New article: Why are there comparatively few women in science?

Here in Cambridge, the discussion about Larry Summers just won’t die, so I’ve completed a draft of a new article…

Please comment/correct.  Thanks in advance.

[Update:  The Chronicle of Higher Education is hosting a discussion on the departure of Summers.  Visit tomorrow (Thursday) at 2 pm.]

[Update 2:  An MIT professor reminds me that these thoughts are not entirely original…. ]

38 thoughts on “New article: Why are there comparatively few women in science?

  1. Fantastic essay. Informed, surely, your own bitter experience over the years (see “Career Guide for …” etc).

    Some random thoughts:

    -I just read in the local paper than an Oakland police officer makes $90k afer three years and retires at 50. But the kicker is that they can’t find new recruits because this pay and benefits package *isn’t good enough*. Of course, there is a grim sort of selection bias in the “I’ll retire by 50” notion.

    -Saying math nerds are as irrational as John Hinckley is not as wild as one might think. Ted Kaczinsky was a tenure-track math genius.

    -‘unable to step back and ask the question “is this peer group worth impressing?”‘ immediately made me think of Slashdot.

  2. I think you really nailed it. Thanks for the insights. As a young (29) and recent (2004) PhD in Aero who’s contemplating moving into the prof’s job market, this essay really resonated with me. Maybe I should look at Wall Street first.

    One critical comment: Having recently read Stephen J. Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man,” I tend to bristle at even the mere mention of IQ as a measure of intelligence. I know its use in this essay is simply a proxy for “very intelligent person” or “not so intelligent person,” but it bugs me nonetheless.

  3. Ryan: My experience hasn’t been bitter! I went back to graduate school as a form of entertainment (at the time I was making $750/day as a Lisp Machine programmer — that dates me, eh? So long ago that $750 was real money and people were still using Lisp!) and now I teach as a volunteer. I never depended on Academia to provide any money, so I’ve never been disappointed. Of course, I am surrounded by career academics and they are a somewhat bitter and unhappy lot. I leave them behind when I go to the airport, however, because none of them have enough self-confidence to pilot an aircraft.

  4. Interesting thoughts. You may want to take a look at this essay by Peter Lawrence, a British biologist who comments on the same observation: Also read the comments of readers (e-letters). According to a newspaper story (;jsessionid=R2SCQNKZZJTYJQFIQMFCFGGAVCBQYIV0?xml=/connected/2006/02/07/ecnthink07.xml&%5C1sSheet=/connected/2006/02/07/ixconn.html), this essay was already accepted for publication by Science magazine, but did not end up getting printed, possibly because this journal had some problems with this once famous and now infamous Korean clone researcher who found a way to become rich by being a scientist (sort of). Obviously Science was afraid of printing content that is potentially controversial and politically incorrect.

  5. It was a depressing read, and it wouldn’t be so depressing if it weren’t right on the money.
    I just finished reading Friedman’s “The World is Flat.” It has some good insights, but when he gets to the inevitable section about how the US is falling behind in math and science, there isn’t so much as a peep about the things Phil has addressed here. He, like so many other people who wring their hands about the dearth of Americans getting PhD’s in science, talks up the usual points about how we need to improve education and “make science cool again.” But there is no discussion of the economic forces that push Americans away from science. It is such an obvious and notable omission that I almost start wondering if this is deliberate – that the guy knows damn well what’s happening, but has chosen to join a spin machine.
    There’s a huge disconnect here. I really don’t get it.

  6. Philip: I think you nailed it on your blog reply, perhaps moreso even than in the article. Science is fun, and that’s reason enough to do it. But trying to make a career out of it is where most people fall down.

  7. Hey Philip, I think I read too much into a joke you made about how you thought you weren’t likely to make tenure after writing “Tuition-free MIT”, or something like that. Or maybe my memory is terrible. But, no, you don’t seem like a bitter guy.

