Even At Highest Level, STEM’s Leaky Pipeline Failing Women and Black People

Among STEM Ph.D. holders, women and black people are leaving the field in disproportionate numbers, finds a new study by the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The research uses data from the National Science Foundation’s 2010 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, which includes 400,000 participants who earned doctorate degrees in STEM between 1959 and 2010. The analysis shows that a full 20% of women with a job and a Ph.D. in STEM work outside of STEM; in comparison, only 16% of men in the same position have left. Numbers are similar for black people as a group (with 21% leaving) versus other racial identities: 17% of whites, 14% of Asians and 14% of Hispanics.

Study authors Lori Turk-Bicakci and Andrea Berger explain:

When any STEM Ph.D. holder leaves a STEM career, his or her potential contribution to scientific advancements and technological innovation may be lost to the STEM community. The consequences of leaving a STEM career may be particularly acute if those leaving are concentrated in groups already underrepresented in STEM, especially among individuals with the highest level of research and technological training. Potential contributions in offering new perspectives and an expanded pool of role models are lost to the field.

Of those leaving STEM jobs, men more frequently left for management and academic administration positions, suggesting that they were promoted. Women more frequently left for other professions, suggesting that they were pushed or pulled out.

Although the study doesn’t further delve into the reason why women and black people are leaving STEM, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots: sexism and racism strike yet again. We’ve talked about these issues many times before, but they continue to be true: sexism in the tech industry is real. Misogyny in the sciences is real. The exclusion of black women in STEM is real. Barriers against workers of color are real, and intersectionality is mixed in with all of it.

On the first day of work at my first engineering job, they had to change the sign on the bathroom nearest my office, because before I was hired, not a single other woman had worked in the building. My boss had a “guns and girls” calendar casually hanging next to his desk, and there was a weird racial undertone on the factory floor. I’ve found my way into much better work environments since then, but on the whole, STEM continues to both subtly and not-so-subtly favor white men, to the detriment of everyone else.

That cartoon figure totally looks like DeAnne Smith, right? I bet she’s dismayed by STEM’s leaky pipeline too. Not that I’d know, because I’m afraid to talk to her. Via BenderPlumbing.com.

That cartoon figure totally looks like DeAnne Smith, right? I bet she’s dismayed by STEM’s leaky pipeline too. Not that I’d know, because I’m afraid to talk to her. Via BenderPlumbing.com.

You’ve probably heard the inclusion of minority groups in STEM described as a pipeline. This metaphor suggests that, for example, as the number of black girls who study STEM subjects in elementary, middle, and high school increases (more go into the pipeline), the number of black women who become scientists and engineers as adults will also increase (more come out of the pipeline). But looking at data like the AIR report shows that this is not the case — or at least, the calculations on the flow rate are off. Because the pipeline is leaky. Really, really leaky.

By far, the most prominent narrative to explain the exit of women from STEM (and indeed the workplace in general) is the “Work-Family Narrative,” which posits that women struggle in their careers because they can’t balance work and family. This is undoubtedly true in many cases, and there’s a lot of work left to do to in fostering more family-friendly work arrangements for everyone. But it strikes me as awfully suspect that the exclusion of women is being framed as a shortcoming of traditional femininity (in which “woman” is equated with “natural caretaker”), rather than a harmful byproduct of gender roles and related discrimination. Why is the blame, yet again, being placed on the victim? Wouldn’t it be more productive to identify and address the many ways in which professional environments marginalize and discriminate against women and other groups?

Photo by George Joch via Ms. Magazine.

Photo by George Joch via Ms. Magazine.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: while funneling more women into STEM fields may produce marginal gains, it actually leaves the underlying issue — male privilege — largely untouched. Although it would be inaccurate to imply that the effects of racism and sexism in STEM are the same (they’re not! Anti-black racism in STEM isn’t even very similar to anti-Asian racism in STEM), it’s clear that the “pipeline” approach isn’t an adequate solution here either. Because why encourage people to get into the pipeline when it’s just going to lead them to a sewage treatment plant, you know? As long as we allow this mess to continue, leaving STEM will be a rational option for many.

If we truly want STEM to advance, we need to confront racism and sexism. Until then, we’ll continue losing out on many valuable contributions.

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Laura Mandanas

Laura Mandanas is a Filipina American living in Boston. By day, she works as an industrial engineer. By night, she is beautiful and terrible as the morn, treacherous as the seas, stronger than the foundations of the Earth. All shall love her and despair. Follow her: @LauraMWrites.

Laura has written 210 articles for us.


  1. Great article! I’m going to check out some of those other links as well! I wrote my master thesis on how science fiction exhibits can be used to interest more young girls in STEM fields and careers, and I ran into a lot of this research in the process. It’s an extremely important issue that I am very passionate about, and I’m very happy to see it addressed here at AS. Also I just realised you have my favorite Galadriel quote in your “about”, so yeah, APPROVE. :D

      • I don’t believe that it’s on University of Washington’s site yet, but it should be in a month or so. In the mean time, I could always send you a copy via email, if you wanted to message me with it… :) I can’t remember if there’s a place on AS where it lists staff emails.

