for permission to reprint her essay on this blog, and she graciously agreed.

Briefly: anyone with a brain and a soul wants there to be many more women in STEM. Karen outlines a realistic way to achieve this shared goal. Crucially, Karen’s way is not about shaming male STEM nerds for their deep-seated misogyny, their arrogant mansplaining, or their gross, creepy, predatory sexual desires. Yes, you can go the shaming route (God knows it’s being tried). If you do, you’ll probably snare many guys who really do deserve to be shamed as creeps or misogynists, along with many more who don’t. Yet for all your efforts, Karen predicts, you’ll no more solve the original problem of too few women in STEM, than arresting the kulaks solved the problem of lifting the masses out of poverty.

For you still won’t have made a dent in the real issue: namely that, the way we’ve set things up, pursuing an academic STEM career demands fanatical devotion, to the exclusion of nearly everything else in life, between the ages of roughly 18 and 35. And as long as that’s true, Karen says, the majority of talented women are going to look at academic STEM, in light of all the other great options available to them, and say “no thanks.” Solving this problem might look like more money for maternity leave and childcare. It might also look like re-imagining the academic career trajectory itself, to make it easier to rejoin it after five or ten years away. Way back in 2006, I tried to make this point in a blog post called Nerdify the world, and the women will follow. I’m grateful to Karen for making it more cogently than I did.

Without further ado, here’s Karen’s essay. –SA

Is it really just sexism? An alternative argument for why women leave STEM

by Karen Morenz

Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to start your argument with ‘everyone knows,’ but in this case, I think we ought to make an exception:

Everyone knows that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) has a problem retaining women (see, for example Jean, Payne, and Thompson 2015). We pour money into attracting girls and women to STEM fields. We pour money into recruiting women, training women, and addressing sexism, both overt and subconscious. In 2011, the United States spent nearly $3 billion tax dollars on STEM education, of which roughly one third was spent supporting and encouraging underrepresented groups to enter STEM (including women). And yet, women are still leaving at alarming rates.

Alarming? Isn’t that a little, I don’t know, alarmist? Well, let’s look at some stats.

A recent report by the National Science Foundation (2011) found that women received 20.3% of the bachelor’s degrees and 18.6% of the PhD degrees in physics in 2008. In chemistry, women earned 49.95% of the bachelor’s degrees but only 36.1% of the doctoral degrees. By comparison, in biology women received 59.8% of the bachelor’s degrees and 50.6% of the doctoral degrees. A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News showed a chart based on a survey of life sciences workers by Liftstream and MassBio demonstrating how women are vastly underrepresented in science leadership despite earning degrees at similar rates, which I’ve copied below. The story is the same in academia, as you can see on the second chart — from comparable or even larger number of women at the student level, we move towards a significantly larger proportion of men at the more and more advanced stages of an academic career.

Although 74% of women in STEM report “loving their work,” half (56%, in fact) leave over the course of their career — largely at the “mid-level” point, when the loss of their talent is most costly as they have just completed training and begun to contribute maximally to the work force.

A study by Dr. Flaherty found that women who obtain faculty position in astronomy spent on average 1 year less than their male counterparts between completing their PhD and obtaining their position — but he concluded that this is because women leave the field at a rate 3 to 4 times greater than men, and in particular, if they do not obtain a faculty position quickly, will simply move to another career. So, women and men are hired at about the same rate during the early years of their post docs, but women stop applying to academic positions and drop out of the field as time goes on, pulling down the average time to hiring for women.

There are many more studies to this effect. At this point, the assertion that women leave STEM at an alarming rate after obtaining PhDs is nothing short of an established fact. In fact, it’s actually a problem across all academic disciplines, as you can see in this matching chart showing the same phenomenon in humanities, social sciences, and education. The phenomenon has been affectionately dubbed the “leaky pipeline.”

But hang on a second, maybe there just aren’t enough women qualified for the top levels of STEM? Maybe it’ll all get better in a few years if we just wait around doing nothing?

Nope, sorry. This study says that 41% of highly qualified STEM people are female. And also, it’s clear from the previous charts and stats that a significantly larger number of women are getting PhDs than going on the be professors, in comparison to their male counterparts. Dr. Laurie Glimcher, when she started her professorship at Harvard University in the early 1980s, remembers seeing very few women in leadership positions. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is really going to change dramatically,’ ” she says. But 30 years later, “it’s not where I expected it to be.” Her experiences are similar to those of other leading female faculty.

So what gives? Why are all the STEM women leaving?

It is widely believed that sexism is the leading problem. A quick google search of “sexism in STEM” will turn up a veritable cornucopia of articles to that effect. And indeed, around 60% of women report experiencing some form of sexism in the last year (Robnett 2016). So, that’s clearly not good.

And yet, if you ask leading women researchers like Nobel Laureate in Physics 2018, Professor Donna Strickland, or Canada Research Chair in Advanced Functional Materials (Chemistry), Professor Eugenia Kumacheva, they say that sexism was not a barrier in their careers. Moreover, extensive research has shown that sexism has overall decreased since Professors Strickland and Kumacheva (for example) were starting their careers. Even more interestingly, Dr. Rachael Robnett showed that more mathematical fields such as Physics have a greater problem with sexism than less mathematical fields, such as Chemistry, a finding which rings true with the subjective experience of many women I know in Chemistry and Physics. However, as we saw above, women leave the field of Chemistry in greater proportions following their BSc than they leave Physics. On top of that, although 22% of women report experiencing sexual harassment at work, the proportion is the same among STEM and non-STEM careers, and yet women leave STEM careers at a much higher rate than non-STEM careers.

So,it seems that sexism can not fully explain why women with STEM PhDs are leaving STEM. At the point when women have earned a PhD, for the most part they have already survived the worst of the sexism. They’ve already proven themselves to be generally thick-skinned and, as anyone with a PhD can attest, very stubborn in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Sexism is frustrating, and it can limit advancement, but it doesn’t fully explain why we have so many women obtaining PhDs in STEM, and then leaving. In fact, at least in the U of T chemistry department, faculty hires are directly proportional to the applicant pool —although the exact number of applicants are not made public, from public information we can see that approximately one in four interview invitees are women, and approximately one in four hires are women. Our hiring committees have received bias training, and it seems that it has been largely successful. That’s not to say that we’re done, but it’s time to start looking elsewhere to explain why there are so few women sticking around.

So why don’t more women apply?

Well, one truly brilliant researcher had the groundbreaking idea of asking women why they left the field. When you ask women why they left, the number one reason they cite is balancing work/life responsibilities — which as far as I can tell is a euphemism for family concerns.

The research is in on this. Women who stay in academia expect to marry later, and delay or completely forego having children, and if they do have children, plan to have fewer than their non-STEM counterparts (Sassler et al 2016Owens 2012). Men in STEM have no such difference compared to their non-STEM counterparts; they marry and have children about the same ages and rates as their non-STEM counterparts (Sassler et al 2016). Women leave STEM in droves in their early to mid thirties (Funk and Parker 2018) — the time when women’s fertility begins to decrease, and risks of childbirth complications begin to skyrocket for both mother and child. Men don’t see an effect on their fertility until their mid forties. Of the 56% of women who leave STEM, 50% wind up self-employed or using their training in a not for profit or government, 30% leave to a non-STEM more ‘family friendly’ career, and 20% leave to be stay-at-home moms (Ashcraft and Blithe 2002). Meanwhile, institutions with better childcare and maternity leave policies have twice(!) the number of female faculty in STEM (Troeger 2018). In analogy to the affectionately named “leaky pipeline,” the challenge of balancing motherhood and career has been titled the “maternal wall.”

To understand the so-called maternal wall better, let’s take a quick look at the sketch of a typical academic career.

For the sake of this exercise, let’s all pretend to be me. I’m a talented 25 year old PhD candidate studying Physical Chemistry — I use laser spectroscopy to try to understand atypical energy transfer processes in innovative materials that I hope will one day be used to make vastly more efficient solar panels. I got my BSc in Chemistry and Mathematics at the age of 22, and have published 4 scientific papers in two different fields already (Astrophysics and Environmental Chemistry). I’ve got a big scholarship, and a lot of people supporting me to give me the best shot at an academic career — a career I dearly want. But, I also want a family — maybe two or three kids. Here’s what I can expect if I pursue an academic career:

With any luck, 2–3 years from now I’ll graduate with a PhD, at the age of 27. Academics are expected to travel a lot, and to move a lot, especially in their 20s and early 30s — all of the key childbearing years. I’m planning to go on exchange next year, and then the year after that I’ll need to work hard to wrap up research, write a thesis, and travel to several conferences to showcase my work. After I finish my PhD, I’ll need to undertake one or two post doctoral fellowships, lasting one or two years each, probably in completely different places. During that time, I’ll start to apply for professorships. In order to do this, I’ll travel around to conferences to advertise my work and to meet important leaders in my field, and then, if I am invited for interviews, I’ll travel around to different universities for two or three days at a time to undertake these interviews. This usually occurs in a person’s early 30s — our helpful astronomy guy, Dr. Flaherty, found the average time to hiring was 5 years, so let’s say I’m 32 at this point. If offered a position, I’ll spend the next year or two renovating and building a lab, buying equipment, recruiting talented graduate students, and designing and teaching courses. People work really, really hard during this time and have essentially no leisure time. Now I’m 34. Within usually 5 years I’ll need to apply for tenure. This means that by the time I’m 36, I’ll need to be making significant contributions in my field, and then in the final year before applying for tenure, I will once more need to travel to many conferences to promote my work, in order to secure tenure — if I fail to do so, my position at the university would probably be terminated. Although many universities offer a “tenure extension” in cases where an assistant professor has had a child, this does not solve all of the problems. Taking a year off during that critical 5 or 6 year period often means that the research “goes bad” — students flounder, projects that were promising get “scooped” by competitors at other institutions, and sometimes, in biology and chemistry especially, experiments literally go bad. You wind up needing to rebuild much more than just a year’s worth of effort.

At no point during this time do I appear stable enough, career-wise, to take even six months off to be pregnant and care for a newborn. Hypothetical future-me is travelling around, or even moving, conducting and promoting my own independent research and training students. As you’re likely aware, very pregnant people and newborns don’t travel well. And academia has a very individualistic and meritocratic culture. Starting at the graduate level, huge emphasis is based on independent research, and independent contributions, rather than valuing team efforts. This feature of academia is both a blessing and a curse. The individualistic culture means that people have the independence and the freedom to pursue whatever research interests them — in fact this is the main draw for me personally. But it also means that there is often no one to fall back on when you need extra support, and because of biological constraints, this winds up impacting women more than men.

At this point, I need to make sure that you’re aware of some basics of female reproductive biology. According to Wikipedia, the unquestionable source of all reliable knowledge, at age 25, my risk of conceiving a baby with chromosomal abnormalities (including Down’s Syndrome) is 1 in about 1400. By 35, that risk more than quadruples to 1 in 340. At 30, I have a 75% chance of a successful birth in one year, but by 35 it has dropped to 66%, and by 40 it’s down to 44%. Meanwhile, 87 to 94% of women report at least 1 health problem immediately after birth, and 1.5% of mothers have a severe health problem, while 31% have long-term persistent health problems as a result of pregnancy (defined as lasting more than six months after delivery). Furthermore, mothers over the age of 35 are at higher risk for pregnancy complications like preterm delivery, hypertension, superimposed preeclampsia, severe preeclampsia (Cavazos-Rehg et al 2016). Because of factors like these, pregnancies in women over 35 are known as “geriatric pregnancies” due to the drastically increased risk of complications. This tight timeline for births is often called the “biological clock” — if women want a family, they basically need to start before 35. Now, that’s not to say it’s impossible to have a child later on, and in fact some studies show that it has positive impacts on the child’s mental health. But it is riskier.

So, women with a PhD in STEM know that they have the capability to make interesting contributions to STEM, and to make plenty of money doing it. They usually marry someone who also has or expects to make a high salary as well. But this isn’t the only consideration. Such highly educated women are usually aware of the biological clock and the risks associated with pregnancy, and are confident in their understanding of statistical risks.

The Irish say, “The common challenge facing young women is achieving a satisfactory work-life balance, especially when children are small. From a career perspective, this period of parenthood (which after all is relatively short compared to an entire working life) tends to coincide exactly with the critical point at which an individual’s career may or may not take off. […] All the evidence shows that it is at this point that women either drop out of the workforce altogether, switch to part-time working or move to more family-friendly jobs, which may be less demanding and which do not always utilise their full skillset.”

And in the Netherlands, “The research project in Tilburg also showed that women academics have more often no children or fewer children than women outside academia.” Meanwhile in Italy “On a personal level, the data show that for a significant number of women there is a trade-off between family and work: a large share of female economists in Italy do not live with a partner and do not have children”

Most jobs available to women with STEM PhDs offer greater stability and a larger salary earlier in the career. Moreover, most non-academic careers have less emphasis on independent research, meaning that employees usually work within the scope of a larger team, and so if a person has to take some time off, there are others who can help cover their workload. By and large, women leave to go to a career where they will be stable, well funded, and well supported, even if it doesn’t fulfill their passion for STEM — or they leave to be stay-at-home moms or self-employed.

I would presume that if we made academia a more feasible place for a woman with a family to work, we could keep almost all of those 20% of leavers who leave to just stay at home, almost all of the 30% who leave to self-employment, and all of those 30% who leave to more family friendly careers (after all, if academia were made to be as family friendly as other careers, there would be no incentive to leave). Of course, there is nothing wrong with being a stay at home parent — it’s an admirable choice and contributes greatly to our society. One estimate valued the equivalent salary benefit of stay-at-home parenthood at about $160,000/year. Moreover, children with a stay-at-home parent show long term benefits such as better school performance — something that most academic women would want for their children. But a lot of people only choose it out of necessity — about half of stay-at-home moms would prefer to be working (Ciciolla, Curlee, & Luthar 2017). When the reality is that your salary is barely more than the cost of daycare, then a lot of people wind up giving up and staying home with their kids rather than paying for daycare. In a heterosexual couple it will usually be the woman that winds up staying home since she is the one who needs to do things like breast feed anyways. And so we lose these women from the workforce.