  8. Great article, but I don’t buy into the assumption that doctor, lawyer, GE fast-tracker, etc., are great careers because they pay a lot of money. What evidence do you have that people who make a lot of money are happier than people who don’t? I haven’t seen any. What I see is every celebrity in Hollywood in rehab, rich people getting married and divorced over and over again, rich families where everyone hates each other, corporate fast-trackers who make millions and show up on CNN in handcuffs for trying to steal a few million more.

    What else might be a contributor to happiness? You mention family, and I agree! I have a boy in jr. high and I’ve never missed one of his activities. Every time he caught a fly ball, I saw it! Every time he dropped a fly ball, I saw that too! Of course, by choosing to squander my time that way, I’ve negatively impacted my ability to bring home a huge paycheck. But I think I’m happier. You suggest that rich folks can hire people to raise their kids while they continue to ascend in their brilliant careers. What an appalling notion! When I think about all the people I’ve hired to do things for me and how many of them did a truly outstanding job, there really have not been that many. And yet if I hire someone to cut my grass and they do a poor job, I can bounce back from that pretty easily. If I hire someone to raise my kids and they do a poor job, how do I recover from that?

    Since you closed with a reflection on suicide, I’ll do the same. The American Journal of Psychiatry ( reports that female physicians have a suicide rate that “far exceeds that of the general population.” Everything’s a tradeoff, you know . . .

  9. Paul: The question is not about whether women should simply not work at all. One Harvard undergraduette we know said “I used to want to be an investment banker. Then I realized that I could simply marry an investment banker.” Perhaps she is indeed the wisest. The question was why women do not choose to work 70-hour weeks as scientists. A female physician who works hard and hires a nanny with her $300,000 per year salary might not be a model mother. But she is a mother. The female scientist who works hard and has a reasonable chance of tenure will not have a child at all because she has no time to take care of the kid and no money to hire a nanny. The female physician can choose to work 20 hours per week and earn a more than ample wage. The female scientist who works 20 hours per week will be getting $10 per hour.

    Psychologists certainly suggest that money does not buy happiness. On the other hand, it is tough to get any job-seeker to accept Job A that pays one third as much as Job B. And the anxiety around getting fired from an academic job is wearing, coupled with the fact that no employer wants a washed-up academic.

  10. As someone who made this exact choice (bailed out of graduate school for medical school), though not a woman, I would point out that the medicine road is not a simple matter of signing up for a school and then, four years later, working at home as a radiologist for 300K. Assuming one is smart and has the social and standardized-testing skills to get into medical school, one must do well to get into a good residency. For radiology, for example, the competition for residency spots is keen. Recent changes in the law has made residency better, in that residents are now “only” expected to work 80hrs/week for their $40K/YR. After 5 years of residency one then applies for a competitive 1-2 year fellowship, followed (now 10-11 years out of undergrad) by a good paying job. Of course it seems like alot of money but don’t forget that our subject has been working at 60-80 hours a week for 11 years, and is (on average) 120K in debt from medical school. If our female who is pondering her choices takes a couple of years between undergrad and medical school, she’ll be low-mid 30’s by time she’s done, at least.

  11. Hi quick intro. I am a <gasp> female scientist. I am currently a postdoc about to start a faculty position in July. Okay, technically I’m an engineer, but my work is so much science that I feel like a scientist. I also <gasp> have two kids, both born in grad school, and I left a job in industry specifically that paid about as much as I will make as a professor to go back to grad school. Why you may ask?

    I was bored. I was working for one of the top technology companies in America, earning about the highest wage of anyone in my undergrad graduating class, and the hours were good, and the benefits were great, but I was bored out of my mind! This is the reason that I am not a stay at home mom either. My children are fantastic, but are not intellectually stimulating in an adult sense.

    The difference between myself and some of the others that you talk about, and this is a big difference, is that my husband comes from a modestly wealthy family. Because of his trust fund, we both have the freedom to pursue careers of our choice, and that is exactly what we have done. We have a nanny for the kids, a maid service for the house, and a personal chef service for when I don’t want to cook. Without those things, I don’t know if I could do the things that I do.

