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How to end the hemorrhaging of senior women in STEM

Updated: Jul 9

Recently, there has been a spate of highly publicized firings and demotions of senior women in STEM. As an emerita in a College of Engineering, I am disheartened but not surprised. While I do not personally know the women involved, details suggest patterns of institutional failure that are all too familiar. Here, I describe problems women face that may “fly under the radar” and suggest potential solutions based on decades of work in government and academia, including a variety of leadership positions.

While it’s always “lonely at the top,” women in STEM are often isolated, which can make it difficult to build coalitions to do a job effectively and can lead to unnecessary conflicts. In the absence of close, friendly relationships with coworkers and peers, misunderstandings are more likely to multiply and grow.

As a young scientist working for the government, I watched male project chiefs and administrators head out of the office Friday afternoons to golf; as a female project chief, I was not welcome. While golfing, the men learned about upcoming opportunities, hashed out problems, and built comradeship. Although my supervisor gave me many opportunities for career advancement, I learned first-hand how isolated women are.

Years later, I watched groups of male faculty in my department leave to work out together, go for a walk or run, go out for lunch, etc. New male hires were quickly invited to join. It was more than a decade before I was invited; but by then, I felt I wasn’t really welcome. Attending social functions was awkward, as I didn’t fit in with the cluster of male colleagues or the separate cluster of wives.

If you are a woman, you are often bereft of colleague friends to turn to for advice, support, and help. This problem can worsen as women move up the career ladder and have even fewer female peers.

Discussing this potential problem can be the first step towards addressing it.

Because there are few women in leadership roles, women are often assumed to be something they are not; and first impressions matter.

If I wore a suit, people assumed I was an administrative assistant; if I dressed more casually, they assumed I was a student. For example, as an assistant professor, I secured substantial research funding and was invited to meet with the all-male faculty in another department to brainstorm potential collaborations. Although I was professionally dressed, I was asked to go make coffee while the chair called my department to find out why I was running late. The meeting was short and strained.

Years later, I was a center director and my administrative assistant ushered a visitor into my office. As we spoke about the center, he kept looking at his watch, finally blurting out that it was rude for the director to keep him waiting. When he realized his mistake, he apologized and we had a great conversation; but, I wonder if it would have been even better without the initial misunderstanding.

We need women leaders in STEM to be so numerous that they’re the norm and for people to open their minds to a broader concept of who and what a professor is. Recent highly publicized firings and demotions are NOT going to make it easier to grow the ranks of senior women. Sensitivity training might be helpful, but the gentleman in the second example had sensitivity training.

Faculty often bad-mouth one another; it can be particularly destructive when aimed at women, and in front of students and staff.

When I became a center director, staff members were abnormally withdrawn; they had been encouraged by a male colleague to quit en masse if I were named director. It took time to gain their trust.

Over the years, many students complained about how uncomfortable they were when certain male faculty members constantly belittled me. Some graduate students wanted to work with me but didn’t want to be berated for it.

Many young women decide not to pursue academic careers because of how their female advisors are treated. If a woman is constantly berated in front of students, innocent actions can be misinterpreted and minor professorial errors can be blown out of proportion.

I’ve often heard of men complaining about women who are frequently out of the office, despite the women getting approval for travel. Yet, the absences are because the woman is doing fieldwork, serving on committees, and building a high profile career.

Some senior men who are supportive of female students and junior faculty are less supportive of a successful senior woman, perhaps because they aren’t used to viewing women as equals.

Faculty members should be professional and understand that failure of a senior faculty member is an institutional failure and reflects poorly on the entire institution. There is no better way of ensuring that a female colleague turns into a ‘witch’ than by repeatedly calling her one.

There is pervasive resentment against women caused by perceptions of unfairness related to affirmative action. Some men resent women for a perceived unfair advantage and do not see value in female colleagues. Some men are happy to stoke the flames, hoping a woman will fail. Women often have heavy and high profile service loads but are given no credit because ‘they needed a woman.’ Women are often used for promotional advertising but when they are subsequently denied promotion, it’s demoralizing. When women are interviewed solely to gain affirmative action ‘brownie points,’ time and money are wasted. Women hired as an ‘extra hire’ for affirmative action often are not given adequate support. Hiring a man and a woman at the same time and giving the man more resources is a recipe for disaster, as is making them share a lab.

We need to do a better job explaining the value of having a diverse faculty and to hire men who understand that diversity builds strengths. As an assistant professor, I had a chair who was proactively and vocally supportive of women, and it made a huge difference.

Faculty meetings can be particularly challenging for women in STEM.

Guys, just let her speak. Don’t gang up on the only woman in the room. Don’t dismiss what a woman says then applaud when a man says exactly the same thing. Don’t hold a pre-meeting in the men’s room and make the decisions there. Don’t hold faculty meetings early or late, when many women and young men have to drop off/pick up their children. Don’t automatically ask a female colleague to take notes or make coffee.

Women often face special challenges in the classroom and mentoring students. Some students are skeptical, hostile, and even vindictive, particularly when they don’t understand that a woman had to work especially hard and has high expectations. Women are expected to be sweet and nurturing, but some men think women get good teaching evaluations because their classes are ‘easy.’

Experiencing a male student come to the blackboard, hold a book in front of my face, and tell me that what I was teaching was wrong was a real low point (I quickly and decisively set him straight and he later became a great mentor of female students). Another low point was having a female student literally scream at me for several minutes in class that she had never received a B before in her life and how dare I mark her exam a B. In all my years in academia, I never witnessed anything approaching such brazenly disrespectful behavior towards a male faculty member in the classroom.

It is disheartening that some dismissals of senior women in Europe were precipitated by students who likely did not understand the unique challenges senior women face. That said, of course we want students to be empowered to complain when they are treated poorly; bullying and academic misconduct are always inappropriate. Although, given that I, personally, have been bullied by male faculty numerous times, I cannot help but suspect that women are being treated more harshly than men for the same types of behaviors.

An effective system should stop inappropriate behavior early on, before it becomes a serious problem; problems should be worked out in a manner that focuses on solutions; and institutions should follow their written rules and guidelines whenever they decide that disciplinary action is warranted. Tenure and promotion committees and HR staff need to be trained to recognize and understand the special challenges women face as instructors and mentors and to work on effective solutions to problems.

I have observed many women who had brilliant careers but eventually hit a wall because they were working too hard in an unsupportive environment. A woman in STEM has to be a badass to attain tenure, full professorship, and leadership positions. Often, she’s had babies and cared for elderly parents. Studies have shown that family responsibilities fall inordinately on women’s shoulders. Years of overwork, stress, lack of sleep, and dealing with the extra challenges described above can take a toll. This is one of the reasons why a career should be viewed as a marathon rather than a sprint. The tenure clock was designed for men and it doesn’t suit women’s biological clocks well (or men who want to engage in family responsibilities).

I realized by age 45 that my future career was not going to be happy, even though I loved research and teaching. I developed a plan to retire early, deliberately ramping down my research program over time. Thankfully, I was promoted to emeritus so that I could stay active in my field. It didn’t take long after retiring to stop feeling like the wicked witch of the west and return to health and happiness.

When I talk to men about challenges women face, they often respond that men face challenges, too. True, but women face most of the same challenges, in a much less supportive environment. That said, I draw hope from many wonderful male colleagues around the world. The ultimate key to success is to be surrounded by supportive colleagues who respect one another and are committed to working effectively together.

Patricia A. Maurice

Professor Emeritus, University of Notre Dame

Notre Dame, IN USA


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