And yet, somehow, during this informal research adventure of mine, most scholars and policy makers seem to be advising that we try to encourage young girls to be interested in STEM, and to address sexism in the workplace, with the implication that this will fix the high attrition rate in STEM women. But from what I’ve found, the stats don’t back up sexism as the main reason women leave. There is sexism, and that is a problem, and women do leave STEM because of it — but it’s a problem that we’re already dealing with pretty successfully, and it’s not why the majority of women who have already obtained STEM PhDs opt to leave the field. The whole family planning thing is huge and for some reason, almost totally swept under the rug — mostly because we’re too shy to talk about it, I think.

In fact, I think that the plethora of articles suggesting that the problem is sexism actually contribute to our unwillingness to talk about the family planning problem, because it reinforces the perception that that men in power will not hire a woman for fear that she’ll get pregnant and take time off. Why would anyone talk about how they want to have a family when they keep hearing that even the mere suggestion of such a thing will limit their chances of being hired? I personally know women who have avoided bringing up the topic with colleagues or supervisors for fear of professional repercussions. So we spend all this time and energy talking about how sexism is really bad, and very little time trying to address the family planning challenge, because, I guess, as the stats show, if women are serious enough about science then they just give up on the family (except for the really, really exceptional ones who can handle the stresses of both simultaneously).

To be very clear, I’m not saying that sexism is not a problem. What I am saying is that, thanks to the sustained efforts of a large number of people over a long period of time, we’ve reduced the sexism problem to the point where, at least at the graduate level, it is no longer the largest major barrier to women’s advancement in STEM. Hurray! That does not mean that we should stop paying attention to the issue of sexism, but does mean that it’s time to start paying more attention to other issues, like how to properly support women who want to raise a family while also maintaining a career in STEM.

So what can we do to better support STEM women who want families?

A couple of solutions have been tentatively tested. From a study mentioned above, it’s clear that providing free and conveniently located childcare makes a colossal difference to women’s choices of whether or not to stay in STEM, alongside extended and paid maternity leave. Another popular and successful strategy was implemented by a leading woman in STEM, Laurie Glimcher, a past Harvard Professor in Immunology and now CEO of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. While working at NIH, Dr. Glimcher designed a program to provide primary caregivers (usually women) with an assistant or lab technician to help manage their laboratories while they cared for children. Now, at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she has created a similar program to pay for a technician or postdoctoral researcher for assistant professors. In the academic setting, Dr. Glimcher’s strategies are key for helping to alleviate the challenges associated with the individualistic culture of academia without compromising women’s research and leadership potential.

For me personally, I’m in the ideal situation for an academic woman. I graduated my BSc with high honours in four years, and with many awards. I’ve already had success in research and have published several peer reviewed papers. I’ve faced some mild sexism from peers and a couple of TAs, but nothing that’s seriously held me back. My supervisors have all been extremely supportive and feminist, and all of the people that I work with on a daily basis are equally wonderful. Despite all of this support, I’m looking at the timelines of an academic career, and the time constraints of female reproduction, and honestly, I don’t see how I can feasible expect to stay in academia and have the family life I want. And since I’m in the privileged position of being surrounded by supportive and feminist colleagues, I can say it: I’m considering leaving academia, if something doesn’t change, because even though I love it, I don’t see how it can fit in to my family plans.

But wait! All of these interventions are really expensive. Money doesn’t just grow on trees, you know!

It doesn’t in general, but in this case it kind of does — well, actually, we already grew it. We spend billions of dollars training women in STEM. By not making full use of their skills, if we look at only the american economy, we are wasting about $1.5 billion USD per year in economic benefits they would have produced if they stayed in STEM. So here’s a business proposal: let’s spend half of that on better family support and scientific assistants for primary caregivers, and keep the other half in profit. Heck, let’s spend 99% — $1.485 billion (in the states alone) on better support. That should put a dent in the support bill, and I’d sure pick up $15 million if I saw it lying around. Wouldn’t you?

By demonstrating that we will support women in STEM who choose to have a family, we will encourage more women with PhDs to apply for the academic positions that they are eminently qualified for. Our institutions will benefit from the wider applicant pool, and our whole society will benefit from having the skills of these highly trained and intelligent women put to use innovating new solutions to our modern day challenges.

116 Responses to “An alternative argument for why women leave STEM: Guest post by Karen Morenz”

  1. Gvaerg Says:

    This essay confuses “women in STEM” with “women in academia”.

  2. cdw Says:

    Gvaerg: part of her argument is that women in STEM face the many of the same problems, at roughly the same rate, with roughly the same effects, as women in the rest of academia (“In fact, it’s actually a problem across all academic discipline”—paragraph above the “leaky pipeline” fig).

  3. William Hird Says:

    I’m not an expert on these types of issues, but I know someone who is. Jordan Peterson , time to make your debut on Shtetl- Optimized 🙂

  4. Scott Says:

    William Hird #3: Dr. Peterson, like anyone else, is welcome to participate in this comment section if he wants. 🙂

    Or did you mean that you wanted me to comment on him? Very well: I read 12 Rules For Life a year ago, since I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Going strictly by the book’s actual content, rather than Jordan Peterson’s public persona or anything else, I confess that I found it hard to understand the degree of vituperation that the book received from left-leaning critics. It’s almost entirely apolitical (and unobjectionable) life advice, woven together with rambling anecdotes about Peterson himself and his anonymized patients, quasi-mystical exegeses of the Bible and Disney movies, plus (of course) the stuff about lobsters. You could call it silly, pompous, or self-indulgent, but the writing held my interest throughout, and I don’t recall anything that leapt out at me as either morally abhorrent or factually wrong. Furthermore, if one were actually depressed, in need of arguments to go on living, it’s probably one of the finer self-help books that’s ever been written (not that I’m a connoisseur of that genre). I didn’t find it mysterious how the thing became a runaway bestseller.

  5. Jay L. Gischer Says:

    I know a woman with three kids who are now grown, a CS Ph.D., and is still in STEM, though not in academia.

    There are a couple of things to note besides the supportiveness of her husband. She delayed grad school for a few years, and then, on the advice of her mother, who was an MD, had the children while in grad school. This turns out to be a good time to do it, even if it seems like a bad time.

    Of course, not everyone is in a position to do things that way.

    But this might not be a success story to some, since she’s never held an academic job since getting her degree. Instead, she works here in Silicon Valley, but goes to conferences and publishes papers.

    One further thing to note is that while there is a much greater impact on women, the way academic career track is organized falls heavily on many men, too. Men like, for instance, me, who place a high value on family, and wish to participate in family business.

    This is analogous to med school, especially internship/residency, which is rough on men, and even rougher on women because of the (ahem) differential impact of childbearing.

  6. Jay L Gischer Says:

    Scott #4. It’s entirely because of Peterson’s online/in-person presentation that he gets the vituperation. In these fora, he is a troll, and he trolls hard. There’s lots of strawmanning, as well as picking of opponents to maximize the silliness of the opposition.

    Because that’s what generates attention for a book that is bland and contains advice that any of us could give. It’s not bad advice, as you say. Just not something that would stir up a lot of attention.

  7. Vincent Says:

    Great article! Thanks for taking the time to do all the research and writing it up, and also thanks (to Scott) for reprinting it here!

  8. Asd21 Says:

    > anyone with a brain and a soul wants there to be many more women in STEM

    I don’t know if it’s because I’m soulless or brainless, but this seems very non-obvious to me. As outlined here, the reason we don’t have more women in stem isn’t that they face disproportionate hardship, it’s that they have different priorities and make choices based on them. I don’t see anything wrong with that – different people want different things, and just because fewer women want intense stem careers doesn’t mean they’re wrong to do so. If there’s an unfair disadvantage faced by women we should fix that – but because we don’t want people to be unfairly disadvantaged, not because we want equal numbers by gender. Maybe there’s an argument I’m missing about why we should want more women in stem anyway, but it doesn’t look like anyone’s actually made the case for it (let alone why it’s worth spending billions – a *third of our entire stem education budget* – on this).

  9. Karen Morenz Says:

    Jay L. Girscher #5: In fact, the summary of the advice and general conclusion of the female academic community seems to be that grad school is the best time during an academic career to have a baby. However, you need to balance that with the fact that most people have kids only once married (or in a similarly committed relationship), and the probability of having a successful marriage is much higher if one marries older. Not many women in grad school are at the stage of a relationship where they are ready for kids.

    So, I think this is actually another symptom of the problem: the career path is set up so that it doesn’t make sense for women who want families, because it either has to be too early or too late. We need to have a career path that allows for women to have babies between 25-35, which is statistically speaking the optimal time.

    As for men wanting to be involved in raising the family, I didn’t hammer on it in this essay but I want to make a point about it: fathers are indeed instrumental for raising kids. However, most academic women have very supportive partners who are usually very feminist and thus interested in sharing the burden, so this isn’t usually the problem. Unfortunately, the burden of pregnancy, labour, and (for women who choose it) breast feeding are necessarily unequal. In particular, pregnancy and labour cannot be emphasized enough – ALMOST ALL women have physical health complications that they have to deal with. I’ve lost the citation now, but there was a study that showed that when men and women are given equal parental leave (in order to encourage fathers playing an active role), academic men actually gain an edge on their female counterparts as they continue to do some work, whereas women are physically burdened and so unable to.

    So I absolutely agree that men need to play a role in parenting, but there is no way to make this issue sex-blind. Women will always have a different burden than men in this respect, and we need to recognize that if we want to get more women in STEM (which we should, because probably somewhere around half of our smartest STEM people are women).

  10. Karen Morenz Says:

    Asd21 #8: Ok, I’ll make an argument.

    In the absence of really good data on the subject (because of peoples’ squeamishness about looking at intelligence differences in general and especially by sex, but also because of the difficulty of conducting well controlled experiments on human subjects, who are frankly dependent on way too many variables for anyone to want to think about) let’s just assume that half the best people at any given thing are women. In fact, let’s just be really silly and assume that for each talented man there’s an exactly equivalent talented woman, and then we can just rank all these man-woman pairs of people from best to worst.

    Ok, but we’ve only got ~20% female profs. Let’s say we just rank people and pick the top hundred to be profs – only now, instead of the top 100 best-at-being-profs people being profs, we’ve got the top 20 women and 20 men, but after that we only pick men, so we get down to the 80th rank in men, but never take the 21st woman. Surely, this is not the most efficient strategy for a society which wants to have the best research and tech development, and by extension prosperity.

  11. Karen Morenz Says:

    William Hird #3: I’ve got no problem with Peterson and have read/watched most of his popular stuff, but I think you’d be hard pressed to make the argument that women who already got PhDs in STEM left because they suddenly realized that actually they’d prefer to be a nurse or some other kind of womanly job. We’re not dealing with average people here, we’re dealing with people who’ve already self-selected for an unusual career path (and proven that they’re committed by surviving the challenges associated with university). This is why I’m not looking at the gender ratio overall, so much as the change in ratio.

  12. Scott Says:

    Jay Gischer #6: I agree that almost anyone could recognize the advice as basically sound, but I hesitate to say that anyone could give it. P≠NP. 🙂 When reading almost any prose written for wide consumption—as opposed to, let’s say, a proof of MIP*=RE—there’s an understandable tendency to say “hey, I could’ve written that!” But then you try to write your own popular book, and you learn firsthand why, of the people who “could have,” very few did…

  13. Anon Says:

    Scott #4: I’m pretty sure a major contributing factor is that whether Peterson’s books are good in a vacuum or not, self-help books aren’t scientific papers, they’re direct appeals to emotion. If someone already hates the author then the book is going to fall flat for them even if they make a sincere attempt to be impartial, because the space for positive emotions isn’t there. And if you know him mostly for his politics, Peterson is so very, very easy to hate.

    By way of an example, I’ve never actually read any of Peterson’s books. My first exposure to him was several years ago, when someone forwarded me his video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvPgjg201w0 to support the statement that Canadian law bans university professors from mentioning differences between the sexes. Not having heard of him, I watched the video in full and I would encourage you to do the same.

    Short version: He based his hour-long hyperbolic “I’m so terrified to say these politically incorrect things but I’m going to say them loudly and repeatedly anyway” rant mostly on a total misreading of a law called the C-16 bill which added gender identity to the list of protected characteristics covered by the existing Canadian Human Rights Act. Also, he *really* hates trans people. (If I recall correctly, about halfway through that video he describes non-binary people as cultural Marxist infiltrators, in roughly those words.) His legal analysis completely left out any discussion of actual legal precedent or typical legal interpretations of the terms used, which is basically the law school version of arguing that P != NP because N might not equal 1. Unsurprisingly the Canadian Bar Association strongly disagreed with him and felt the law was harmless, and when the law came into force Canada notably failed to become a totalitarian dystopia.

    I was left with the impression that he’s a bigoted fool who is quite happy to rant for hours about topics he knows absolutely nothing about, freely using his expertise as a psychologist to lend authority to his views, and without the slightest care for any harm he might cause in the process. Nothing I’ve heard about him since has done anything to change that view, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to objectively review any of his books.

  14. Jay L Gischer Says:

    Karen Morenz #9 Alas, you seem to think I am advocating for gender-blindness. I am not. I am fully aware of the disproportionate impact. Any solution will also be disproportionate. I’m making a much more nuanced observation.

    (Your observation that grad school is often a time when women aren’t ready to have children because the relationships often aren’t there yet is solid and I agree. My friend was ready, and she took advantage. That’s not normal, though.)