    Getting more wommen into science is a passion of mine, and you raise some intersting points.
    I also am in the middle of reading The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman, and these comments do resonate with me. He cites several statistics that indicate that enrollment of men and women in science is at a lowpoint. He talks about the need for role models and funding, and both of these are true.

    I don’t share your sentiments on tenure though. At the universities that I am familiar with (with the exception MIT) tenure rates are around 80%. That means most people *do* get tenure and are not looking for a second job at 44. And, believe me if I wanted to go back to the company I was working at with my BS, I could do so in a heartbeat for double or triple what I would earn as a Prof. So I don’t see that as a problem.

    I think that women are drawn to science careers because of the possibility of helping people or society. That’s why biology and biomedical engineering have much higher enrollments of women than say electrical engineering. If we can make the end results of each discipline more meaningful, I think more women will enroll.

    I mean if I tell you that as a CS or EE major you will spend your days (well actually nights) guzzling Mountain Dew and coding or laying out circuits with a bunch of overweight, balding white guys you might be disinterested. [My husband is CS so I have first hand knowledge of this.] But if I told you, that you could be working on the next IPOD, or designing video cell phones, or new networks of text messaging, I think women might be a lot more interested in these careers.

    I also sense the absence of role models. Years ago we had Einstein and Feynman, heck even Sagan. Now we have few true visionaries that are in the media. Also, politicians do not provide the excitement and impetus of previous times. Where is our Manhattan project, our Man on the Moon? After 9/11 one would think that there would have been some need for a scientific project, but nothing has come of it.

    Finally, scientists have for many centuries mostly been men, and wealthy men of leisure at that. If we want to make the field more attractive to women, we will need to rethink how we value work. Women tend to be more collaborative and to value teaching and mentoring over shear results. That is not emphasized in the current academic system, and is a major negative for women considering the profession.

  12. One more comment about Phil’s explanations for why more men than women are willing to make a questionable career choices by getting PhDs in science or mathematics: perhaps men have a greater buffer of time to recover from career mistakes. I actually know a couple of guys who got PhD’s, then went to MBA or JD degrees. While they may have enjoyed their PhD programs (heh), from an earning standpoint they probably wasted a good 5-7 years. But they can just pretend that those 5-7 years never existed. A 40 year old man can get married to a 31 year old woman, and just pretend he’s 31. Happens all the time. It’s harder for women to pull this off. So maybe math and science PhD’s are just another incarnation of the recklessness of youth – something men have historically been able to indulge in, without the consequences women would experience.

  13. Philip: As usual, you write a splendid essay.

    32 Papa: What you say is true: it does take a lot of effort and a lot of sleepless nights to become an M.D. — maybe even as many as it takes to become a Ph.D. — and the financial advantages of being an M.D. take a long time to develop. However, it’s hard to argue that the financial advantages are not there. A big consideration is that being an M.D. is a steady job. Even in the early years, when you are going into debt or earning starvation wages, you can be fairly confident that plugging steadily ahead will keep you employed. Sure, if you don’t excel enough, make the right friends or get one of those prestigious fellowships, you might miss your chance to become a med school professor and get stuck working as a G.P. writing prescriptions for flu patients. But, it’s a living. The shape of your future career is fairly predictable. You’re not likely to be involuntarily out of work for months at a time, or be forced to move from city to city every three years to find work — and you won’t be discriminated against when you’re 50. I don’t think there’s a big pool of unemployed M.D.s in the United States, although you’re welcome to correct me if I’m wrong.

