Why women drop out of science

The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article.
The headline writer calls it an article about why so few women go
into science, but it isn’t the dry statistical kind of article —
it’s about some women’s real experiences of being physics majors.

I was a physics major who didn’t go on to become a professional
physicist. I think a lot of both men and women who left school in
the 70’s found it easier to become computer programmers than to
get graduate education in science or math and then compete for a
diminishing number of jobs.

The story I’ve always told about why I didn’t go to graduate
school is that by the time I was a junior and senior, I and
a lot of my friends were dating graduate students, and most of the
ones I knew were pretty miserable. The exceptions were the ones
who had done something else for a while and decided that research
in a particular field was what they really wanted to do with their
lives.

Then after I was out of schoool for the first time in sixteen
years, I was so deliriously happy not to be in school I never
really considered doing anything that would require going
back.

The two reasons for women dropping out that the article (as I
remember it from two days ago) goes into in detail are harrassment
or actual discouragement in and out of the classroom, and lack of
encouragement by faculty of further study of even the most
successful female students.

I don’t think either of those reasons applied to me. I
remember one remark by a professor that I found a bit sexist. Of
course in 1971 none of us had really had our consciousnesses
raised very hign. But this is pretty mild by the standards of
other women’s harrassment stories. We were doing a lab experiment
about radiation, and the preliminary discussion had emphasized how
careful we should all be about the hazards, and then the moment
came when someone had to press a button that would actually
release some radiation. The class hung back, until I (the only
female) volunteered, and the professor said something about all
the men being willing to let a woman take the risk for them.

I wasn’t a particularly brilliant physics student, so it isn’t
surprising that none of the professors encouraged me to go on,
although one of them gave me a surprisingly good reference for a
job a couple of years after I graduated. (It turned out to be a
terrible job.) But I did have a math professor who was very
disappointed when I told him I wasn’t applying for graduate
school.

I”m sure the stories people tell actually heppen, and I’m sure
that science would be better off if there were more diversity of
people doing it. I’m just saying that just eliminating the horror
stories or even raising the consciousness of the power structure
isn’t going to do it.

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