    And yet, when I see practices that turn out to be very good for women, they also seem to be good for men. For instance, I saw a study in how to frame salary negotiations. There’s a big gender differential there, with women facing far more negative reactions than men. AND, many men face similar negative reactions. And the suggested framing, “You hired me to be a good negotiator and this is the only time you’ll ever see me on the other side of the table”, had a very big impact on how people reacted. The impact on reactions to women was bigger, but it was also positive for men.

    I’ve done some stuff with special needs children and one often sees the following anecdote: A child is granted an accommodation for their classroom. The teacher thinks it will be a burden to implement but complies. After implementing, they find that the accommodation is not only better for the student it was implemented for, it’s just better for all the children, and it has become part of her routine.

    Is that going to work here? We’re talking pregnancy and childbirth which in no way have an equal impact on men and women. There’s no guarantee that the rose-tinted “everything works for the best” attitude will prevail. Here’s where I’d look:

    I think the way we train advanced professionals and academics is very out-of-date and works badly for everyone, but even more badly (don’t you love my English?) for women. What would work better? What would serve the needs of all stakeholders? What are the needs of stakeholders? What would be affected by disruptions to the system. Who else would like or benefit from any proposed changes?

    I don’t have answers, but I think these are the right questions. As strange as it may sound from someone who has self-described as a feminist since about 1972, we need to frame this in some way other than “we need to help women”. No, we are missing out on a big swath of talent (most, but not all of which is female) because our pipeline is broken in ways that spew off a lot of stuff for no very good reason beyond convenience and habit. How can we do better?

  15. SR Says:

    I agree with everything here, but as a new mother who is availing of a generous industry maternity leave, I would like to unpack this statement:

    “When the reality is that your salary is barely more than the cost of daycare, then a lot of people wind up giving up and staying home with their kids rather than paying for daycare. In a heterosexual couple it will usually be the woman that winds up staying home since she is the one who needs to do things like breast feed anyways.”

    Breastfeeding is not a reason to give up a career. For one thing, most people don’t do it beyond a year. For another, the US has laws mandating that workplaces allow mothers to pump during the day (and if workplaces are not accommodating, that’s an instance of sexism in a sense). I think that’s a red herring anyway — really, what happens is that couples default to assuming the woman is the primary caregiver, and that therefore she should be responsible for earning more than daycare costs. There is also a lot of guilt placed on mothers for preferring to work over staying home with their babies. So it’s not sexism in STEM, perhaps, but a deep rooted set of societal pressures that lay the burden of parenting on mothers.

  16. Peng Says:

    Karen, thank you very much for taking the time to put this together. I wish more of society’s problems were approached this way. I especially like the follow through to suggesting some concrete ways to improve. Better yet, these are things individual institutions can do, and hopefully will be experiments that pay off and convince others to do likewise.

    On the flip side of the spectrum, I got my PhD and never intended to stay in academia. That was my preference from the start. Actually, from my friends and acquaintances, most students making it through a PhD are ready to move onto something else. Which frankly is also a good thing, considering how few positions there are available in academia. To stay in academia requires a level of intensity that not choosing it for work/life balance issues doesn’t necessarily mean a ” euphemism for family concerns”. I am a male, and even without the extra obstacles you describe, I knew I’d prefer a job in industry instead. I don’t consider that I failed or fell off some bus headed to academia town, I enjoyed that portion of my journey and got off at the stop I intended to.

    I do hope we can get to the point where people do not feel they are forced off the bus, but it sure must make the quantitative studies of these issues harder when the vast majority of PhD students are already getting off voluntarily due to preference. Your efforts to summarize the studies and bring in real numbers helps a lot. Thank you.

  17. Academic woman with multiple kids Says:

    Karen might I suggest you are overthinking family planning. Jump in and learn to swim while also insisting on getting your fair share of maternity leave and accommodation as you need, fight for it if you have too. You will be glad you did. Sexism is real and thriving but no5 in the absurd way people suggest.

  18. SR Says:

    “I’ve lost the citation now, but there was a study that showed that when men and women are given equal parental leave (in order to encourage fathers playing an active role), academic men actually gain an edge on their female counterparts as they continue to do some work, whereas women are physically burdened and so unable to.”

    My guess is that men are able to work because their wives take on the parenting burden, or they put their child in daycare despite being on leave, whereas women feel mom guilt over not parenting full time during their leaves. Some women do have physical complications but I’m willing to bet that’s not the biggest factor in the discrepancy. Let’s start evening the field by setting clearer expectations of what men are expected to do during their leaves (hint: it’s not a sabbatical; you can do just as much parenting as your female colleagues even if the world is telling you otherwise).

  19. Philip Miller Says:

    Jay #14
    I have a colleague from grad school who had kids while he and his wife were earning their PhDs, in CS and EE. I can say quite unequivocally that more affordable, more accessible, more convenient childcare would have made a huge difference in their ability to work effectively and happily in their fields. Cost was a major concern. Open space in a daycare when their kids were born, and not with a major waiting list was a big deal. Having it be on or close to campus would have saved them needing to drive and park and coordinate their car usage every day. Having extended hours so that they didn’t need to run from the office by 430 to pick the kids up by 5 strictly would have been great.

  20. Karen Morenz Says:

    Peng #16: That’s a fair point, “work life balance” affects men as well, for sure. But I was looking for a solid explanation for the gender imbalance in people who get a PhD and then leave. Lots of people leave because it’s just not the life they want, but for some reason women are much more likely to leave. If the only data I had was women who left complaining about “work life balance” then it would be hard to draw any conclusions, but there’s a lot of data showing that women who prioritize motherhood have trouble staying in STEM because STEM is not very good at accommodating that. And as far as I can tell, that appears to be the main difference between men and women that’s leading to such a different attrition rate.

  21. Karen Morenz Says:

    SR #15: I didn’t really mean that breastfeeding should make someone give up a career. I meant that if a couple realizes that cost-wise, the best strategy is for one of them to stay home with the kids, and all else being equal (I mean let’s assume they’re working the same job with the same salary and prospects in general, and they both have the same amounts of desire to work vs be the stay at home parent) then the logical choice (in a heterosexual couple) is to have the mother stay home – there are a few things that she can do that the father just can’t (be pregnant, breastfeed), so it’s probably easier that way. That’s not to say that all couples would have the mother stay home, but even if we lived in a perfectly sexism-free society, it seems to me that we’d still get a gender imbalance here just because of biology (and assuming humans are rational, hah!).

    Re: #18 – I’m kind of working from the premise that our hypothetical STEM woman’s partner is a feminist man who is interested in being a father. This seems to be the case on average in STEM couples who choose to have kids. I don’t have any data on how much of a problem fathers who treat paternity leave like sabbatical is, but it probably exists somewhere?

  22. Karen Morenz Says:

    Academic woman with multiple kids #17: Guilty as charged, I am indeed an overthinker. And I agree the only practical solution for me personally at the moment is to jump in and try my best. But it’s not really about me. On the large scale, this is a problem if we want to have more women stay in STEM, and so I’m hoping that by talking about it, we’ll start to see some institutional changes that will make things easier for women who want to have both a STEM career and a family.

  23. David Cinabro Says:

    Thanks for posting this. As a Department Chair it is very clear that we have work to do to level the playing field and this essay is an insightful look at where that work and resources should be directed.

  24. Antia Says:

    Thank you Karen for writing this article. I agree with a lot of your points. Also I tend to agree with Jay (#16) that many of the solutions are good for everyone involved, they just have a disproportionate impact on women (and other underrepresented groups). A good example is daycare, if there was guarantied, affordable daycare on campus for PhDs, Postdocs and Faculty on a particular university, I am pretty sure it would make a huge difference to the ability of such university to hire and retain their STEM talent. In fact, I am almost sure that it would make a much larger difference than the multiple administrative structures and thinktanks built around fixing the leaky pipeline. For context, I am ex-academic (Professor) woman with a couple of kids currently in a startup.

    Regarding the statement of we want more X in STEM. I don’t agree with it literally and would frame it differently. I don’t want women (or any other group) to leave STEM because of normal circumstances external to their ability to do STEM. It is not only unfair to them, but it is inefficient from the point of view of how to direct resources. We are having some of our best STEM people leave because of a fixable hardship that lasts around 5-6 years when an academic career typically lasts many decades.

  25. LG Says:

    There are some interesting parallels here to the legal world, especially “big law”—the relatively small, elite world of large law firms in big cities serving big clients. Much like STEM academia (and really academia more broadly), it’s post-graduate, it’s a pretty brutal lifestyle, and it’s very pyramidal—for every partner at the top, there are scores of toiling associates who end up leaving to do something else. And, just like in STEM academia, the vast majority of partners are men. That last fact is surprising because there are two major differences between law and STEM that would intuitively make it seem like law should be different:

    First, unlike in STEM graduate programs, the gender split in most law schools is either completely even or slightly favors women over men. (Gender distributions obviously vary within STEM fields, as Karen’s chart shows, and so this factor is more different for some than others.) And second, the compensation scheme in big law is surprisingly transparent. Historically, the law firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore essentially set the market rate for associates in New York, such that the entire market continues to operate on the “Cravath scale.” There’s basically a table for graduating class years, and it proceeds in lock step for the first ten years or so. Everyone from the same class year basically gets the same salary, and it’s more or less public and uniform across companies (with some notable holdouts that have “black box” compensation programs, like Jones Day—famous for its close ties to the Trump administration and about a billion sex discrimination lawsuits).

    So why the gender discrepancy at the top? A big part of it is that nothing about the career supports having a work-life balance, and that disproportionately falls on women. It’s so hard to raise a child and be a big-law attorney, that many women drop out and take jobs offering more flexibility, like government jobs or jobs in in-house law departments. And even the women who return to big law end up falling behind on the ladder when they take maternity leave. If you leave for any significant amount of time, you won’t be on the top of anyone’s list for the big client or for partner, even if your salary stays apace for a little while.

    None of this is to say that law doesn’t have its own, massive sexism problems. (Just look at the Alex Konzinski for a particularly egregious and high-profile example.) But the structural setup of big law industry also has a powerful negative effect, seemingly similar to the one described by Karen.

  26. Boaz Barak Says:

    Thank you Karen for this article. I agree with much of it, and in particular think that investing more in quality daycare would make a huge difference, and all of us, including people (like me) that no longer have preschool-aged kids, should be pushing our universities to expand their support in this area. This is of course not just relating to academics or STEM: I believe universal preschool would be a good public policy in general.

    A couple of years ago I wrote an essay about my personal experiences in academia ( https://windowsontheory.org/2017/08/16/men-in-computer-science/ ), while I am not claiming to be a representative sample, it could shed some light on the other side of the equation – “why men stay”.

    There is probably no single explanation to gender disparities, but the work-life balance piece is definitely a big part. It’s not just about STEM or academia – women and men face different expectation in society at large. For example, whenever I would chaperone a trip of my kids all the teachers would treat me as if I’m “father of the year”, while for the mothers it would just be treated as “par for the course”.

  27. Scott P. Says:

    An interesting study, and I agree with most of it, but I have one big issue. The post begins:

    “sexism can not fully explain why women with STEM PhDs are leaving STEM. “

    Then it goes on to say things like:

    “Women who stay in academia expect to marry later, and delay or completely forego having children, and if they do have children, plan to have fewer than their non-STEM counterparts (Sassler et al 2016, Owens 2012). Men in STEM have no such difference compared to their non-STEM counterparts;”

    and

    “Although many universities offer a “tenure extension” in cases where an assistant professor has had a child, this does not solve all of the problems. Taking a year off during that critical 5 or 6 year period often means that the research “goes bad””

    and

    “But it also means that there is often no one to fall back on when you need extra support, and because of biological constraints, this winds up impacting women more than men.”

    The system you are describing (accurately) fits the textbook definition of sexism.

  28. Nick Says:

    For anyone who wants an executive summary / tldr, I think this quote nicely sums up the main point:

    > To be very clear, I’m not saying that sexism is not a problem. What I am saying is that, thanks to the sustained efforts of a large number of people over a long period of time, we’ve reduced the sexism problem to the point where, at least at the graduate level, it is no longer the largest major barrier to women’s advancement in STEM. Hurray! That does not mean that we should stop paying attention to the issue of sexism, but does mean that it’s time to start paying more attention to other issues, like how to properly support women who want to raise a family while also maintaining a career in STEM.

    This sounds pretty reasonable to me, provided that (as another commenter pointed out) she’s really talking specifically about academic research, and not “STEM” in general. A woman working as a programmer in a corporate enterprise environment, for instance, might have a different sense of priorities.

  29. Paul Dulaney Says:

    A well-presented argument that is hard to refute. As a conservative my one objection is to the notion that “we all want there to be more women in tech.” What we SHOULD all want is for women to face no unfair hurdles to being and remaining in tech if they WANT to be. I don’t understand how in this instance the notion of liberty/freedom has become so twisted.

  30. Anna Says:

    Thank you for writing this, Karen. I’m a postdoc with a PhD in physics. Your essay perfectly describes my experience. I was not ready for kids in grad school (during which I never experienced overt sexism, outside of a few minor incidents). I had my first kid in the first year of my postdoc, and now in my second year I am pregnant again. I have a modern, egalitarian marriage with another academic. Despite our best efforts, the division of labor remains asymmetric. This asymmetry is much more pronounced than I expected before children. Thankfully, the sleep-deprivation phase only lasted the first 8 months or so, but that burden also fell mostly on me. I am lucky to have extremely supportive PIs who fought to make sure I got three months of paid maternity leave. I also benefited from the NSF’s career life/balance award, targeted at postdocs, which paid for a tech replacement while I was away (this person and my work is not interchangeable, but it helped ease the hit on our grant.) I have an affordable, in-home daycare conveniently located in my neighborhood. Despite being fortunate in these and other respects, motherhood in these early years has been a substantial hit to my productivity. I am hoping for the best, but when the time comes to enter the job market, I expect I’ll pay for it.

