Skip to Content
MIT News magazine

Why Women Leave Science

Fixing the leaky pipeline has become a matter of national competitiveness.

Suzanne Lorenz never thought she’d have to choose between work and family. But in April 2001, expecting her third child, she closed up her office and walked away from a 17-year career. Years of dealing with an employer that offered minimal support for family needs, a salary that persistently lagged behind those of her male peers, and the pressure of trying to juggle her roles as both a dedicated scientist and a dedicated mother had finally worn her out. She saw little alternative but to quit.

Had Lorenz been a lawyer, businesswoman, or government official, the gender bias she faced would be troubling enough. But she was an assistant professor of research medicine in a top-ranked department at a midwestern university. When she quit her job, she left behind a half-million-dollar laboratory, several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of training and experience, and a productive research program seeking a cure for blood-pressure disorders. Her story offers vivid evidence that when female scientists and engineers lose the struggle to balance career and family, scientific resources are lost as well.

The attrition of women from jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics is a decades-old problem. Analyses such as the 1999 Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT have consistently found that female scientists have lower salaries, smaller lab spaces, and less access to mentors and professional networks than their male counterparts, which puts them at a disadvantage in the race for grants, publications, patents, tenure, and promotions. Adding children to the picture makes it even harder for women to compete. The result is a system that all but forces women out of science careers.

The problem may be old, but it can no longer be ignored. An estimated 3,000 PhD-trained women opt out of the scientific workforce every year. At that rate, attrition isn’t just a feminist issue: it costs the United States more than a billion dollars a year and threatens our economic competitiveness.

Additional Information: "How MIT is Fostering Diversity"

National Capabilities in Decline

After decades at the technological frontier, the United States now faces increasing competition from Israel, Taiwan, Finland, Ireland, and parts of the developing world. A U.S. high-tech trade surplus that reached $22.4 billion in 1990 melted into a $134.6 billion trade deficit by 2005. Meanwhile, annual U.S. productivity growth has slowed since 2000, and fewer American small businesses are being formed in every high-tech sector. These shifts are especially troubling given that economists credit new technology with half of America’s economic growth from the late 1940s to 1985.

Although decreased science funding is partly to blame, the main source of the problem appears to be a drastic decline in the number of competitive American workers and entrepreneurs in scientific and technical fields. Fewer U.S. college students pursued engineering degrees in 2005 than in 1985, despite a rising undergraduate population. In 2000, more than 20 countries had higher percentages of 24-year-olds with degrees in science and engineering. The number of Americans earning PhDs in science and engineering peaked in 1997 and then declined steadily over the next five years. Although U.S. PhDs increased between 2002 and 2005, the number of new PhDs is still nearly 6 percent lower than it was in 1997. As a result, even top U.S. high-tech firms now look abroad for talent, moving R&D and production operations to countries like India, Israel, and China. As an Intel spokesperson recently put it, “We go where the smart people are.” A 2006 Duke University survey of American firms that outsource such jobs abroad found that approximately 40 percent considered the U.S. supply of engineers inadequate.

Perhaps where the U.S. has really lost its edge, though, is not in producing “smart people” but in keeping them in science and technology. More American women are pursuing higher education than ever before: female college enrollment began to overtake male college enrollment in the 1980s, and by 2003 women were earning nearly 60 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Not only that, but female students earn higher grades and win more awards than their male counterparts, according to a 2006 study by the Education Sector, a nonprofit think tank. By 2000, women were earning more bachelor’s degrees than men in the category of science and engineering.

Within this category, however, women are gravitating toward the biological, agricultural, and social sciences and shying away from engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences–the very fields with the greatest demand for workers and the biggest economic payoffs. In 2005, women earned 68 percent of the PhDs in psychology, 57 percent of the PhDs in anthropology, 62 percent of the PhDs in sociology, and 49 percent of the PhDs in the biological sciences, but only 27 percent of those in mathematics and statistics, 27 percent of those in the physical sciences, 20 percent of those in computer science, and 18 percent of those in engineering. In engineering and computer science, the percentage of female students has plateaued or even dropped in the last decade.

To make matters worse, many of the female PhDs who enter scientific fields leave soon after they begin working. A 1995 survey of Americans with PhDs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics found that single men and single women with PhDs participate about equally in the scientific workforce. But a married female PhD is 11 percent less likely to work full time than a married male PhD. If the woman is married with young children, then she is 25 percent less likely to be fully employed in science or technology than a married man with young children. This gap is clearly evident at American four-year institutions, where in 2003 women made up only 41 percent of assistant professors, 31 percent of associate professors, and 18 percent of full professors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

When scientists leave the workforce, they take with them thousands of hours of education and experience, often paid for by taxes. Conservative estimates suggest that in the scientific fields, a newly minted PhD represents approximately $500,000 worth of training. Multiplying that figure by the estimated 3,000 PhD-trained women who leave the workforce every year results in a loss of approximately $1.5 billion per year–about one-quarterthe National Science Foundation’s annual budget!

