Why women leave science careers

More women than ever before are pursuing undergraduate degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, and other science and technology fields – commonly referred to as STEM fields.  In mathematics, for example, women now earn 46 percent of all bachelor’s degrees.

Women also pursue advanced studies in STEM fields in increasing numbers. Even in physics, engineering, and computer science – all traditionally male fields – women now number approximately one-fifth to one-quarter of all students in graduate programs. But after they earn a Ph.D., these women begin a process of attrition that results in far fewer women at each successive level up the academic ladder.  They are less likely than men to apply for tenure-track jobs, more likely to leave these jobs, and less satisfied in their careers. Why do they drop out of their fields?

Cornell professors Wendy Williams and Steve Ceci have spent the last several years studying the reasons behind this phenomenon.  They’ve published a major study that reviews more than 400 articles and book chapters on sex differences in math, and written two books on the topic.

Their conclusion is that women tend to drop out of non-math fields not because they lack mathematical ability, but because they simply prefer more people-oriented pursuits, such as medicine, veterinary science, and biology, where they represent one-half to three-quarters of new doctorates.  The demands of childrearing and caretaking also take their toll on the already-low numbers of women in math-intensive fields. 

Now Williams and Ceci have received a $1.4 million from the National Institutes of Health to establish the Cornell Institute for Women in Science. The money is funding five large-scale studies to explore how women and men are recruited to and informally trained in graduate school, and how they are evaluated when they apply for their first tenure-track position. The grant also funds a major outreach campaign designed to increase awareness among college-age women of the demands of an academic career, so that these women can target their career planning more effectively.

The idea is to better understand, and ultimately improve, behaviors that may consciously or unconsciously lead to gender bias in math-intensive fields.

The new institute is part of a broad outreach effort focused on encouraging under-represented groups – including women and minorities – to pursue careers in science. Part of that broader effort includes the Thinking Like A Scientist program, a curriculum that encourages school-aged children to pursue careers in science.

Williams’s and Ceci’s work is a prime example of using research to learn about a problem of national proportions, and then taking action to make improvements that are based on the evidence.


  1. Lauren says:

    Ceci and Williams fail to answer the question: Why are the demands of childrearing only being met by women? Two-parent families have two parents – a better question might be how to make workplace policy more family-friendly, and how to get fathers involved equally in childrearing.

    • Karl says:

      Hi Lauren,

      This seems to me to be a very good point! One good resource of the issues you raise (more family-friendly workplaces and with more flexibility for parents) is the Sloan Foundation’s Work and Family Network: http://wfnetwork.bc.edu/. The website has a ton of information on family-friendly workplaces.

      We’ve passed you comment on to Wendy Williams, and we’ll post her reply.

  2. Gretchen says:

    Ran across this site while researching women in the science fields. I’m adding this book to my reading list and for a potential review on my site. I am a woman in the field of computer science, but I come from a family where many of the women are in the science/medical industry so I’ve seen the issues on both sides of the coin. I have a feeling this book will be an excellent resource on this subject. Thanks for sharing it. 🙂

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