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  32. Nick Nolan Says:

    Dr. Karen. Have you examined your hypothesis against Nordic countries that have already implemented the proposals your are suggesting?

    It is a known paradox that The More Gender Equality, the Fewer Women in STEM, but does it also hold to women leaving STEM after degree?

  33. Candide III Says:

    How is any of this new? I remember reading very similar analyses 5 years ago, 10 years ago and 15 years ago. However, since the volume of the coverage around the sexism and misogyny angle has been so high recently, perhaps it’s time for a rerun.

    (i) One problem that didn’t get a mention is the infamous two-body problem of academic couples: synchronizing moves and finding work close enough to stay a couple. I know couples who had to live separately, meeting only on some weekends, for years, to keep their respective positions, and I know couples who split because of this. Singles’ logistics is much easier.

    (ii) As for self-reported reasons people give for leaving a field, I suspect that relatively fewer people are honest enough to admit to themselves – and say in response to a questionnaire – that “I left because I wasn’t good enough” rather than put forward some socially acceptable or even meritorious reason such as work-life balance. Not that this has to be a conscious cynical decision, oh no! Degrees and shades of self-deception and wilful-self-ignorance(?) are many. And this is not to minimize the very real work-life balance problems of a modern academic career: postdocs having to slave away for close to a decade now to have a chance to land a coveted tenure-track/permanent position, which positions are somehow always an order of magnitude fewer than the number of postdocs, etc.

    (iii) Given that desired family sizes seem to be consistently larger than achieved family sizes, the overall sub-replacement fertility and the well-known dysgenic patterns of reproduction in modern civilized countries, and the heritability of socially desirable traits, I’ll put my neck out and state as my considered opinion that the value to society of the scientific contribution of the average woman-in-STEM is probably less – way less – than the value of her having extra 2-3-4 children. And before someone retorts that that’s precisely why we need more free childcare and so on, such measures haven’t made much difference even in countries where they were applied most generously (France, Scandinavia). Now shoot me.

  34. Scott Says:

    Candide III #33:

      However, since the volume of the coverage around the sexism and misogyny angle has been so high recently, perhaps it’s time for a rerun.

    That was precisely my thinking. We now live in a world where 75% of the applicants to tenure-track faculty positions in life sciences at Berkeley are being rejected with no consideration of their research, purely because of insufficiently woke diversity statements. And where one woman who argued against this practice—Abigail Thompson, the chairwoman of the math department at UC Davis (and friend of Shtetl-Optimized guest blogger Greg Kuperberg)—is now facing numerous calls to resign for her wrong opinion (thankfully, Thompson has so far stood her ground). To anyone who knows the history of science in the USSR and its satellites, this is all damned scary (and unsurprisingly, academics who survived the Soviet system have been among the leaders in sounding the alarm about it).

    The irony is that, as Karen points out, these new draconian measures are still not addressing the biggest actual, addressable problem that drives many women away from academic STEM.

  35. Karen Morenz Says:

    Anna #30: I hope everyone reads your comment and gets a better understanding of the reality of raising babies. I think your story sounds quite typical (based on other women I’ve talked to). However, 3 months doesn’t seem like much to a Canadian. U of T(oronto) gives us a year off, paid. Which is good, because I hear it’s incredibly difficult to find childcare for a kid under 18 months, and even more amusingly, that the waitlist for spaces in such a daycare are often more than 18 months long.

    Nick #28 and Gvaerg #1: Yes, I did confuse academia and general STEM a lot in this piece. It’s a criticism I also received from my friend Alyson when I first published this. I can make up some excuses, but the reality is that it’s a good criticism. However, as any writer knows, if you only publish once your writing is perfect, you never publish. There are a lot of things I think could be better about this piece in terms of narrative structure and cohesiveness, but alas. Thanks for highlighting a good summary paragraph!

    Scott P. #27: I don’t think it makes sense to call it sexism. It’s not as if people designed academia to be contrary to women’s reproductive strategies. So it’s not really a case of discrimination based on sex (which is my textbook definition of sexism). But more to the point, if we want to address this issue, we don’t need to address “sexism” in general, we need to implement strategies to support women with families.

    Boaz Barak #26: That’s a nice article, but I think you’re putting a bit too much emphasis on the privileges of being a male surrounded by males. As a female in science, most of my mentors and friends have been male, but that hasn’t stopped us getting beers together, going sailing, playing hockey/basketball/badminton/soccer, watching movies, and generally being friends (I’m not much for video games). I do have to worry about sexual harassment, but that’s actually more of a concern at bars than in the uni, and on the flip side I get lots of extra attention (and I’m often more memorable to others) because I’m a woman, which gives me a different kind of edge.

  36. Karen Morenz Says:

    Nick Nolan #32/Candide III #33: I haven’t looked at how nordic countries attrition rates fare with respect to women who already obtained a PhD, that would be really interesting. I do cite a study which shows that institutions with better family friendly policies have twice as many women working at them….so that seems relevant, regardless of France and Scandinavia.

  37. barbara Says:

    First of all, many thanks to Karen for this great article. During my PhD and postdoc years I had similar thoughts and optimization plans as she described. Nothing worked as planned, but luckily, I am now a happy professor for theoretical computer science with a kindergarten kid. Looking back, I want to give you and all the other young men and women out there having similar thoughts John Lennons advice “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans.” sounds kind of simple, but helps on a personal scale, to turn the lemons life is sometimes presenting you, into lemonade. Living with the lemons only is no fun.

    On a more general level, I want to share my experiences with the German law. We are no nordic country and not France, but since over ten years, we have paid parental leave of 14 months if *both partners* take a leave. If just *one partner* (usually the woman) takes time of, this “breaks down” to 12 months. Of course, many guys just take two months of to go travelling or to renovate the house, while the woman cares for the child. But it is becoming normal that even men high in the hierarchy of whatever university or enterprise take a leave for two “daddy months”. And this makes it increasingly easier for couples, living a egalitarian marriage among academics or other responsible jobs to share the burden of this first year. It is becoming normal, that hiring a young guy can be as “dangerous” as a young woman, because he will go on parental leave. It is also becoming normal, that people are thinking on the long scale – people come back, after their kids are old enough. And, more and more men have some breaks in their careers, too.

    This process is slow, but I hope, that for the generation of my son, “having a family” will be for no one in an XOR relationship with “having a career” but will be in an OR relationship instead.

    My hope is in consistence with comment #33.3 I’d like to extend: I feel it worth considering “that the value to society of the scientific contribution of the average ” *PERSON* “-in-STEM is probably less – way less – than the value of ” *him or her* ” having extra 2-3-4 children”. I just think, that everybody should have the choice to freely decide which way to take. And at the moment this is IMHO not the case, neither for the men (see #26) nor for the women.

    But, I have the dream: society is changing :).

  38. Alan Says:

    Karen,

    The fears around age and pregnancy are magnified by the age of information.

    While my child’s mother was not academic stem, she has a PhD in STEM, and did not have her first child until age 35.

    The real crux is your point that Men will have a leg up over Women colleagues, simply because of the biological limitations around pregnancy.

    If if you could solve for biological differences, I don’t think it’s possible to both drive your career for maximum growth, and raise a family. This holds for both men and women.

    A key difference is Men usually are afforded that choice, while Women face pressure to a specific path.

  39. Candide III Says:

    Karen #36: I’m sure it’s very plausible that such measures improve retention to an extent, as barbara #37 says for Germany (but see also Nick #32). My point is that they don’t appreciably improve reproduction, and that goes for Germany too. It’s been stuck at 1.50 TFR for decades, and this despite the fact that e.g.

    In 2018, 598,364 children were born to mothers with German citizenship, while 189,159 children were born to mothers with foreign citizenship. /Wikipedia/

    Scott #34: unfortunately you’re stuck with the diversity-screechers as long as you subscribe to equalitarianism as the core value: every time you try to make a stand on the basis of freedom of speech or whatever, they can demolish your position with equalitarianism and you have no answer to them except to plead for exceptions, like “science is really valuable and we ought not to pursue diversity and equality of outcomes so aggressively there so as not to destroy it”, or even just “don’t be so mean or I’ll… (what? take my ball and go home?)” which is basically* what your and Pinker’s arguments on NIPS and diversity statements amount to. The fact of your shared principles is attested to by the sincere genuflections you and Pinker emit every time you address these issues.

    * I may be exaggerating slightly for rhetorical purposes.

  40. Scott Says:

    Candide III #39: But “science is really valuable” and “don’t be so mean” do both strike me as important considerations in these debates! 🙂

    More seriously, my position is extremely simple: proportionate representation of different segments of society is a positive value worth pursuing, it’s just not a value that gets to override every other value. As the extreme illustration, I forget who quipped that, if a massive asteroid were going to strike next week, Salon and The Guardian would rush out with articles like “Life on earth about to end: women and minorities hardest hit.” 🙂

  41. Wyrd Smythe Says:

    We’ve long chosen to make the world a friendlier place for the differently abled. We just need to chose to make it a friendlier place for families and children.

  42. SR Says:

    @21: Yes, it would be interesting to see the data on how many fathers don’t truly stay home with their kids during leave. I think the assumption that an egalitarian father will always step up is a bit naive. From my anecdotal experience, even the most involved fathers don’t stay home during leave. I can’t blame them — if I were a man and didn’t have the expectations of society upon me, I wouldn’t take my leave for real either! I really really don’t like staying home during leave — it’s boring and tiring, but I would never play truant from it like my male colleagues because I’d feel like a bad mother. I would even say this in a non anonymous forum! As someone who was recently pregnant and is still breastfeeding, I can tell you these are minor inconveniences in comparison to unfair societal expectations.

  43. Ashley Lopez Says:

    Karen,

    You mentioned that “women leave the field of Chemistry in greater proportions following their BSc than they leave Physics”. Do you think this is because mathematics based disciplines do not need labwork? Because you could also work from home, at least to a much larger extend?

  44. Ashley Lopez Says:

    Karen/Scott/(anyone else)

    (Somewhat of in continuation to my comment above) do the ‘theoretical’ people in the academia have a better work life balance in general (i.e., even irrespective of gender)?

  45. Pete Says:

    Scott P #27 – I don’t think the way we in principle value academic research (as opposed to the known bias if a female name is on the paper) is as such sexist. There’s a huge premium placed on being the first to do something. This means taking a shortf career break, or reduced work time, is disproportionately bad for the career.

    If you take a career break, then the fresh ideas you have will not be worked on until you’re back to your career, and by that time some of them will have been worked out by other people and others were useful to do something that someone else now did a different way. If you took a long career break, that’s usually obvious because the papers are already out, but if you’re away for six months, what happens is you come back and try to pick up from where you were, and after a few months many of the things you expected to publish are done by someone else; you effectively lost a year of working time, the second six months in doing things which you (unknowingly) were never going to get published first.

    If you’re on reduced working time, similarly things happen more slowly and you’re more likely to be scooped by other groups. Even if you are in principle on 100% time, but you have a family, it’s constraining. Every so often, a new useful idea comes into a field, or it becomes obvious that both you and another group are working towards some conjecture. If you don’t have a family, then you can do a one month work binge, write (badly) 80 pages and get the solution out first (or at least around the same time). If you do, you know your 80 pages are going to take 6 to 9 months at least; if your solution comes six months after the first solution, then it is not valued.

    SR #15 – pumping milk isn’t easy for everyone. My wife found it very physically demanding and frustrating (much more than breastfeeding) and wasn’t able to concentrate on doing anything at the same time. So while we each took 4 months off work in turn for our children, during my 4 months at work I could more or less work, whereas during my wife’s she couldn’t do much more than keep up with teaching. There’s not much our employer could have done to avoid that, and indeed what they could do (providing space, fridge et cetera) they did.

  46. Jelmer Renema Says:

    Let’s start by saying that I agree 100% with what Karen says:

    But Scott, what utterly baffles me is your ‘let’s teach the left a lesson’ angle on this. The notion that socio-economic problems are the root cause of socio-cultural problems, and that therefore when fixing things, we should focus on the socio-economic problems not the socio-cultural ones is literally the 1 sentence summary of how orthodox Marxism thinks about the relation between the two. And there are politicians in literally every western country in the world whose whole approach to policy is based on this idea (see Sanders’ interaction with the NYT, for example).

  47. Scott Says:

    Jelmer Renema #46: While no one would call me a Marxist (or even a BernieBro), I’m a huge fan of identifying socio-economic problems and then trying to fix them. That’s why I’m a passionate Democrat, always but never more so than today: because in the US, the Democratic Party is the place where socio-economic problems at least get debated, and better or worse solutions to them proposed, while the Republican Party has become the place where anyone trying to solve the problems (rather than worsen them) gets denounced as an elitist or a cuck.

    My beef is not at all with the left itself—I’m part of “the left,” at least by American definitions—but rather with the identity-politics, public-shaming streak on the left, which is a much newer phenomenon. If you spend, like, any time at all on the Internet, you can learn that this streak has become a gigantic vehicle to take fundamentally high-school sentiments—“ewww, look at those gross nerds, how totally gross would it be to have sex with them???”—and then to dress those sentiments up in the vocabulary of social justice and feminism and moral righteousness. And this is a phenomenon that twice nearly destroyed my life—once when I was a scared teenager, and then a second time five years ago when I dared to write about it—so it shouldn’t be some huge mystery if I’m against it! Not only is it evil; it’s also an extremely powerful way for the left to lose elections. And while I won’t quote from Karen’s email to me without permission, it was one where she eloquently came out against the public-shamers as well.

  48. Edan Maor Says:

    Scott #47:

    > If you spend, like, any time at all on the Internet, you can learn that this streak has become a gigantic vehicle to take fundamentally high-school sentiments—“ewww, look at those gross nerds, how totally gross would it be to have sex with them???”—and then to dress those sentiments up in the vocabulary of social justice and feminism and moral righteousness.