    This is not to say that being an M.D. will make you happy. There are lots of unhappy M.D.s. The one drawback of that career is that it’s easy to get trapped on the path before you know whether you like it or not…

  14. 32 Papa: My younger brother went to University of Maryland medical school. If he had “120K in debt from medical school”, it would have been from hosting some pretty fine parties. His tuition was $4000 per year the first two years and then they dropped it to $3000 per year for the last two. Then he went to Johns Hopkins for some residency/fellowship and, surprise, surprise, nobody ever asks or cares where he went to medical school. All the U.S. med schools are good. Nobody needs to pay more than whatever their local state university is charging. Anyway… $120K in debt? Horrors. That’s about what my medical doctor buddies at the airport spend on maintenance, hangar, and insurance every year for their fancy airplanes…

  15. Jessica:
    Your post brings up several points:

    I’m prepared to believe that tenure rates are around 80%. Which is not to say that I do believe it. But let’s assume you’re right. The first question to ask is: does the knowledge that only 1 out of 5 people crash and burn at age 44 really allow you to sleep at night?

    The second question is, does the high tenure rate really solve all our academic career problems? Not exactly. While it’s true that some universities have learned that denying tenure to 44-year-olds is harsh and cruel and creates a bad reputation, the solution is just to raise the standards for being hired onto the tenure track in the first place. There’s been a big increase in the number of postdocs. Today, instead of doing two postdocs, getting a tenure-track position, working for six years, and being fired, you’ll just do three or four or even five postdocs. The beauty of a postdoc is that the university doesn’t even have to fire you if they don’t want to keep you.

    I hate to tell you this, but I’ve worked on the next-generation of cell phones, and while it was rewarding the job resembled nothing more than a bunch of overweight, balding white guys laying out circuits at night. I’ve also worked at a company that was building the next generation of Web collaboration software. (This was a while ago; what they were building then is essentially what we all use now.) The white guys were less overweight and they had more hair, but the enterprise still consisted of a lot of nerds sitting in cubicles, coding. What I’m trying to say is: if you don’t like being a geek and working on geeky things, you’re not going to like electrical engineering no matter how “meaningful” your projects may be.

    You ask “Where is our Manhattan Project, our Man on the Moon”? I can’t figure this statement out. We’re self-evidently living in the greatest age of science in history. The human genome project alone is several hundred times as important and interesting as the moon landing. We’ve found extrasolar planets, and robot geologists are doing fieldwork on Mars. The Web may yet turn out to be the most important invention since printing — it’s easy to predict that, in ten years, I’ll be connected to Google or its equivalent during every waking hour; at least half my long-term memory will be online, and being disconnected from the Web will feel like having a stroke… but I’ll also be the greatest trivia wizard in the history of humanity. Is that not dramatic enough? Well, the rate of world oil production is probably peaking and global warming is about to scramble the world’s ecosystems and create a host of new problems in engineering and agriculture.

    Modern science doesn’t have a Carl Sagan because science has become mainstream. It’s like asking why economics doesn’t have an Adam Smith today. Adam Smith was a pioneer who explained the basics of economics to an audience that had never heard of them before. But his modern equivalent is a grade-school or high-school teacher, because basic economics is now something that every child is expected to know. It’s a central feature of our world, and an entire section of the daily paper is devoted to economic news. Science news has also become routine. Every week the paper publishes three stories that are at least as interesting as anything Sagan ever reported. Meanwhile, the discoveries Sagan spoke about are yesterday’s news; they’re taught in schools and are written into movies, novels, and video games.

    People are not avoiding scientific careers because science is not exciting enough: It’s literally more exciting than ever. People are not avoiding science because being nerdly is uncool: It has never been more cool to be a nerd than it is now — especially for women. (Can you name a single one of the behind-the-scenes nerds who made the moon landing work? How many of them were women, do you think?) People are not avoiding science for a lack of role models: there are more scientists (especially women scientists) working today than ever before. If people, male or female, are avoiding science, it’s because the pay is bad or the jobs are bad. In other words, people are not avoiding science at all. Science is avoiding them.

  16. Sorry, Philip, I don’t buy the premise. Nothing about your description of a scientist’s life is remotely typical (with the exception of the long work hours). At most major research universities, tenure rates in the sciences are in the 95% range. This isn’t true at the very top universities like MIT or Princeton, but not getting tenure there is not much of a stigma: you’ll be attractive to good second-tier universities and national laboratories in your field. The real cut is at the postdoc-faculty divide.

