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.

29 comments on “Self-confidence of women in science and a camel

  1. Torah Gen says:

    I agree that in order to make the self-confidence factor central to the diagram, there needs to be more evidence. As a women in science, I find myself intimidated by male superiors. This is amplyfied in my situation because I am a lowly undergrad. But I do not think this is representative of all or even most women in science. At times, I also feel that I will ultimately have to decide between my family and a career. That is a choice I do not want to make. Thanks for the article!

    • Hird says:

      Hi TorahGen – do you think you’re intimidated by male superiors specifically or are you intimidated by your superiors and they all just happen to be male? I know some super brilliant people who can intimidate me too and they generally are male, but I’ve also met some intimidating females! You bring up a good point – I think feeling like a choice is going to have to be made between family and science might in itself be a contributing factor to women leaving science. Even before the choice has to be made, thinking about it and feeling it is inevitable can’t encourage hard work and fidelity towards this career!

      • Torah Gen says:

        Specifically my male superiors. I am not intimidated by my two female superiors. However, a contributing factor is perhaps that I feel the graduate student I work under laughs at my ideas sometimes and gives me weird looks when I mention sometging he does not expect. When I explain myself well, he usually agrees but his initial reactionso do add to the barrier that makes me feel not fully adjusted to a lab full of men.

    • Cathy Newman says:

      You’re right, TorahGen. Your level of comfort (and self-confidence) really does depend a lot on the personality of your superiors, in my opinion. I was a lab tech in a lab with a male professor and all male grad students and postdocs. It was awkward at first, since my previous lab had female grad students and a female professor, but the guys were all encouraging and open to new ideas, and it didn’t take me long to feel as comfortable there as I had in my previous, female-dominated lab. I was still intimidated at times, but that was a lot less because of their gender and more because their experience and knowledge vastly outranked mine. So everyone’s own situations will be unique, and I think the best advice I was given was to find a female superior or colleague that you trust and feel comfortable talking to about these issues.

  2. Margaret Kosmala says:

    Have only read your post and not Cameron et al.’s paper, but from your representation, I call bull on that paper. Women that make it through the lower levels of science education are smart and think logically; if it makes more sense to one’s life to leave, then it’s a rational choice and not something that has to do with so-called “self-esteem.”

    And I *love* your camel; it’s perfectly right — all the straws, not simply one problem that if we could just “fix” it, everything would be equal.

  3. Cathy Newman says:

    Great post! A thought about citations…

    The authors’ statement that women have a lower publication rate but more high-impact publications seemed overly simplistic to me, so I looked up the paper they cited (the Symonds paper listed here above in the references). Sure enough, their data are much more complex, and I think that that statement by Cameron et al. is a little misleading. When I read the statement, my first thought was that men are more focused on putting out a bunch of tiny quick pubs (e.g., geographic range extensions), whereas women are more likely to spend more time preparing larger, higher-impact pubs. My next thought was, could this at least partly be contributed to personality differences between the genders? (And I have zero hard evidence, btw.) But then I looked at the Symonds et al. paper, which essentially shows, with numbers and statistics and graphs, that there is NOT a difference between the genders in median publication impact or variation in citations per paper — i.e., no evidence that men take a more “hit or miss” attitude and submit papers rapid-fire relative to women — but that the first quartile of median citations is higher for women than men, indicating that there are fewer women than men with a poorly cited body of publications. Symonds et al. go on to say that this may suggest that men with poorly cited work might be more likely to succeed in the field anyway than women with poorly cited work.

    Interesting stuff. I need to do some more reading…

    In any case, I, for one, think it’s a great idea to include citations and journal impact factor on the CV, especially if your body of work includes publications in high-impact journals and/or publications with multiple citations. I feel like this could only help, not hurt (but I admit to very little real world experience).

    • Hird says:

      I had those some thoughts, Cathy, after reading that PLoS ONE paper: the claim that women may have higher impact papers is pretty poorly supported. Felt a little bit like unnecessary story telling to me – the data is interesting enough (like you just pointed out) without generalizing so much!