    For what it’s worth, I’m on the internet a lot, I’m reading and listening to a *lot* more politics than I used to, and I don’t at all have that same sense that you do re: the “anti-nerd” sentiments. Not to say you’re wrong – I’ve probably just self-selected out of places that have that attitude (plus I’m probably less sensitive to these sentiments in general, despite in many ways fitting that definition). Just saying that you shouldn’t assume everyone has that same sense or instantly knows what you are talking about, even if they agree with you on like 99% of things. (also as an implicit example that you *can* be on the internet without encountering this feeling).

  49. anon_father Says:

    Karen Morenz:

    Thanks for the great article and analysis.

    I’m a man (so take my analysis with a grain of salt I guess), but I agree with you 100% that this is something not talked about very much, which absolutely astounds me given its huge impact.

    I think you’re even missing some other complications, e.g. harder than average pregnancies. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, she had about 1.5-2 months where she was basically unable to work. Nothing medically scary – just particularly hard “morning sickness” which left her bed-ridden for most of that time. With the second kid, it was similar, plus she was of course unable to take care of our first kid during this time (she was a stay-at-home mom at that time).

    In our case, it wasn’t that bad since my wife prefers to be a stay-at-home mom while the kids are young. This is unusual in our country btw (Israel) – most people within our socio-economic/demographic status will have two working parents and children at daycare from about 3-6 months of age.

    But let’s do the math here – if we want 3 children, aged 2 years apart – my wife would get pregnant, lose 2 months of work during the pregnancy, then lose about 6 months *after* the pregnancy (3 months is paid leave by law here, with an additional 3 where you are guaranteed to keep your job, so many people take 6).

    So for ~5-6 years, just in terms of paid leave and health-related issues, she’d lose about a year’s worth of actual work. There is no way that *doesn’t* impact women’s salary levels and status – and that’s just a relatively standard arrangement.

  50. Scott Says:

    Edan Maor #48: It sounds like you’ve indeed been able to avoid the parts of the Internet that I’m talking about (SneerClub, RationalWiki, Amanda Marcotte, Arthur Chu, Salon, The Guardian, huge parts of Twitter…), in which case I envy you! But if anything good came out of the comment-171 affair, surely it was that the response to the comment overwhelmingly illustrated the reality of the phenomena that the comment was talking about.

  51. Danilo Says:

    It has been brought up already, but I’ve always considered this “sexism” (which I roughly believed to be “genderism”): I am not sure what a “textbook definition of sexism” is, so my apologoies, but I believe it to be anything targetted at a particular sex (not necessarily sexual). As an example, knowing a few women who had painful menstrual cycles, I’ve long argued that equality should mean that women get an extra paid day off every month, and of course, this applies even more when it comes to child bearing — I’ve considered this the sexism of the society for not respecting biological realities of different sexes (here in Serbia, a parent also gets 12 months of paid leave with 3 initial months exclusive to mothers, but outside of government jobs, employers will come up with ways to defeat it or simply not hire women). I know I am conflating a few related topics, but if we acknowledge the differences between sexes (like Karen indeed does), we can work better towards addressing actual gender-related inequalities. FWIW I have a sister in academia, my wife is a MSc in CS holding an engineering job, so I know how wildly different “their worlds” are from mine.

    Not to be taken wrongly: perhaps separating “sexual” and gender-related inequalities is the way forward to achieving some of the goals we all strive for. But as has been brought up already, there are few of us who already thought this was considered “sexism”. Perhaps it’s worth coming up with some new terminology to describe the issues Karen is raising, to help us all join around the same goals.

  52. anon Says:

    A really helpful, informative post. Thank you, Karen!

    It’s nice to see push back against the cacophony of voices blaring that sexism and racism is rampant in STEM academia.

    It’s particularly comforting in the wake of recent posts (just getting caught up on this) where scholars like David Karger, Gil Kalai, Boaz Barak, and Yisong Yu stood silent while Anima Anandkumar spewed invective at Scott.

    Personally, I’m most disappointed by David Karger’s behavior. This is someone who (in my opinion) has made some really interesting contributions to the field. But it seems he cannot register the disconnect between calling someone a friend, and supporting the shaming of said friend for trying to hold a civil debate.

    I’m thankful that Scott continues his blog in the face of such opposition. It is a brave thing to do, and the airing such discussions is invaluable.

  53. Scott Says:

    anon #52: David Karger already apologized to me for giving the appearance (which he didn’t intend) of supporting my shaming. And then, ironically, he got a small taste of what I’ve been dealing with for the past few years, when he tried to convince someone on the other side that it would be better to attack ideas rather than people, and was (he says) denounced as a misogynist himself for his efforts. So thanks for your support but please, let’s cut David a break.

    (Also, Boaz Barak has never even given the appearance of supporting my shaming. I’m proud to count him as one of my best friends in TCS, even or especially when he disagrees with me.)

  54. Edan Maor Says:

    Scott #50: Oh I don’t doubt at all that these exist – I could probably name half of those off the top of my head – they’re places I visited, got an impression of, then have mostly avoided since then.

    Of course, you’re much braver than I am – with your world-famous blog, you’re a considerably more visible person than I am, and despite all your detractor’s efforts, you continue to write about these topics when you feel strongly about them, to your great credit. (And of course, I am in no way suggesting you or anyone deserves the kind of treatment you received – just pointing out that other people who are ostensibly in the same bucket as you, will not necessarily share your experiences about this).

  55. Michael Says:

    @Scott#47- I agree with you that large parts of the left have problems with “nerds”/virgins. But I’m wondering if you’re exaggerating its role in what you went through.
    I know because I’ve seen the same reaction in people with OCD. For example, a Catholic who suffers from OCD might be told that they’ll get better as long as they follow their religion strictly, find that the stricter they try to behave the worse their OCD gets, find that they get better when they risk doing something wrong and then develop a grudge against Catholicism.
    What feminists did was monstrous, It was known as early as 1990 that kids with OCD turned into a mess of guilt and fear when they tried to make sure they wouldn’t hurt anyone and that OCD often isn’t diagnosed for years after it first manifests. Feminists then proceeded to launch campaigns with slogans like “If you’re not sure, you don’t have consent” and “if you’re not sure don’t do it” while “forgetting” to mention any possible negative effects . (I know that you’ve question the validity of the DSM before but the PHENOMENON is definitely real.) They should have told the truth and let the chips fall where they may.
    But the point is their lie didn’t JUST hurt nerdy boys. There were girls who were worried they were turning into murderers and rapists. They were motivated by two things. The first was cowardice. But the second was their vanity, their self-importance. A guy grabbed their butt and said they were asking for it- and now they’re told they have to tell a mentally ill kid he needs to risk violating consent? And he claims that “If you’re not sure, don’t do it” makes his condition worse?
    But the point is that other people didn’t want to admit it either, because of the same fear, the same pride. I was crippled in a car accident and now I have to tell some crazy kid he needs to risk hitting someone? My mom beat me with a stick and now I have to tell some crazy mom she needs to risk hurting her kids? Catholicism saved my life- helped me recover from being a drug addict- and now I have to tell some nut he needs to risk committing a mortal sin?
    My point is twofold. The first is that some people will always hate people with OCD because their condition implies that taking small risks of hurting others or doing something wrong is healthy. That was, after all, the prime lesson of your story. That’s probably what motivated the feminists, not hatred of nerds. Of course, “They didn’t hate nerdy boys, they were just willing to let thousands of children of both genders suffer because they didn’t want to admit an uncomfortable truth” isn’t any better.
    But my other point is I wonder if your experiences have left you with a bias against feminism, just like others have a bias against other religions and ideologies. Realizing that you could have been helped years earlier (and that what others expected you to do was making your condition WORSE) if only the “adults” had been honest in the first place isn’t easy. I realize the burden was on them to tell the truth in the first place but you might want to be aware of such a bias.

  56. Doug S. Says:

    This might be a stupid or inappropriate question to ask, but… aren’t there far more PhDs than academic positions available, so keeping people in academic STEM is an entirely zero sum game? In other words, doesn’t every extra woman retained in academic STEM mean that some man ends up leaving instead, so there’s still the same number of “wasted” PhDs – they’re just distributed more equitably?

  57. Scott Says:

    Michael #55: But the result of everything I went through was not that I turned against feminism. I simply decided that feminism (as perceived by the Internet-reading public) needed to be improved, by jettisoning the nerd-shaming stuff, and by realizing that (as Scott Alexander put it) shy male nerds and feminists are mostly on the same side and trying to solve the same problem. Do you not see this as a proportionate response to a problem that you yourself agree is real, and eloquently described? Maybe not something that everyone in the world needs to worry about, but something that someone should probably worry about, ideally someone personally affected by it? But then what is there left for you and me to disagree about? 🙂

  58. Karen Morenz Says:

    Ashley Lopez #43/44: Yes, I do think it has a lot to do with the lab work. My friend in math just had a baby, and she plans to take him to the office sometimes, whereas I would never bring a baby to my office because the frequency of leaks of chemical fumes into the hallways is far too high. Moreover, I would not want to work in the lab at all while pregnant – too much exposure to toxins (but I know other women feel differently about this).

    And yes, from my observations, theorists tend to have a better work life balance. They still work really hard, but they are less likely to spend 14 hours per day 6 days a week in lab – no one can really think for that long, but you can totally clean glassware and set up a zillion trials of the same thing. This is part of the reason I’m moving my own research more towards theory (but also because I love love love math).

    Anon_father #49: Yes! I mean, my article was getting really long so I didn’t want to dive too much into all the possible complications, but that is exactly the point. Have you encountered any good strategies to mitigate this?

    Danilo #51: I think it’s counterproductive to call biology sexist, but a lot of people have brought this up. The top google definition of sexism (and therefore obviously the right one) is, “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination, typically against women, on the basis of sex.” I’m thinking I might have to write a follow up piece, “Just because there’s a difference, doesn’t mean there’s an “-ism”” The facts of sexual reproduction are not discrimination or prejudice, they’re just reality. Like, you wouldn’t call the existence of mountains ableist, just because some people are unable to climb them. But, especially with the term sexism, people tend to get derailed into identity politics and left vs right and stop talking about the actual problem. I’d rather avoid that and just look at solutions to the problem. Seems we’re starting to get a bit derailed here with some kind of Scott history that I’m unaware of…

  59. Karen Morenz Says:

    Doug S. #57: Yes, there are finite positions. I’m of the opinion that no PhD is wasted, because no learning is ever wasted. However, if you look at it from the universities’ point of view, they want the best people being profs. Right now, lots of women are dropping out of the race who would probably be better than some of the men who are not dropping out of the race. If the university wants to have the best professors possible, it’s in their best interest to make being a professor a viable career path for mothers, otherwise they’ll be missing out on a lot of talented mothers and replacing them with somewhat less talented others.

  60. Barna Saha Says:

    Thanks Karen for the nice essay, and Scott for posting it. When I was a graduate student, I was advised by a senior professor not to marry before getting a faculty position and not to have kids before getting tenure. At that time, I was already married. So, I had to ignore his very well-meaning advice. I was pregnant right after graduation. I had just joined an industrial research lab then. To my awe, I learnt that there is no paid maternity leave for employees who are expecting kids on their first year of employment. Thanks to my young age, I had a very smooth pregnancy, and thanks to my manager, I was allowed to work from home for some time after the baby was born. At that time, my husband got a coveted tenure-track faculty offer from a university 1200 miles away. This started a rather formidable experience with the `two body problem’. I do not recall much of how we survived those years–it was difficult. When I first went into the faculty job market, I hadn’t been to any conferences for more than two years and was totally out of touch with my academic community. Anyway, I did get a faculty position, and eventually, our two body problem also got resolved after being apart for four years. Nowadays, universities and industries have better maternity leave policies (I think?). Some universities even try to address needs of dual-career couples (or they advertise to do so). But for most, the policy is still very primitive, not uniformly applied, or completely lacking. I hope, Karen, you decide to stay in the academia, and through open dialogue and conversation, we can bring positive changes to the system. Till then, we can share our experiences so that women do not feel alone in the process. I co-organize, TCS Women events (https://sigact.org/tcswomen/) at STOC. If Karen, or any of the woman readers of this blog would like to join our event, please send me an email.

  61. Doug S. Says:

    Karen Morentz #57: Yes, that makes sense. My own not-particularly-serious “solution” to the motherhood career penalty is mandatory paternal leave – not just mandatory in the sense that employers would have to offer it, but also mandatory in the sense that new fathers would have to take it whether they want to or not. Then everyone would be at an equal disadvantage, so women wouldn’t be handicapped in their career ambitions compared to men. 😉

  62. Karen Morenz Says:

    Doug S. #61: NO! No no no that’s actually wrong and there’s data to show that it’s wrong (which I would link but my mom is mad that I’m late for dinner, so maybe later). The TL;DR is that when men take paternity leave, they DO NOT face the medical problems associated with breastfeeding and pregnancy, some stories of which are included in this thread, and there is no way you can prohibit them from continuing to answer emails, write articles/grant proposals/etc, but if they take a year off they do get an extension on deadlines which makes them overall more competitive than their female counterparts when they “come back” to work. That is absolutely not the solution. Any solution which ignores the biological fact that pregnancy is a very challenging experience for many women is no solution at all. The fact is that men and women are NOT the same, and we need to stop being squeamish about it and actually deal with the problem.