    At least in my field, the idea of four or five postdocs is ludicrous. If you burn through two postdocs without getting a faculty (or national lab) tenure-track offer, you’re highly unlikely to land another postdoc. But it usually doesn’t come to that: people who leave the field by and large do it voluntarily. (By “voluntarily” I include not being flexible enough to move across the country or slightly tweak your research interest to match an opening.) At that point you’re in your early thirties with a PhD and experience, and you’re very employable.

    The 44-year-old, kicked out on his rear and looking for an entry-level banking job, is just about the *least* likely outcome of starting a science career. I’ve actually known more young scientists dead by 44 than unemployed. And my fellow MIT alumni who didn’t pursue science careers have had far more turbulent (and, averaged out, about equally lucrative) job trajectories. Even the rare scientist who is “fired” always gets a year’s notice: that would be a spectacular deal to all of my corporate-world friends whose companies have gone belly-up or announced immediate mass layoffs.

  17. Philip, I recall that a while ago there was a certain doctor working at ArsDigita DC office who was directly related to the company’s founder. Was he simply trying to supplement his MD wages, or did he really enjoy selling whatever software a bunch of CS nerds were writing back in Cambridge?

    Also, another (at least supplemental) income opportunity for the scientists that was not specifically mentioned yet seems to be quite popular among the post-docs and assistant profs is tutoring – the going rate in Boston area is about $60/hr, and even though it does not compare to what MD’s or JD’s are making (after residency, that is), if you can find a few (well, about 20 🙂 good kids to teach, it certainly beats reading catscans all day or writing up v.2006 of your corporate sexual harrassment policy.

  18. As a practicing MD in a top 100 hospital in the USA, I would like to comment the following regarding MD as a career choice: Yes, My medical student loan was over 110K and that was slightly less than most other medical students at the time (8 years ago), Yes, I did 4 years of unspeakable and busy residency getting paid (at the time) 30,000 dollars per year, and Yes I am making good salary now. A typical week I work 65 to 75 hours working two weekends per month and most major holidays. I deal with extremely sick patients every day and pressure from the hospital, other MDs, patients’ family memebers, other health care staffs and my wife and son can really get you to re-think what the hell would any one want to have Medicine as a career… I tell you why! I have never ONCE calculate how many dollars I can make doing my job vs other job as Dr Philip Greenspun did in his writing. I have never ONCE consider flying a plane and/or maintaining one as Dr Philip Greenspun. I have never ONCE wonder if I am employable or not or which job can make more bucks. I have never ONCE entertain the idea comparing “what if” I have chosen other career path such as a computer software engineer like my younger brother or Dr Phlip Greenspun. I am doing what I am doing because I enjoy it (making a good living is a nice side bonus) and because I believe I am doing some good by helping sick people in need of good medical care. All other considerations are unimportant to me.

    Call me an idiot but at least I am a happy idiot!

    FU LI CHAO MD (My real name)

  19. I appreciate the comments of Mark Booth, but I think he may be missing one of the major backlashes in society happening right now. Most of my peers (I’m 30) had parents who both worked. We saw our mother’s struggle and our father’s work long hours for extra money. I think a lot of us are questioning the idea of working just for more money. [See Dr. Chao above]. Most of us what careers that make us happy. Some women are dealing with this problem by staying home to raise families. Others reject traditional highpaying careers to go into fields where they can ‘help’ people or make a strong impact to society. One of my relatives is a lawyer, but not the high paying type that you might imagine, she is a public defender. She could have taken a big job at a NYC law firm, but didn’t because she wanted to feel fulfilled by her career and give herself a chance at a decent life. I chose science because I wanted to challenge myself intellectually. I enjoy it beyond measure, the thrill of discovering something for the very first time, the humbling defeat of my hypotheses, and the determination to rise above that failure with new success are what keep me going every day. Science can be a difficult career, but in my field postdocs are not even required, although most people do 1, and two is pretty unusual, and three unheard of. I know that this is not the case in natural sciences, but there are engineering professions that allow someone like myself to reach a tenure track position at 30 (and I worked two years before going to grad school). Additionally, I have rarely worked more than 45 hours a week. I realize that I am the exception, but I illustrate that it is possible. I think that science is unattractive because it is perceived as geeky. My point with the previous comments is that it is a state of mind. If one thought that they were working on the next big technology breakthrough, then others might be more inclined to enter the field. As more women and fewer uber-nerds become EEs, the environment will change and become more attractive to other women. I was simply suggesting that a change of attitude might engender more women to enter the field and therefore create a more hospitable workplace for the ladies.

