Why Women Quit Science Jobs

Think stereotypes are harmless? Consider this: Recent research shows that the gender gap in science jobs isn't solely due to fewer women choosing these professions. In part, it's because more women than men drop out of these fields after a few years. And stereotyping might be the reason.

Toni Schmader, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, and Matthias Mehl at the University of Arizona, used an automatic voice recorder to document random samples of subject's daily lives. The idea is that by compiling sound bites at regular intervals, the researchers would discover more about their subjects than if they asked them to recall the highlights (or lowlights) of their days.

Among their findings:

1. Women do not necessarily talk more than men. In fact, the numbers were about equal for the sexes. Both men and women averaged around 17,000 words a day.

2. While male scientists seemed "energized" by their conversations about their work, that wasn't the case for women. "For women, the pattern was just the opposite, specifically in their conversations with male colleagues," Schmader said in an interview with NPR. "So the more women in their conversations with male colleagues were talking about research, the more disengaged they reported being in their work." Disengagement, said the researchers, predicts a risk of dropping out.

3. Female scientists sounded less competent when speaking with male scientists than they did when speaking with other female scientists — unless they were talking about life outside of work.

Lest you conclude that the problem is that male scientists are rude and dismissive of their female colleagues (or worse, that female scientists are inherently bad at their jobs) Schmader and Mehl did not find this to be the case. Instead, they pointed to something called the "stereotype threat," a psychological phenomenon in which people who are reminded of certain stereotypes — "women are bad at math," for example — conform to expectations, without even realizing that they're doing it.

Schmader said that female scientists who think that their male colleagues hold stereotypes about their competence based on gender might spend more time monitoring what they're saying. Ironically, this leads to coming across as less competent than they would if they were unaware of a potential bias.

"By merely worrying about that more, one ends up sounding more incompetent," Schmader said.

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