  63. Karen Morenz Says:

    Dinner completed, I can now link the very relevant study:

    https://www.iza.org/publications/dp/9904

    Abstract:

    Many skilled professional occupations are characterized by an early period of intensive skill accumulation and career establishment. Examples include law firm associates, surgical residents, and untenured faculty at research-intensive universities. High female exit rates are sometimes blamed on the inability of new mothers to survive the sustained negative productivity shock associated with childbearing and early childrearing in these environments. Gender-neutral family policies have been adopted in some professions in an attempt to “level the playing field.” The gender-neutral tenure clock stopping policies adopted by the majority of research-intensive universities in the United States in recent decades are an excellent example. But to date, there is no empirical evidence showing that these policies help women. Using a unique data set on the universe of assistant professor hires at top-50 economics departments from 1985-2004, we show that the adoption of gender-neutral tenure clock stopping policies substantially reduced female tenure rates while substantially increasing male tenure rates.

  64. Joshua Cook Says:

    I really enjoyed this article. Its nice to see a well informed article that takes the time to figure out what problems are causing the biggest issues AND proposes, basic, reasonable suggestions on how to fix them. Better maternity care, and especially, ease of re entering the workforce are really big deals. Though I would like to point out that this article is very heavily biased toward university work as opposed to industry work.

    During my time as a software engineer I had several coworkers who had children, took their maternity leave and came back. And a lot of software companies offer various part time careers that have more flexible hours. Big tech companies are starving for high quality talent and they will do whatever they can to retain them. That said, I also know my more tenured female coworkers had no children, and some of my coworkers wives chose to be stay at home moms (who had previously been in tech).

    At least at my company, one of the biggest issues is that job postings were very aggressive and really marketed to young men. Our company had problems attracting woman in the first place. Its funny actually our manager was saying one day that she felt bad for bringing in one of our senior female engineers to so many job interview loops. To some extent it actually inhibited her promotion because she had less time to fulfill the criteria of her promotion.

    One other mistake I think we make a lot, that this article definitely makes, is just grouping all these jobs as “STEM” when they are in fact very different with very different job outlooks. A Doctors career is different than a industry researcher’s is different from a university researcher’s is different than an engineer’s. Like they do have a lot of things in common, but like the personal plus and minuses of the different fields within STEM make a huge difference.

  65. TG Says:

    Thank you Karen for this very well-written analysis, and thank you Scott for giving voice to this kind of content. I think it is worrying that one has to be afraid, or at least *nervous*, about posting something like this, but hey, here we are in 2020.

  66. Karen Morenz Says:

    Barna Saha #60: Thanks for your kind words – that sounds like a crazy situation and I’m glad to hear it worked out for you. But I do think these long distance situations that are so common in academia are a big part of why many women wind up giving up and calling it quits. I’m currently in a long distance relationship myself – so far 1.5 years, and we expect it to last at least another 2. So far, we’re both doing our best to stay in academia, but to be honest there’s only so much I’m willing to sacrifice for this career.

    And I really appreciate the invite. However, given that we’re on Scott’s blog and I too have failed to offend literally everyone, perhaps I’ll say this:

    I often feel like these events which cater specifically to women are contributing to the perception that women are fundamentally different than men and need extra help in order to “make it” in science. Your TCS Women link shows the following goals:

    1. to provide a platform for women in Theoretical Computer Science to connect with other women who share some of the same research interests,
    2. to help women succeed in their professional endeavors and
    3. to help make the TCS community discrimination-free and welcoming to everyone.

    I’m frankly not particularly interested in #1, as I’m happy to connect with any person of any gender who shares my research interests – I think that, when talking about research interests, gender should be of no import (unless the research is about gender, which mine is not). So I’m not looking for a platform to connect with other women specifically. #2 is exactly the sort of thing which I think perpetuates the notion that women require extra special help to succeed, reminiscent of Victorian ideas of some kind of fundamental feminine frailty. #3 seems somewhat disingenuous: if the event declares connecting women with other women to be an explicit goal, it appears to me that it would discriminate against people of other genders and make them feel unwelcome.

    Despite my misgivings about these sorts of events, I have attended some locally to see if my impressions were misguided. So far, I have not been convinced to change my mind, but I haven’t been to many, and I would love if you could share some data about how these initiatives create a positive impact.

  67. anon Says:

    @ Scott #53

    To clarify, I didn’t claim Boaz supported a shaming attack, he didn’t. But he and others stood by while Anima behaved like a bully. This both encourages her to keep doing it, and normalizes her behavior in the community.

    Those emails from people who are afraid to air their views? It’s because of bullies like Anima. Could she review a paper or NSF proposal objectively if she suspected the authors’ views on this issue, or related topics, deviated by even an epsilon amount from hers?

    “And then, ironically, he got a small taste of what I’ve been dealing with for the past few years,…”

    It’s what MANY of us have been dealing with for the past several years, although you certainly experienced it to a much higher degree than most. That’s why it’s frustrating to hear statements that call for worsening the situation, like:

    “This discussion is similar to discussions I’ve seen on my lab’s mailing list that I have come to consider in-themselves harmful to women and other minorities in our community.”

    Part of our job in academia is to encourage open, civil, rational discussion on any topic. Yet, many of us – just by not being vocal in our opposition – are instead teaching students the opposite. Keep your mouth shut, your head down, and go along with opportunistic bullies like Animashree Anandkumar, or you’re risking your career in STEM.

    I’m not sure what to do about it, but I’m fairly sure that staying silent is only making it worse.

  68. Gil Kalai Says:

    Hi everybody,

    Let me mention a simple step that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem took a few years ago. The university recommended that all academic activities like research seminars and department colloquiums will end before 15:30 in the afternoon. So, for example, our colloquium at the math department that traditionally, for more than eight decades, was on Thursdays at 4 was moved to 2:30. I think that this was a very good move by the university which is a small, important (and inexpensive) step in the direction that Karen Morenz recommends to go.

    I also recommend Boaz’ essay on the matter. (#26) to which, at the time, I wrote a detailed comment. In particular, I shared Boaz’ opinion that advancing women in academia (and other areas) is an important challenge and I was glad to see that many men share this view. Boaz’ essay described some systematic disadvantages of women in academic life to which I wrote then (and still think now) that: “Certainly, systematic biases against women exist. Moreover, good understanding of the issues and good mechanisms for improvements can help to overcome other related matters of bias and injustice.”

  69. Doug S. Says:

    Karen Morentz #63: The tenure clock policies evaluated by this study very specifically do not require people to take time off. You’re certainly right, though, that a policy that only stops fathers from working “on paper” instead of actually impairing their ability to work toward advancement certainly wouldn’t achieve the “desired” effect of screwing them as badly as mothers get screwed.

  70. Karen Morenz Says:

    Doug S.

    I don’t think we’re doing anyone any service by forcing people who want to do something productive to not be productive. That’s just nonsense.

    In this specific case, I think you’re willfully ignoring that regardless of how much leave you force upon fathers, they will never have to go through the physical trials of pregnancy (nor would it help anything if we somehow forced that on them as well). You can’t make males and females indistinguishable just by refusing to distinguish between them. Although males and females are similar in many ways, they are not the same. There is no place for squeamishness about that fact in this discussion. If we want to address this issue, we need to be honest about the differences between males and females. In the case of becoming a parent, females have wildly different needs and concerns than males do, and we need to deal with that using specifically targeted policies.

  71. Barna Saha Says:

    Karen #66 Thanks for sharing your viewpoint. Let me say a few words about why we felt the need to start TCS Women.

    As graduate students, it is important to attend the top conferences in your research area. However, it is very difficult to get travel funds when you do not have a paper in these competitive conferences and/or your Ph.D. advisor is not flooding with grant money. TCS Women is an initiative to make this process easier for women students, where we take the burden of raising funds and provide travel scholarships. We also started a “rising star workshop” at the last year STOC where the speakers were women students who were close to finishing their Ph.D. This was open to all STOC attendees and was extremely well attended. Some even said this was the best part of STOC’19. Indeed all these mean giving more opportunities/platforms to women students as far as representation at STOC is concerned. But the percentage of women attendance at STOC has been so low compared to men over the years, we could not help but think of ways to improve it. The reason we colocate with STOC and Theory fest is precisely because we want women to interact with everyone and be part of this important TCS event.

    Whether our event will help retain women in STEM on the long run is very difficult to predict. We are in our third year, so cannot provide much statistics. We need to address the causes at their root. But I like to feel when a journey is tough, having some friends who have been through a similar path makes the process more endurable. In that sense, women sometimes could relate with women better. At STOC, we just set aside a lunch time for the women participants to meet where senior women researchers share their experiences. I do not think male participants should feel discriminated by that, though we are very much open to ideas how we can arrange events to facilitate more two-way conversation. At the end when we said, we would like to help women to succeed, we wanted to commit our time to provide any mentorship needed. Almost everyone needs mentorship, but our time and resources are also limited.

    Anyway, ML/Networking communities also have similar events, but I do not know whether they provide explicit scholarships, how their organization/events are structured etc. In general, they are much bigger communities, and I cannot provide insights on those events. What I have written here is my personal accounting of organizing TCS Women.

  72. Lou Scheffer Says:

    Karen said: “From a study mentioned above, it’s clear that providing free and conveniently located childcare makes a colossal difference to women’s choices of whether or not to stay in STEM ”

    This is strictly anecdotal, but from my experience the “convenient” part, even without the “free”, helps a lot, and it’s relatively cheap to implement from the institution’s side. Where I work, they invited a commercial day care/preschool company to set up shop in a series of rooms on the third floor, and synchronized their hours with typical working hours. This is super efficient (probably a hour per family per day saved) as you drive to work, drop off the kid(s), then walk down the hall to the office. You can see them during the day, respond quickly if they are sick or upset, and pick them up when you leave. There is at least some sense of community, as lots of other parents are doing the exact same routine at the same time.

    Though I’m not privy to the budget, I think this is relatively inexpensive for the institute, who mostly provide space.

    I think this is helpful in several ways. If you are thinking about having kids, it provides a very explicit path forward that you can plan around. You can see the experience of others before deciding to have kids yourself. It drops the time overhead of young kids considerably. It may (I’m not a mom) help with the “mom guilt” problem, with lots of other STEM moms doing the exact same thing.

    Anecdotally, it seems to help a lot in retaining folks (both women and men, but more women) who would like to continue in their STEM jobs while having kids. I’d love to see statistics on this to see if the effect is real, since it’s a relatively low cost intervention.

  73. nickybar Says:

    Thank you, Karen, for your article and Scott for posting it. It is so refreshing to read a thoughtful article on this topic; just a straight desire to understand the dynamics affecting women who wish to be mothers, wives AND scientists. I have struggled with this issue all my life. If we could just stagger the period of motherhood with the period of intense science work, I think brilliant women could contribute more to STEM breakthroughs.

  74. Gabriel Says:

    Anon #67: Applying the principle of “silence is consent” to online forums is silly: If it were true, you would have to spend your entire 24 hours a day just refuting and protesting stuff on the internet, and you would still get only a tiny fraction of the job done.

    You don’t know how many people silently roll their eyes in response to other people’s silly comments.

    (And since I’m already here: Karen, great article!)

    (And a disclaimer: My non-addressing any of the other commenters above should not be construed as approval nor disapproval of them.)

  75. nickybar Says:

    Thank you, Karen, for your article and Scott for posting it. It is so refreshing to read a thoughtful article on this topic; just a straight desire to understand the dynamics affecting women who wish to be mothers, wives AND scientists. I have struggled with this issue for most of my career. If we could just stagger the period of motherhood with the period of intense science work, I think brilliant women could contribute more to STEM breakthroughs.

  76. Daniel Says:

    Interesting post! I’m convinced by your argument that making science more family-friendly would help with gender balance.

    I’d be curious to see more about the comparison with the humanities, social sciences, and medicine. Many fields in these areas have more equal gender balances or are skewed towards women, despite having at least superficially similar similar demands on people in their late 20s/early 30s. Do you know of any good research on what explains the differences?

  77. Anon Says:

    @ Gabriel #74

    What you view as “silly comments” is content that I, and apparently many others, find threatening. I think the emails that Scott received attest to this.

    Anima may have expressed them in an especially shrill manner, but the tactic of shaming and the implications of “toxic/racist/misogynistic” behavior are sufficient to cow many people in academia. And I believe these tactics have gained traction, unfortunately.

    Rolling your eyes is fine, but it doesn’t communicate opposition. I think it’s valuable to be push back overtly against the idea that, on the topic of sex/gender/race, only certain groups are allowed to hold opinions, or that any civil, nuanced discussion should be shut down, etc.

    None of the recognizable names in that discussion — who seemed to be following the discussion given their postings — pushed back one iota. David Karger even singled out Anima as though she was making a reasonable contribution.

    I think it’s ridiculous to label Scott with any of these pejoratives. I’m saying so, and it doesn’t entail a crushing amount of work, or some never-ending online responsibility, as you characterize it.* It takes 10 minutes.

    It’s a strange situation. In our younger years, the bullies you or I encountered were probably inexperienced and not particularly formidable (although, they would have seemed so at the time). People like Animashree are a later incarnation of the same thing, just much smarter and using a wider assortment of tools (social media, standing in their academic community) to hurt those they disagree with.

    ———————-

    * It’s interesting, given your concern about how burdensome it is to correct misconceptions online, that you would spend time to write a comment about how silly this all is…

  78. Karen Morenz Says:

    Lou Scheffer – Good point! Honestly, time is worth more than money. Here at U of T(oronto), the problem is that the nearby daycare has a >18 month waiting list. Many post docs are shorter than that.

    Daniel – I didn’t bother to research the humanities etc. very much because I personally have no intention of joining them. As far as I know, Med School (for example) has done a much better job of accommodating people taking mid-career leave. It’s perfectly normal for people to do an entire PhD in the middle of their medical school training, and I understand they’re similarly good at accommodating pregnancies. But, the same doesn’t make sense for research, since (as I mentioned) things move too fast, get scooped or otherwise go bad.