  2. I am finishing a masters in a STEM field. I’m trying to decide if I ought to continue on for a PhD or get a job. Something a lot of articles on this subject overlook is that for women and minorities in particular getting a decent job may seem like a better option rather than striving for the prestige of a PhD. Racism and sexism are at work in the leaky pipeline, but academia is low paid for the amount of time work it takes to become successful. For many people, myself included, the job market seems like it might be a more secure option.

    • Very true! A lot of the language used in discussions on this topic can be really (unintentionally?) judgmental. It makes me feel like if I were to “drop out” of STEM, I’d be shirking a responsibility somehow. And that’s really unfair; the only responsibility I should have is to make the choice that’s best for me personally. It’s a tough situation all around.

  3. I had some questions about that survey that I never bothered to resolve. For example, how are they counting people who teach high school science? Is that dropping out? I find the categories they used confusing – I think that “dropping out” of STEM is a vague process. For example, I’m getting a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy right now. If I go into a career in public policy – is that dropping out of STEM? It’s a lot less clear cut than they make it sound.

    • Yeah, I agree with you that the lines are fuzzy. One of the conclusions that the authors had is that maybe the criteria for what counts as STEM needs to be revisited. By their accounting, teaching high school science would not be counted.

      That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily a value judgment — just a data point showing that that person is no longer involved in traditional Ph.D. STEM activity, such as advanced research.

      The discussion on page 9 gives a good explanation! http://www.air.org/sites/default/files/downloads/report/STEM%20PhDs%20in%20non-STEM%20Careers_July%202014.pdf

      • That’s interesting that teaching high school science would not be counted. It seems like having more science teachers who are women and/or people of color would be an important way to combat many of the issues involved with the lack of diversity in STEM.

        I know that for me, an awful experience with a high school biology teacher (this creepy man who hit on girls and showed us action movies all day instead of teaching) convinced me for 5 years that I hated science.

  4. this is all so true, I also have genuine question, what do you think of the recent admissions by google about the lack of minorities in their company? is it eye opening? has the admission made other companies do similar reviews? do you think google is actually going to do something different or was it all window dressing

    • I appreciated the honesty! One of the first things I learned in industrial engineering classes is that if you’re going to fix a problem, the first thing you have to do is establish the baseline — otherwise, you’ll never have a clear picture of whether you’re making progress. So I think that announcement was a really good thing.

      If other companies have made similar disclosures since, I haven’t seen them.

  5. In between graduating from undergrad and entering a M.S. program, I worked for a year as a technician at a well-reputed and small lab. I was part of a small team that conducted PCR, DNA sequencing, culture curation, and other genetic lab techniques (most of which I learned by shadowing others). My skills and work ethic had impressed my lab supervisor and he invited me to sit down on a meeting with several sales reps from a biotech supply company. We were looking to switch buffers and he wanted my input since I would be using them.

    Upon sitting down with the sales reps, I was reminded that despite my credentials and reputation, I was still a woman and thus inferior. The reps talked down to me and seemed overall suspicious that I knew what DNA was let alone how to extract, replicate it, and sequence it. I was told at least once that I was “too pretty to be working in a lab” (I don’t know what that means either). When I left the meeting to go check on a PCR plate, they turned to my supervisor and asked “How did you manage to get a good looking girl like that?”. He dismissed them and said something to the effect of “We don’t have enough money to hire people for the sake of hiring them. I hired her because she’s the best at what she does.” My supervisor at the time was trying to nurture his two middle-school aged daughters interest in robotics and maker-crafts and was very touchy about people hinting that his girls become interested in other things.

  6. “But it strikes me as awfully suspect that the exclusion of women is being framed as a shortcoming of traditional femininity (in which “woman” is equated with “natural caretaker”), rather than a harmful byproduct of gender roles and related discrimination. Why is the blame, yet again, being placed on the victim?”

    I was talking to my (one and only) female friend in engineering. She said that one of the reasons why she went into engineering was because she always wanted to be the breadwinner in the family. Then she met a man who worked in finance and married him… womp womp. It seems to me that no matter the class or education level, women are almost always the lowest wage earners in the family. And usually income earned is a HUGE part of the decision of who is going to take parental leave. So if the system is broken, and women make less than men, than they are subtly pushed into child rearing, which further perpetuates this shitty cycle.

    But it’s all because we are “nurturing” right? Furious.

  7. Yknow, the whole “women aren’t encouraged to join STEM thing” – I see why people say that, but it’s so unlike my experience growing up.