  4. Nice post on a topic I am very interested in. I have not read nearly enough on the topic, but here are my two cents as a Ph.D. student who happens to be a female without children:

    1) Self-confidence / anxiety / depression abound in academia and are hardly relegated to the “fairer sex”. For completely anecdotal support, consider the results of a (male) blogger’s informal survey about the prevalence of prescription-drugs in the research work place: Granted not broken down by gender, but feelings of low self-worth seem awfully common in general.

    2) Family duties is awfully large in your figure – and I think accurately so. Yes, there are child rearing responsibilities that are de facto a female role (pregnancy, nursing…), but we still have a way to go before gender equality in household roles is the norm. Seems to me family duties should be shared with another camel, provided one is around. In my opinion, a societal expectation remains for women to be the primary care giver / home tender. There are many couples out there that value equality in their relationships, but men who pull more than their share on the home front (e.g., stay at home Dads) are treated as a novelty in the media.

    I completely agree with you that the conversation needs to continue in order to “fix the pipeline” and mentoring seems like an excellent place to focus.

  5. I like the idea of including citations on a CV, but I think that makes including journal impact factor redundant. Impact factors aren’t a good measure of publication quality in any case, and I think the person reading the CV is likely to have a grasp of the rough hierarchy of journals in their field anyway. Actually, including number of citations of a paper on CVs might help move away from the reliance on impact factor.

    • Hird says:

      I think you’re right – when you’re applying for things from people in your field, they’ll probably know the general impact of journals and putting the calculated impact factor on there might be overkill. Maybe impact factor is more important for something like a job application where the whole department might review your CV? Knowing your audience is always a good idea. Thanks for the comment!

      • Cathy Newman says:

        Those are all good points. Knowing your audience is definitely key. Even within my field, there are various “sub-fields” (or perhaps this sort of classification is all in my own head) that may not all be familiar with each other. In any case, I imagine there would be some cases where including journal impact factor might be redundant or inappropriate (e.g., NSF?), but I think in a lot of cases it could be useful. Even in situations where the target audience would already be familiar with the journals, including impact factor is unusual enough that it would stand out to the reader and maybe imply an awareness on your part that high quality is more important than high quantity.

  6. mcubedinc says:

    This has nothing to do with women’s self-confidence, or lack of ambition. This isn’t even a gender issue. This is about the absence of the feminine in the structures we operate in, especially in the science and technology domains — there is an imbalance of the masculine and feminine. It is going to be up to women to bring forth the feminine, but I’m not sure it can be done in the current structures. I believe it will happen faster by women creating new science and development companies with the overt intention of a balance of the masculine and feminine and this will allow for environments that bring balance for everyone — women and men.

  7. Very nice post. I agree with most of your points; especially that the conversation needs to continue and that we need more data! I’ve often wondered whether the difference in publication rates has to do with collaborations and/or honorary authorship. Do you know whether the pattern holds if you look at only first authorship? It would not surprise me if, for example, men tended to have larger research groups or larger collaborative networks than women.

    Of course, all of these factors feedback on one another. The finding in the “Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students” paper is particularly disturbing. That says to me that no matter how hard you work, your CV will likely be judged below that of your male peer’s. However, we recently had Prof Angela Mclean speak at our Women in Science and Engineering workshop and she pointed out that although the bias is highly significant, it is relatively small in magnitude – so could be easily redressed. Here’s to hoping that the conversation continues!

    • I just found the link to the gender balance data from JSTOR ( and if you look at, for example, Ecology and Evolution post 1990, women do tend to be first author on more papers than they are middle range authors, AND are much much less likely to be last author. This, of course, represents the age * gender interaction, but is probably also representative of collaborative networking and group size.

  8. […] Is the problem for women in science really their self-confidence? […]

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  13. kaleberg says:

    Someone seems to be confusing cause and effect. Low self confidence is more likely the effect of higher rejection rates, poorer working conditions, less supportive mentors and colleagues and lower probability of promotion than the cause of it. We’ve seen these real problems as a result of sex bias again and again. They’re horribly well documented to the point where funding agencies and scientific publications are considering name blind peer review. (Hey, it worked for symphony orchestras.)