  20. Philip – your brother’s experience is hardly typical. (The University of Maryland Medical School is now about 18K/Year for a non-resident). I don’t argue that the work and debt aren’t great investments, but it’s not a career choice that is easy or without risk. Mike Booth accurately captures the main risk of medical school, acquiring the debt and then hating the job. I thought your article was spot on for graduate school (at least for me) but suggested that medical school was an obvious and simple alternative. I’ve been through a few career ringers before settling down (commercial pilot -> grad. school -> MD) and I can see that jobs that many people glamorize are often dramatically less interesting and exciting than people not directly involved believe. Fortunately for me, I love what I do and couldn’t imagine doing anything else, perhaps I too am a happy idiot Dr. Chao. – – 32Papa MD (not my real name)

  21. Philip, I have a lot of respect for you, and enjoyed the essay so much I immediately sent a link to my friends, colleagures and my former advisor. However, as I re-read it, I saw some examples and details you use that are not typical, and wanted to point these out.

    1. Tenure denial. Yes, it happens. The essay, however, makes it sound like it happens in the majority of cases, which I doubt is the cae. I have no hard data to support it, but my friends who graduated within a year or two from me, from a 2-nd tier institutions, have all got tenure (I am in the industry.) A quick googling for statistics on tenure granting/denial did not produce countrywide, or even institution-specific results – does anybody have the stats? My contention is that there are reasonable tenure prospects for the majority of science assistant profs.

    2. Postdoctoral fellowships. My experience is in CS, where postdocs are, or were, uncommon. Those that were available (e.g., the NIST program), paid more than 30-40k/year.

    3. Yuan and Professor Jones. I am sorry Dr. Jones was denied tenure, but what was he thinking funding a graduate student who was explicit about quitting the program after 3 years? Few graduate students publish much, if anything, in their first year or two, unless they are exceptional and/or have a track record of publishing while undergraduates (comparatively rare.) Gauging who of the virtually unlimited pool of applicants is willing and able to endure the 4-5-6-7 years of low-paid apprenticeship AND contribute to a group’s research is one of the tougher problems faculty must solve.

    Overall, though, I absolutely agree with you, the incentives for pursuing careers in science are off – at least for North Americans, and what’s more, the system takes advantage of the lack of clear, cold-headed analysis one needs to undertake when committing to a career. What are your ideas on changing the incentives “package”?

  22. You make a convincing argument that science is a pretty crummy job. I still don’t know why more men do it than women, though.

  23. Philip,
    Great article!
    You once asked for ideas for donations that incredibly rich people could make that would really make a difference. I’m convinced that we need some more medical schools. We need to work on the supply side of the “doctor market”.
    Your article makes it more clear than ever that something’s gotta give within the American university system. Now that Professors are almost universally barred from seducing students, I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be one.
    Also, do you think we may see successful, high-IQ people having a “second career” in science once they’ve made their money? (For example, getting a tenured position as an astronomy professor is so difficult that my college-level astronomy book advised against even trying, but making enough money to put together a fairly sophisticated mountaintop observatory is often possible by 40) Of course we may run into the “scientists do their best work before 30” problem.

