Self-confidence of women in science and a camel

Science kind of has a lady problem. While nearly equal numbers of males and females begin the path to a career in Science/Academia, more females drop out as they progress on the trajectory than men. This has been called a “leaky pipeline” – at each progressive career stage, there are fewer women. There are many publications about this and the surrounding causes/effects (I’ve included a non-exhaustive list at the end of the post). One recent “Spotlight” in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution by Cameron et al. caught my eye. In it, they summarize much recent research on the topic – including that women:

– publish fewer papers.

– have lower grant success and receive lower grant amounts.

– get promoted more slowly.

– have lower retention rates.

The reason I’m bringing up this topic at this time is because Cameron et al. raised an issue that really rubbed me the wrong way. Cameron et al. construct a flow chart of interacting factors that contribute to women choosing to leave science. Central to their diagram is “Lower self-confidence in women”*. The authors say the way women “experience the scientific community” lowers women’s self-confidence which initiates a feedback loop through lower publication rate, lower grant success and lower professional success that inevitably spits a woman out at the bottom. In this framework, women are less competitive and therefore they don’t get hired or fail to get tenure. This may very well be true. But I don’t like it. I don’t like that the underlying reason women would leave science is low self-confidence.

Figure 1 from Cameron et al. (2013). Does lower self confidence cause attention to detail? Hmmmm....

Figure 1 from Cameron et al. (2013). Does lower self-confidence cause attention to detail? Hmmmm….

How important is self-confidence in Science? How important is the generally unbearable stress of it all?

Science is difficult. Despite the belief that professors have low-stress desk jobs, people in academia have to work almost all the time because we have no upper limit on our job – there’s literally always more to do and it’s always up to you to do it. Relatively few job openings and relatively many people with doctorates ups the stress and competition factors as well. You really have to want to stay on this career path. Like really, really. But there’s got to be a limit for how much any one person can take before the cons outweigh the pros and the reasonable thing to do is leave – the amount of straw that breaks the camels back, if you will. No matter how strong (i.e., self-confident) the camel is. Right? I wonder if it’s less about self-confidence and more about the sum of all the parts. I’ve reworked Cameron et al.’s flowchart into something I call: “Not a flowchart but instead a hand-drawn picture of a camel”:


The cumulative load of obligations, stresses and environment may be the ultimate reason women leave science (in my opinion).

All the above facts/observations make it seem (to me) that women may just have more straws on their backs – i.e.,  more reasons to leave academia. Maybe I’m splitting hairs because I like the framing a little better. But all of the ways and reasons that there is a gender bias in science add up to a (however slightly and not in every case) less good environment that women may feel less loyal towards.

Cameron et al. conclude with “Enhancing self confidence and expectations may be the single most significant step in encouraging and retaining women in science.” I’m not sure how to do this – especially on an institutional scale. I think we should focus on lessening the number of straws for women, the biggest of which may be family oriented.  So maybe we should work on institutionalizing allowing time off the tenure clock for maternity and paternity leave and increasing affordable childcare on campuses. Maybe actively recruiting female mentors/mentees in STEM disciplines will help (programs like this!). Maybe the fact that I’ve never been told women aren’t good at math is a sign that we’re growing out of an outdated way of thinking. We all need to apply for things we think might be out of our league and we’re all susceptible to low self-confidence from time to time. A good social support system (of men and women and four-legged friends and beer) is invaluable to me personally when I begin to crack. For the record, I have no evidence – it’s just what I think.  My opinion is that this is important and to fix the leak, we need to keep talking about this subject.

One final point – they discuss these concepts under the title question: “Is publication rate an equal opportunity metric?” Apparently, the answer is “no”. Strictly looking at the number of someone’s publications doesn’t accurately summarize their publication history (or worth as a future colleague/grant recipient/whatever) and they argue this puts women at a disadvantage. Regardless of how realistic or useful a “quantity only” metric system is, this article has prompted me to action! How about including number of citations and/or journal impact factor on the publications section of a C.V.? Instead of a traditional citation, perhaps this?:

Hird SM and Sullivan JS. 2009. Assessment of gene flow across a hybrid zone in red-tailed chipmunks (Tamias ruficaudus). Molecular Ecology, 18: 3097-3109. Citations: 16. 2011 Journal Impact Factor: 5.522.

Including these metrics makes sense for anyone – it allows your publication record to be most fairly evaluated. Well, that’s enough from me but I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of Cameron et al.’s flowchart? How important is self-confidence in science? Should we put quality metrics on our C.V.s? Please leave comments below!

* There is no hard evidence that I could find that women in science have lower self-confidence than men, which is central to the Cameron et al. argument. If you know of any studies regarding this – please let me know!

References and further reading (additional suggestions welcome):

Barres BA (2006). Does gender matter? Nature 442: 133-136.

Bedi G, Van Dam NT, Munafo M (2012). Gender inequality in awarded research grants. The Lancet 380: 474.

Cameron EZ, Gray ME, White AM (2013). Is publication rate an equal opportunity metric? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 28: 7-8.

Damschen EI, Rosenfeld KM, Wyer M, Murphy-Medley D, Wentworth TR, Haddad NM (2005). Visibility matters: increasing knowledge of women’s contributions to ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3: 212-219.

Holmes M, O’Connell S (2007). Leaks in the pipeline. Nature 446: 346-347.

Hutson SR (2006). Self-citation in archaeology: Age, gender, prestige, and the self. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13: 1-18.

Martin LJ (2012). Where are the women in ecology? Frontiers In Ecology and the Environment 10: 177-178.

McGuire KL, Primack RB, Losos EC (2012). Dramatic Improvements and Persistent Challenges for Women Ecologists. BioScience 62: 189-196.

Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 16474-16479.

O’Brien K, Hapgood K (2012). The academic jungle: ecosystem modelling reveals why women are driven out of research. Oikos 121: 999-1004.

Symonds MRE, Gemmell NJ, Braisher TL, Gorringe KL, Elgar MA (2006). Gender differences in publication output: towards an unbiased metric of research performance. PLoS ONE 1: e127.