    I think that the non-lab sciences might have it a lot easier for being more amenable to working from home. For me personally, in a chemistry building, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near my lab if I were pregnant or breastfeeding. That place is full of toxins that I wouldn’t want anywhere near a little baby undergoing brain development. I hear that books are much less toxic.

    Anon – It’s a little hard to take your righteousness seriously when you comment as Anon about the need to stand up to bullies. Or is that your real name? (Not that I disagree with the sentiment, but certainly I do agree with Gabriel that silence is not consent, let alone approval).

  79. Karen Morenz Says:

    Barna Saha: I guess my personal opinion is that it doesn’t matter if my friends are men or women, so I don’t feel the need for a conference which caters specifically to connecting me to other women. And I don’t think you addressed why this doesn’t contribute to the perception that women are fundamentally fragile and incapable of science without extra help (e.g. they somehow need this platform to share their work, otherwise it wouldn’t get shared, they need this targeted funding/scholarships…because? The obvious conclusion is that it’s because they’re not good enough to get into a conference that isn’t specifically for women. I’m sure that’s not the case, but you haven’t explained why this event and these scholarships don’t perpetuate that perception).

    I don’t know if men feel discriminated against by your exclusive lunch for women to meet senior female researchers, but I’m absolutely sure women would feel discriminated against if someone hosted a men only lunch for men to meet senior male researchers (and rightly so!). This double standard is also concerning.

    On the other hand, I can tell that you believe in what you’re doing and that your intending to help, and I’m happy for anyone who is trying to do good to keep doing what they’re doing.

  80. Karen Morenz Says:

    Barna Saha: I guess I’ve just had a deep-seated distrust of these women in ______ events ever since I was invited to a women in engineering event at U of T when I was in grade 12, and the entire weekend consisted of speeches that essentially boiled down to, “It’s so amazing that you’re a woman AND you can do math! We really need you to come into engineering because you’re a woman!” Frankly, I’d never been surprised that I was able to be a woman and do math simultaneously, I was insulted that they seemed so surprised, and I had really been hoping they wanted me in engineering for my brain, not my gender. Silly me. I went into science instead (thank god!)

  81. Anon Says:

    @ Karen

    “It’s a little hard to take your righteousness seriously when you comment as Anon about the need to stand up to bullies.”

    I concede that it is cowardly to avoid attaching my real name to these comments. In my defense, all I can offer are the following:

    First, like many other commenters, I’m untenured and travel in some of the same circles as these individuals. I’ve seen others voice opinions that differ from the current ideology around diversity in STEM, and how the results can threaten one’s job. Currently, given where I am work-wise and family-wise, the best I feel comfortable doing is to push back anonymously. This is why I see what Scott is doing (and a handful of other incredible people) as brave.

    Second, when I voice my objections, I try to do so civilly. As best I can, I try to avoid using my anonymity to be vicious to the other side. Yes, this is a low standard to meet, but unfortunately it’s often not in these types of discussions.

    Third, if I receive tenure, I commit to attaching my identity to my comments on these issues. Perhaps this promise will cause some eyerolling, but it’s the best I can do. Surely, tenure does not make one bulletproof, but I think providing some protection for expressing dissent on volatile issues is what it was designed for.

    Finally, about my (self) righteousness, I’m sorry to hear this is perhaps the main takeaway of my comments. With people who are sufficiently scared that they send Scott emails rather than post their thoughts out in the open, is concerning. To not call out bullying behavior, and perhaps not even be able to recognize a bully, is worrisome. And then to dismiss this as trivial or “silly”, as if of course everyone rolled their eyes and knows these attacks are beyond the pale, … well, you know what I think.

    “but certainly I do agree with Gabriel that silence is not consent, let alone approval”

    I’m curious about this principle. Is it being applied here because you believe that they were aware of Anima’s comments, but didn’t feel it warranted even a gentle rebuke? Or that they felt too threatened to respond? That they simply missed that part of the conversation (despite the many references to it)? Something else?

  82. Gabriel Says:

    In Anon’s defense I’ll add that I do have tenure.

  83. Karen Morenz Says:

    Anon, Gabriel: Well, I don’t have tenure. But I figure if academia rejects me because I state my honest opinions in civil manner in an online debate, well, industry tech pays more anyways, and usually gives better maternity benefits. I don’t want to work in an academic institution where me saying what I actually think is going to oust me.

    Also re: tenure, my favourite thing anyone’s ever said about Peterson (from a fellow PhD student at U of T) is, “Tenured faculty at the University of Toronto, a reminder that Jordan Peterson sets the bar for the level of rage a professor can invoke without consequence. You can use this power for good” (https://twitter.com/AstroAlysa/status/1191021773908787200?s=20)

    But Anon, if you’re saying the reason you post anonymously is fear of professional consequences, don’t you think others, even those with tenure, could be doing the same? After all, tenure isn’t everything. People still want stuff after they get tenure. Politics still applies.

    As for silence not being consent/approval: I think a very good way to deal with a bully in many cases is to ignore them. “Don’t feed the trolls,” and all that. Plus, it’s just not intellectually interesting. A lot of people are here to have an interesting conversation, not police others’ behaviour. It’s the internet, something is always wrong. But they’re here for personal entertainment, not to fix everything that’s wrong. Probably, they figure Scott can handle himself – “Sticks and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me”? Any number of cute quotes apply.

  84. David Says:

    @Karen

    It seems unfair to me to blame the perceptions of others on Barna’s efforts. Couldn’t you make the same claim any time anyone sees a group facing unfair disadvantages and decides to try to help that group? Does this mean it is never right to do so? Certainly it is an aspect to consider in the decision of whether and how to help, but I do not see that it immediately means that you shouldn’t.

  85. Karen Morenz Says:

    @David: It’s not that it’s wrong to try to help, it’s that you should make sure that the help is actually helpful, and not contributing to the problem. When the problem is that women are perceived as less capable, it can be complicated to combat. So I appreciate the efforts, but I think this might be actually contributing to the problem.

    I’m being a bit of a cheat though, because actually the problem she wants to address is the under-representation of women, not the perception of women, and by my own article above, I don’t think the under-representation is an issue of sexist perceptions. But in that case, I don’t think these women in ___ events are helping with the maternal wall problem either, so I still don’t think they’re helping with the under-representation. And I still think they are contributing to the negative perception of women. So that overall still seems like a negative. Again, I’m sure all the organizers of these women in ___ type events are trying to do good, and I would love to be convinced that they’re a net positive, especially because these events are so ubiquitous. I just haven’t encountered any convincing evidence, just hand waving about how it’s important for women to see other women (and, like, is it? Why??).

  86. David Says:

    @Karen

    I myself also do not know whether such events are helpful, to whom, or to what extent. I do not have a very strong opinion either way. You are of course right that you should make sure your help is actually helpful. But this is probably often quite difficult. Perhaps Barna sees that her efforts have helped individual women and, lacking anything better, sees that as enough evidence to continue her efforts. My main point was really just that you have not distinguished why the criticism in this case is different from the criticism in the general case, other than stating that you think it hurts. What is your evidence that it contributes to the negative perception of women?

  87. Anon Says:

    @ Karen, #83

    “I think a very good way to deal with a bully in many cases is to ignore them…”

    If these bullying tactics stayed confined to the internet, or within fringe groups, I’d be less concerned. But they lead to grotesque policies in the real world.

    An example is the mandatory diversity component for new hires in the UC system, which Scott mentioned. The backlash against Abigail Thompson illustrates how vicious many of the proponents of diversity have become.

    How did it get this way? I suspect it’s because people were afraid to oppose the ideology, and/or assumed things would never get to such a point.

    “…Probably, they figure Scott can handle himself…”

    I don’t want to go overboard, yet I recall Scott expressing his gratitude to those offering supportive emails/comments during the backlash he faced awhile back. But I agree, it seems he is able to weather these attacks.

    That aside, again, making the opposition explicit is important. Everybody silently assuming a consensus doesn’t stop bad policy.

    “…if you’re saying the reason you post anonymously is fear of professional consequences, don’t you think others, even those with tenure, could be doing the same?”

    That’s possible.* If true, then it only seems to reinforce the need for people of note in the community to speak out.

    Anyway, I appreciate the conversation. I think I’ve said what I can, and now I’m just repeating myself, perhaps to the annoyance of our host and others. Thanks.

    —————————
    * That’s not my read of the situation, given how Anima’s coauthored article was explicitly linked to, and the content of Karger’s comment. These seem like acts promoting these ideas, not by someone who is fearful of them.

  88. Anon2 Says:

    My very minimal 1 cent (since i too choose to be anonymous): I think Anon is correct that many people privately feel that Anima is a bully, but do not want to deal with the consequences of speaking up publicly. At least anecdotally, I’ve found that this opinion can safely be expressed in small groups — of junior or senior researchers, of men or women — without much fear that anyone will disagree. But expressing it more publicly would involve being attacked on Twitter by someone with boundless energy for these things.

    To be clear, I think she started out with good intentions, and went after real sexism and misconduct. But she has started attacking with the same vitriol people who merely disagree with her.

    It would be good for more people to say this publicly.

  89. Karen Morenz Says:

    @David #86: It’s a good point, I don’t really have any stats to back up that it contributes to the negative perception, only a personal feeling. I’ve encountered similar feelings among people of colour who feel that scholarships catering specifically to people of colour are demeaning, as if they couldn’t compete otherwise. So I think it’s a relatively common feeling, if not often stated.

    A quick google turned up this article, which in particular states that: “Women perceived more benevolent sexism (i.e., protective paternalism and complementary gender differentiation) than hostile sexism in STEM courses, and their STEM identity moderated the associations between sexism and STEM outcomes. Among weakly-identified (but not strongly-identified) women, protective paternalism predicted lower STEM major intentions, STEM self-efficacy, and STEM GPA; hostile sexism predicted lower STEM GPA.”

    Which sounds to me like both benevolent and hostile sexism were counterproductive. But that’s just one study that I just read the abstract of right now, plus my personal opinion/experience. Obviously, I don’t know anything about Prof Saha’s particular event (beyond what I also just read on the internet), I’m absolutely certain she and the other organizers mean well and have thought about these sorts of issues, and I’m open to arguments for why it is actually beneficial.

  90. David Says:

    @Karen

    If you admittedly only had your own and others feelings to back up your perception, then do you think that this particular criticism of Barna’s efforts was fair?

    The article is certainly interesting, and hopefully more research is done in this direction. Though I do not think the study results pertain very much to Barna’s efforts. Note that the negative effect of benevolent sexism was on weakly-identified STEM (undergraduate) women, but I suspect that most graduate level STEM women (Barna’s audience) would be considered strongly identified. But it is still completely possible that your feeling is right and that the negative effects outweigh the positive. I really just felt this particular criticism was unfair to level at someone actively trying to help the problem, unless there is good justification for it. On the other hand it is of course something that should be considered, and perhaps that is all you intended.

  91. Dana Moshkovitz Says:

    @Karen #79:

    Virgi, Barna and Sofya try to increase attendance of women in STOC by making it easier for women to attend and by creating incentives for women to attend.
    They don’t hand out remedial help with science, they hand out morale support. If a woman feels like she doesn’t need our morale support, that’s her choice to make.

    The “weakness” that is implied by those incentives is not gender-related, it’s career-phase related: beginning grad students not yet having a paper in STOC, graduating students not having enough opportunities to present their work to the community.

  92. Karen Morenz Says:

    @David: Yes, I agree that the study I linked is not directly related to the event Barna is involved with. But yes, I do think my criticism was fair. For one thing, it’s got very little to do with Barna and is a criticism of events like this in general, though I do applaud her efforts to help. At the same time, I outlined why I think that these events send mixed messages to the community, some of which I’m not happy about. I’m open to evidence that my opinions are incorrect, but so far I haven’t encountered any. Overall, I think that’s a pretty rational and measured criticism, which was spoken(/written) with the goal of finding out why others think these events are helpful and if there was something I overlooked.

    @Dana: sounds like men grad students just starting out would need exactly the same help? Why should this be gendered?

  93. David Says:

    @Karen

    “I’m open to evidence that my opinions are incorrect, but so far I haven’t encountered any.”

    But you admitted that you also do not have any evidence that this particular opinion is correct.

  94. Dana Moshkovitz Says:

    @Karen #92:
    I think of travel funds to students who don’t have a paper in the conference and events to present research as “nice to have”s. They usually make a big impression on a young student, but are not what makes one successful. There are plenty more “nice to have”s that one could come up, but limited funds and “organizational energy”.

    As I said, the issue is that for the organizers it’s means towards the goal of improving attendance of women in STOC. This attendance is low, and there are many reasons for that, chief among them is the small portion of women in our community (I would estimate 15%-25%). There are also other reasons, e.g., the one I know well from personal experience, which is the difficulty of travel when a woman has young kids.
    Improving attendance of women in the conference makes the conference nicer for everyone. It’s not great to be the only woman in the room, and it’s not great that male students don’t see women at all. And the thing is that it’s self-perpetuating — if someone is not having fun at the conference, they won’t return often, and if someone has a great time, they’ll make the effort to come back.

  95. Dana Moshkovitz Says:

    @Karen:

    Two other things to take into account:
    * The events that Barna mentioned draw large crowds and are enjoyable (I can attest from personal experience). They are successful in this respect.
    * We also have events that are meant to all students, irrespective of gender, like lunches with senior people (men and women). We also provide travel support to students who have a paper in the conference.

  96. Vit Jelinek Says:

    I’d like to point out that from the scissor graphs and the data shown in the essay, one can’t really tell how strong the effect of the leaky pipeline is, because the data do not take into account the increase, over the years, in the ratio of women going into most (all?) STEM fields. To get an accurate idea of how much the pipeline is leaking, we should compare the gender ratio of today’s professors not against the gender ratio of today’s PhD’s, but against the ratio of PhD’s back in the days when today’s professors were getting their PhD’s, presumably several decades ago.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to deny the leaky pipeline effect, and I think the essay does a great job analysing its causes and proposing solutions. I just can’t resist pointing out that its interpretation of statistics is a bit sloppy.