    It’s like that marshmallow study. Sure, the kids who can wait to get the extra marshmallow do better in life, but there is nothing like being promised art supplies (or a fair shake in life) and getting shafted to make that marshmallow on the table a lot more attractive than the promise of an additional phantom marshmallow. I do think low self confidence is a part of the problem, but so it makes more sense to fix its cause rather than fretting about the effect.

    • Sarah Boon says:

      I heartily agree with this point!

      I started off as a very confident PhD student who enjoyed the challenge and excitement of doing science and interacting with interesting & intelligent colleagues.

      I’ve found that my confidence has DECREASED as I move up the academic ranks (now at associate professor). My male departmental colleagues have been favoured over females when it comes to research resources, teaching assignments & hours, and contribution to dept meetings. My interdisciplinary research is often rejected as being ‘unfocused’ (although a male colleague at another university routinely ‘borrows’ my ideas and has no problem funding them). With funding pots shrinking, the trend has been towards large projects with many collaborators – and unless you have an ‘in’ with the (often male) PIs of those large groups, you’re often out in the cold. I routinely deal with male graduate students who seem to think I have less to contribute to their program than their male supervisory committee members, and undergraduate students in general who think that – because I’m young(er) and female – they don’t have to respect me as they do my male colleagues (calling me Miss etc.)…

      Coming from a highly supportive PhD program that was fairly gender blind, I’ve been shocked by what I’ve experienced as a faculty member. All of this points to low self confidence being an effect, rather than a cause – and that we need to solve this problem before the situation will improve.

  14. susannah says:

    I get frustrated sometimes with the self confidence/ self promotion and career advancement conversation. We’re always telling women to promote themselves more or be more confident in their abilities. Which is undoubtedly true in some cases (but absolutely not in many others). Maybe instead of telling women to change, we should be telling men to stop overstating their skills and abilities.

  15. […] out this great post at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, a blog about recent publications in science, run by a group of […]

  16. ScienceofMom says:

    I can speak to this as a woman who DID leave science after completing a PhD and 2+ years of postdoc, with a lot of success along the way. In my case, the Family Duties straw was a major factor in my leaving science, but there were several very important underlying factors. One was that I didn’t “like really, really” want to stay on the career path. If I had, that would have changed everything; we would have found a way to make it work. Another was that my husband’s career made it financially possible to leave and comparing the salaries of assistant professors to his (with # work hours as a covariate) didn’t help with my motivation. In my case, self-confidence didn’t have anything to do with it. I felt like I could tackle a job in science and be successful. One thing that did make a difference was that part of my self-worth was tied into raising my family – it wasn’t all tied into career. I wanted to do the family thing well, and unfortunately I didn’t see many examples of either male or female professors with young children who seemed like they were managing to balance it well. (I have since learned that this true of many professions – balance is elusive when you have young kids.) I have a feeling that many males in my position would have a hard time leaving a rather prestigious career path to focus more on family. It has been a challenge to my ego and sense of self-worth, but me making this move is likely more supported by our families and society than it would have been for my husband.

  17. ericamarx says:

    oh *sigh* If I just has some of that manly self confidence to go with these midnight feedings, then I could get SO MUCH MORE DONE

  18. […] 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 … Read entire story here. […]

  19. […] (For more on these issues, you can also check out Sarah Hird’s post: Self-confidence of women in science and a camel.) […]

  20. Great post Sarah! I completely agree with you and in mi opinion, if Cameron et al. are right and more women are leaving Science that just shows how much character (not to say a Spanish word that rhymes with algodones), women have because it takes a lot of courage to change a career path. I would even say that making such a bold move in life, a move that shows you know you are worth way more than an academic title or a work position, shows nothing but self-confidence.

    Just heard this interview and thought it was pertinent:

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