    In Malaysia, during my time anyway, you were EXPECTED to go into the Sciences and be a Doctor or Engineer. Maybe an Accountant or Lawyer, but you still had to do Science stream in school. Didn’t matter what gender you were: you want to be a top student, you want to have a good life? Go into the Science Stream at Form 4. MANDATORY. Arts and Humanities? For stupid people, for failures.

    Me opting out of the Science stream to do Literature was HUGELY controversial. (Trying to do both wasn’t really an option.) Very Mockingjay moment. It still is, to some degree, even 10+ years later.

    My sister got talked out of Architecture (was that a gender thing?) and did Biochemistry instead. She was the Model Student.

    I don’t know what it’s like to be a female university science student in Malaysia. The country is pretty misogynistic in some ways. I do know that there are never enough spots to do Medicine because EVERYONE is doing Medicine.

    Tech and Math were a little weird. In my time it was still really new and it wasn’t even a school subject yet – I was the resident Tech Expert (having been actively using computers since I was 2 and even learning Pascal) and people still ask me why I didn’t go into IT or Computer Science. As for Math – you were expected to be good at Math, but being a mathematician was kind of uncommon – not for any gender thing, just: what sort of jobs can you get with that?

    Anyone else who was born/raised/studied in Asia have more insight on to how this plays out?

  8. I am a white cis female in STEM. I have my BS in Aerospace Engineering from a prestigious engineering school, and about 2 years ago I graduated and got my first full time professional job in the Aerospace Industry. I think this problem is really multi-layered, which isnt necessarily portrayed in the article.

    I think a large component of sexism is actually genderism – STEM disciplines tend to cater to people with a more masculine outlook and way of dealing with things. I am cis female but identify as genderqueer and I tend to be really masculine in the way that I deal with others in a professional setting. That being said, sexism in the workplace is VERY noticeable, but often only to not cis men. I will be in a meeting where I am the only female type person, and it will conclude with ‘Thank you gentlemen’. I will be in a discussion with a cis man, with another cis man from my team. The man we are talking with will make eye contact with the man from my team about 80-90% of the time, even though I am no less informed and equally assertive.

    I guess overall I feel like minorities in STEM often have the potential for equal opportunites on the individual level, but aggregately, the numbers dont work out. I think this is due to sexism/racism/genderism. This isnt necessarily in an explicit form. Some people evaluate others they work with solely on their merit in the workplace, but some people internalize the idea that relatability = better employee. I am lucky enough that my manager recognizes my inherent badassery, but this is not always the case! I think as long as society views sex/gender as the same thing and gender as binary that we wont really move forward much. I really think that everyone should be required to take womens studies (minority studies) at the high school level and a lot of these problems will work themselves out. It is ok to be privileged or underprivileged but we all need to understand what that means for us and the people around us! Leaky pipeline fixed to be equally leaky for people regardless of sex/race/gender!

  9. I think that sexism and misogyny are very real in STEM, and do need to be (and are being) confronted every day. I also agree that discussions of family needs very easily turn into a blame-the-victim-y “well, there’s really nothing we can do, because all the women want babies, so they leave of their own free will!” response for the demand for women in STEM. I also think it’s *always* worth re-framing this issue from “women are leaving because they want babies” to “women are leaving because our benefits package assumes that scientists have a wife who does most of the parental care, and that isn’t and shouldn’t be true. All of our workers should be deeply involved in their kids’ lives.”

    That said, I think it’s a mistake to present this as an either-or question, that we must tackle sexism in STEM (for one thing, it’s not like we aren’t working that problem every day of our careers) *instead* of working on family-supportive work rules, release time, and resources.

    I think it’s a mistake to buy into this false dichotomy because it suggests that every time I speak up in favor of a better day care policy I somehow lose my ability to argue that we need to make sure women are well-represented in the speaker list in our seminar series.

    Perhaps most importantly, the “work-family narrative” *is* a huge leak in the pipeline. To argue that we should somehow back-burner issues surrounding the work-family narrative while we eliminate male privilege (note–the quest to eliminate male privilege will never actually end, and that’s a long time to wait for day care benefits) would leave the large number of women and not a small number of strongly allied men (the men who care about family issues are often our strongest allies on women’s issues in STEM) in the lurch on the single biggest issue that is holding science back on women’s issues. It’s not either or, it’s both and.

    Best of all, with more women in STEM, we *don’t* leave the “underlying issue” untouched. As our voices multiply, it gives us the capacity to challenge discrimination of all types. I wish we lived in a world in which one voice pointing out that a policy is discriminatory would get it changed. But we don’t. When we have a chorus of women’s voices and allied voices calling for change, we get change faster. It’s largely a numbers game.

    I’m not saying we should stop fighting sexism. I’m saying we can do that while pushing for a work-model in STEM that supports heavy family involvement by all genders in STEM, and that by increasing our numbers, counter-intuitively, we will make the pipeline less leaky.

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