  97. Alessandro Strumia Says:

    The premise of this article (“women leave the field at a rate 3 to 4 times greater than men”) is wrong. The mentioned gender difference in leaving rates was put forward by Flaherty as a possible interpretation of why his data suggest that women get hired faster. But direct data about leavings (as well as a reanalysis of the same indirect data by Flaherty) show that there is no such gender difference. See fig. 7 and footnote 11 of https://alessandrostrumiahome.files.wordpress.com/2019/10/artgender.pdf (to appear in QSS) and http://arxiv.org/abs/1903.08195.

  98. This and That | Not Even Wrong Says:

    […] Aaronson’s blog, you really should be. Latest entries are a detailed report from Davos and a guest post with a compelling argument about a major factor behind the problem of why women leave STEM careers more than […]

  99. John McAndrew Says:

    Jordan Peterson’s name has been mentioned, so I’ll link to an example video where he explains similar problems facing law firms trying to hold onto their highly competent female lawyers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cUwqRMTL8oc

  100. Krishna Says:

    I wish we have more insight and clarity Ike this article on the issues we face today instead of weaving emotional stories and screaming to create truth out of repetitive lying. Scott I have a question for you. How your wife was able to walk this path of being a great academician and also a great mom for two wonderful kids despite the problem that has been articulated in this article? I think this wouldn’t have been possible without your support and cooperation.

  101. Scott Says:

    Krishna #100:

      Scott I have a question for you. How your wife was able to walk this path of being a great academician and also a great mom for two wonderful kids despite the problem that has been articulated in this article? I think this wouldn’t have been possible without your support and cooperation.

    Maybe I should let her field that one. 🙂

    But I can tell you definitively that we wouldn’t have had a chance without lots of help—from my parents, her parents when we were in Israel, and now we also have an au pair. And that’s in addition to both kids being in school/daycare.

  102. Karen Morenz Says:

    @David: Yes, I don’t have much evidence, but there is my personal experience plus some kind of inertia, or if you like, an activation barrier to changing my opinion. I think that is normal.

    @Dana: “Improving attendance of women in the conference makes the conference nicer for everyone. It’s not great to be the only woman in the room, and it’s not great that male students don’t see women at all. And the thing is that it’s self-perpetuating — if someone is not having fun at the conference, they won’t return often, and if someone has a great time, they’ll make the effort to come back.”

    This is kind of what I’m worried about: the idea that I’m desired at the conference *because I’m a woman* and not *because I have interesting ideas to contribute.* I agree that sometimes it sucks to be the only woman in the room, but on the other hand, sometimes it’s great (or at least, equivalent to any other gender ratio). I don’t think that has to do so much with the gender ratio as the attitude of the people present. And I’m definitely for decreasing sexism and exclusive behaviour in social settings. I’m just worried about the unconscious assumptions behind these women in ___ events in general (but of course in this specific case I’m glad people have a good time and that it appears to achieve your direct goals). Also, re: the children/travel dilemma, are CS conferences starting to have childcare? Some chemistry conferences are starting to implement this and I think it’s a step in the right direction.

    @Vit Jelinek: You’re right, the attrition rate is not directly shown in the graphs, but I believe that some of the studies linked (in the subsequent paragraph) deal with this issue. I don’t exactly remember, I wrote this a year ago.

    @Alessandro Strumia: I don’t think that was the main premise of my article. The main premise is that women leave STEM because of challenges associated with balancing motherhood and career.

    I actually saw your article a little while ago and was really interested. Unfortunately I haven’t had time to read it in detail, but at a quick glance it looks like your figure does show a difference in the third panel? Anyways, I won’t claim that my article is a scientific analysis, but I do think the combination of articles I cite show clear evidence that women leave STEM because of the maternal wall, and that if we want to keep them, we need to make it easier to be a woman with both a family and a career. Now, maybe you think we shouldn’t want to keep them, but I think we should, because I’m assuming that a large fraction of the really smart people are women, and I would like them to keep working on their ideas for the overall benefit of our society.

  103. Dana Moshkovitz Says:

    @Karen:
    STOC is not some exclusive conference where one’s attendance endows one with prestige. The attendance of *every* theoretical computer scientist is desired in STOC. *Everyone* can register on the website and come to the conference.
    The prestige comes from getting a paper accepted at this extremely competitive conference.

  104. Dana Moshkovitz Says:

    @Karen: Yes, many STOCs now have childcare.

  105. Dana Moshkovitz Says:

    Krishna #100:

    In addition to Scott’s #101 (how much we owe to our parents, nannies and childcare), the truth is that both my and Scott’s career paths were heavily affected by the project of having kids. There is the difficulty inherent to having babies, but I was also sick during my pregnancies (I plan to write about it one day; I think that the academic world could handle cases like mine better). The worst case (both medically and professionally) happened in my first pregnancy, soon after I became an assistant professor at MIT.
    The second time I already had tenure, knew what could happen and tried my best to arrange my professional life accordingly. It worked only partially.
    During my second pregnancy, I worked with my sister Michal on a really strong project in which she did the majority of the work (I did work and contribute in ways that were, I want to believe, useful to her). Sadly, while in the beginning Michal was the only person seriously working on the problem, by the middle a group at Stanford popularized the problem, and by the end someone else got many of the results before us (it gained him a FOCS best paper; the order of subsequent results by us and him was more complicated). If I were (able to be) more agile at that time, things might have been different, though it’s hard to tell what could have/would have happened.
    In parallel, I worked on the Unique Games Conjecture, because at that point it was mainly about overcoming a concrete conceptual hurdle and not about writing, and it was difficult enough that no one made progress on it.
    After I gave birth, I visited Subhash Khot at NYU for a summer. NYU housing is on campus, so I could leave my baby son with a nanny and come back to nurse him whenever needed. Subhash is a parent himself, a kind person and a friend. I think that my visit was also quite useful for him: back then they were stuck on the small set expansion theorem needed to complete the proof of the Two To Two theorem. I came up with the idea to first consider an important easier case (the Johnson graph), and this got them unstuck. The easier case turned out to be part of what was needed, and once they (we) got it, it became much clearer how to do the harder case.
    Then Scott and I took a sabbatical in Israel. We lived close to my parents and the university in Tel-Aviv. My family helped a lot, a nanny watched my son at home, Lily went to a nearby daycare, and we enjoyed the numerous playgrounds, community services and support we got from the many friends we made there. I worked very intensely on the Unique Games Conjecture. I would take walking trips around the neighborhood’s green paths (to work at cafes, to think while sitting next to a fountain, etc). Each trip would end either when I felt like I achieved my goal for it, or when I stopped feeling focused. At that point I would return home to nurse my baby son (by then he ate solids as well, so the timing was less critical). I was more optimistic, perhaps, than I should have been about the conjecture, worked incredibly hard, and it’s hard to tell how successful that year was. However, after it I could see a better way to attack the conjecture.

  106. AlexS Says:

    I thought that content of character not skin color sex or any physical characteristic is what mattered…
    Seems in this round of social supremacism of Marxist power tactics the social classes include sex and race. Maybe next round it will include introverts and/or extroverts or any other characteristic real or invented that would be useful for the proponents to build their social climbing mechanism and social-political power.

    I am completely agnostic if more or less or this or that group physical characteristics should be in physics, physics should be for people that are interested on it. Same in medical field, teachers, nurses, miners and people that cleans the streets or in any other field.
    What i found amazing is that “lesser” professions are never in sight for the elite to fascistize. Yes traditional corporatism/mercantilism power split is what we have here.

    PS:revolutionaries, historically in large majority belong to aristocracy and bourgeois….
    PS2:Nobility titles are now given by the Academia and the media.

  107. Alex K Says:

    I’m a man in my mid 30’s, with a PhD but working in industry, and I’ve never felt any strong urge to reproduce. Thus, I don’t understand what would motivate someone to compromise his or her career ambitions in order to have children. At the risk of sounding disingenuous, I want to ask “Why not pick up a different hobby that is more compatible with your work?” My typical-mind-fallacy answer would be that people who do choose to have children aren’t really all that dedicated to their careers, because I definitely wouldn’t have children at the expense of a career I was dedicated to.

    But I do see a lot of people who display every sign of dedication to their career, except for the fact that they have children. More signs of dedication than I display, since I burned out and left academia while they are professors and parents. What is the difference these people experience between wanting children and wanting something other than children, which seems to put the former into its own qualitative category?

  108. Scott Says:

    Alex K #107: I just read the book Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids by Bryan Caplan (briefly, he argues that twin studies prove that how kids eventually fare in life is close to 0% under their parents’ control, so you might as well have more kids than you’d originally planned and then just relax and let them run around rather than frantically shuttling them between activities and constantly panicking over their safety). Anyway, there’s an amusing passage in the book where he imagines a reader saying they don’t want kids, and his response is, well look, I can’t sell ice to Eskimos, I can only take your baseline desires and then give you advice on what to do about them. He does add, though, that more than 2/3 of people who never have kids apparently say later in surveys that they regret it, whereas only a tiny percentage of people with kids say they regret having them (though there are some obvious biases there).

  109. Marnie Dunsmore Says:

    @Scott, comment #108

    ” He does add, though, that more than 2/3 of people who never have kids apparently say later in surveys that they regret it, whereas only a tiny percentage of people with kids say they regret having them (though there are some obvious biases there).”

    In the current environment in the US and Canada, most professional women with one or two children do not regret that they did not have one more child.

    Reference: Birth Strike: The Hidden Fight Over Women’s Work by Jenny Brown.

  110. Karen Morenz Says:

    Alex K #107: I think you’re kind of missing the point. We have all these very smart women who are highly trained and can contribute a lot to science/STEM, but because of the set up, they’re not able to contribute much of anything because they get ousted from the career path when they have kids. Surely, contributing something (while also looking after kids) is better than contributing nothing? Just because they don’t dedicate 100% of their lives to STEM doesn’t mean they can’t still contribute, in the same way that if you take up any other “hobby” as you put it, it shouldn’t make it impossible to contribute.

  111. Alex K Says:

    Karen Morenz #110: Contributing anything is better than contributing nothing, but is the rate of return on subsidizing childcare greater than on, for example, just hiring more people to work in the current system? My “dedication” model leads me to expect that subsidized childcare’s rate of return would be relatively low: the most dedicated women are already staying in STEM despite the difficulties associated with childcare, so you would only be gaining less-dedicated women.

    I’m open to the possibility that this “dedication” model is incorrect, but even then the cost-benefit analysis is worth doing.

  112. Karen Morenz Says:

    @Alex K: Hence why I discussed the literal dollar values, as well as the fact that universities with better childcare and maternity policies retain twice the number of women. So yes, the rate of return is better.

  113. Dana Moshkovitz Says:

    @Alex K #107: Those of us who do want to have kids often feel like it’s one of the most important things we’ll ever do with our lives, right up there with achieving great accomplishments professionally.

    @Alex K #111: While it’s true that those of us completely dedicated to research will continue doing research despite great obstacles, surely you don’t think think that it makes sense to leave unnecessary obstacles on our path, right? Also, the thing about academic research is that you can’t easily replace people. If the person who would go on to solve huge open problem X disappears, it’s sometimes the case that open problem X would remain open for many more years.

  114. Amony Mous Says:

    Is there any reason that sex differences in the brain (on average) are being ignored while figuring out policies? It obviously shouldn’t be brought up for individuals, but we are examining trends here.

    (I really hope we’re not doing the Google thing here where any description of differences is by definition sexist and removed from the comment section)

    Scott Alexander has written about it (Contra Grant on Exaggerated Differences) and this scientificamerican blogpiece talks about a full one standard deviation difference in interest in abstract ideas. If that’s a factor, I’m not sure if it’s as important to incentivize. It certainly would be great to get everyone as comfortable as possible though

  115. Marnie Dunsmore Says:

    The realization that, in order to improve the retention of women in STEM, we would have to improve maternity leave and the affordability of childcare, is not a new one.

    In fact, it was highlighted in a 1990 report by the National Research Council:

    https://www.nap.edu/read/1878/chapter/1

    page 90: “improvements in working conditions for women, changes in nepotism rules, availability of choice of benefits (cafeteria-style benefits), changes in maternity and adoption leave policies, employer-provided or sponsored dependent care, prorated benefits for part-time employees . . . ”

    Yet, maternity leave policies and employer provided dependent care policies have not improved in most universities and STEM corporations in the last twenty years. Congress passed the Family Leave Act of 1993, guaranteeing new mothers up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and the right to return to their old jobs at the end of the leave. There’s been no advancement in maternity leave since then. Most women cannot afford to loose three months of pay while they stay at home with a newborn. Many employers in stealth lay off or do not hire pregnant women. Even if a woman can afford to take unpaid maternity leave and is not fired while pregnant or on maternity leave, she is often pushed out or sidelined from a promotion once she returns to work.

    Statistics on these problems abound and have been well documented since the 1990s.

    Therefore, it cannot be by accident that women in STEM, especially women with children in STEM, still do not have maternity leave and employer subsidized childcare in the US. And even in Canada, most tech companies do not top up the salaries of their female employees when they take maternity leave. That means that Canadian STEM trained women, who are often making $100,000+ per year, suddenly have their wages reduced to a minimum wage (paid through unemployment insurance).

    Governments, universities and corporations make choices about investments that might or might not retain women in the STEM workforce. In the last twenty years, they have clearly sided on *not* making investments in childcare or paid maternity leave. The result is that the number of women in STEM has not significantly increased, and some fields such as computer science, it has dramatically decreased. It is a matter of policy and financial decision making on the part of STEM employers that this has happened. It is not a accident.

  116. Marnie Dunsmore Says:

    . . . not *an* accident.

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