The Pressures on Women

For both male and female scientists, marriage and family create demands that can cut short thriving careers. But women who want to have families simply do not have time to establish their careers before having children. It takes about seven years to earn a PhD in science or engineering, often followed by several years of postdoctoral research, and then another six years of work as an assistant professor before a scientist can earn tenure. As a result, research scientists at the relatively secure rank of associate professor are usually well into their 30s, the age at which a woman’s chances of bearing a healthy child begin to decline alarmingly. Men do not face the same biological constraints and can afford to wait to become fathers–or they can marry women who are willing to put parenthood ahead of career ambitions.

Another problem for women is lack of access to mentors and networking opportunities. Women on science faculties report fewer referrals from collegial networks and thus fewer opportunities to consult, serve on science advisory boards, and interact with industry colleagues. Lacking ties to commercial science–and perhaps reluctant to “sell” their scientific discoveries–many choose to focus on pure science or teaching. The effects show up dramatically in patent data. A 2005 study of more than 1,000 recipients of training grants from the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences in cellular and molecular biology revealed that 30 percent of men–but only 14 percent of women–held at least one patent. A similar study of several thousand faculty members in the life sciences put the figures at 13 percent for men and only 5.65 percent for women, though there were no significant differences in publication patterns. In information technology, men constitute around 70 percent of the U.S. workforce yet earn 94 percent of U.S. patents.

If the percentage of patents awarded to women is far lower than the percentage of female scientists and engineers, it suggests that women’s contributions at the leading edge of their fields are not commensurate with their training. U.S. competitiveness suffers because fewer people are innovating–and because scientists without patents are more likely to leave the scientific workforce.

Stopping the Leak

Attracting and retaining women in science and high-tech entrepreneurship will require making the culture of science more family friendly.Both men and women must recognize that women who want families don’t have the luxury of waiting until they’ve established themselves professionally. What’s more, all scientists must realize that networking and commercialization are not “selling out”: they are integral to a productive career. Finally, women need equal access to laboratory space, startup funds, and professional networks. Here are some specific policy changes that would help keep women in science and technology:

■ Research funders should help pay for child and elder care.

Grant-making organizations should allow all applicants to allocate grant money toward care for family members, as the Clare Booth Luce Professorships currently do.

■ University programs in science and technology should include business training.

To become more entrepreneurial, scientists must understand what is involved in commercializing their technology, managing their labs, and marketing their ideas to venture capitalists. University departments must teach them marketing, finance, management, and other practical business skills.

■ Advisors should take a more active role in mentoring women.

Advisors to female graduate students should actively encourage them to undertake riskier projects and to assert themselves to sell their ideas. They should also help them gain entry into male-dominated networks.

■ Schools must actively embrace diversity.

Cultural and institutional biases still chill the climate for women in science. For example, the 1999 MIT report found an unequal distribution of resources between male and female faculty in laboratory space, salary supplements, startup packages, university funding, and even prize nominations. Schools need to recognize such biases and correct them (see “How MIT Is Fostering Diversity,” p. M18).

■ Expand the National Science Foundation’s Advance program.

Created in 2001, the Advance program has funded university efforts to increase the representation and advancement of women in academic science and engineering. Typical Advance-funded projects focus on recruitment, tenure, and promotions. With an annual budget of about $20 million, this modest program has achieved fantastic results by supporting projects at 37 top American research universities. But it needs more resources to scale up to the next level and expand its programs to include other federal agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and the Department of Energy.

Seven years after walking away from her lab, Suzanne Lorenz is an active mother of three and the owner of a small business. She says she does not miss science much. But American science misses Lorenz–and the thousands like her who felt they had no choice but to give up their careers.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

DeepMind’s cofounder: Generative AI is just a phase. What’s next is interactive AI.

“This is a profound moment in the history of technology,” says Mustafa Suleyman.

What to know about this autumn’s covid vaccines

New variants will pose a challenge, but early signs suggest the shots will still boost antibody responses.

Human-plus-AI solutions mitigate security threats

With the right human oversight, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence can help keep business and customer data secure

Next slide, please: A brief history of the corporate presentation

From million-dollar slide shows to Steve Jobs’s introduction of the iPhone, a bit of show business never hurt plain old business.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.