  24. Michael: The American Medical Associations approves or disapproves new medical schools. They don’t share your belief that we have too few doctors. So they don’t approve new medical schools. That’s one reason why the M.D. is such a great credential. There are a lot of jobs that require an M.D. and the supply is strictly limited. Your idea of successful people having a second career in science does seem likely to work if the stream of immigrants ever begins to dry up. That’s how science was done in England before the 20th century. Rich guys with labs in the basements of their big country houses.

    A.S.: Please don’t use Computer Science as an example of science! And don’t throw rocks at Professor Jones. He was an experimentalist. He needed a slave in his lab to build an experiment, not someone to scribble for him. Yuan was one of his best graduate students ever. What’s my idea for changing the incentives? I don’t have any. I’m not one of the people who complains that there aren’t enough women working as professors, janitors, or whatever. For whatever reason we’ve decided that science in America should be done by low-paid immigrants. They seem to be doing a good job. They are cheap. They are mostly guys, like other immigrant populations. If smart American women choose to go to medical, business, and law school instead of doing science, and have fabulous careers, I certainly am not going to discourage them. Imagine if one of those kind souls that Summers was speaking to had taken Condoleezza Rice aside and told her not to waste time with political science because physics was so much more challenging. Just think how far she might have gone…

    Skeptik: My brother the M.D. did have fun at ArsDigita showing customers such as the World Bank how to build information systems with free software (ArsDigita never sold software, at least while I was there; only services). When the IT imploded in 2001 and the world decided that computer nerdism was no longer interesting, Harry went back to medicine, bought his family a nice yacht, and then went on to some more interesting adventures in the world of health care management. The M.D. gave him a cushion that the programmers did not have.

    Jessica: I think there is a big difference between engineering and science. Because of the competition for people from industry (Google, for example, is obviously a much more exciting place to work than most university C.S. departments; it is hard to think of an equivalent in physics, chemistry, or biology), universities don’t inflict quite as much misery on engineers as they do on scientists. My article is restricted to a discussion of science because that’s what Larry Summers was talking about. As for “people doing what they love” instead of choosing jobs based on salary, I’m not sure that Dr. Chao and you are supporting examples. You’ve noted that you have the personal chef, the nanny, and presumably the big house to park them in, even if you don’t go to work at all. Dr. Chao loves what he does and it just so happens that he works in the highest paid profession in the United States. There are, of course, successful business people who earn far more, but as a group MBAs make much less than MDs, and many people who got rich in business had to take a lot of risk to do so (i.e., their risk-adjusted income might be lower than a dentist’s).

    A lot of folks: Our society would be worse off if people choosing careers did not respond to financial incentives. Imagine if people did actually take jobs purely for the love. We’d have lots of artists, helicopter pilots, fire jugglers, etc. We wouldn’t have any accountants, cleaners, dentists, etc.

  25. In the essay you briefly compare scientists to musicians and actors. I think that’s right, and one can expand the list: scientist, musician, actor, author, athlete, maybe aviator…
    These careers are professionalized versions of hobbies. There are significant numbers of amateurs willing to pursue these activities in their spare time, for free. In contrast, there are few if any hobbyist accountants. There may be amateur lawyers who like to make impassioned arguments, but probably not many who like to draft wills and contracts for fun.
    The average pay in the hobby-jobs is not great. This is no doubt closely related to the first point.
    Young entrants may or may not fully appreciate that the average pay is not great. Even if they do appreciate it, they don’t care, because they don’t expect to be average; they expect to attain the top of the profession. Superstars in these professions are well-paid, even spectacularly well-paid.

    With these parallels, it may be interesting to consider the male-female balance in other hobby-jobs apart from science.

    30.1% of natural scientists are women.
    35.6% of musicians and composers are women.
    38.8% of actors and directors are women.
    55.2% of authors are women.
    28.0% of professional athletes are women. (I was surprised this percentage is so high.)
    3.1% of airplane pilots and navigators are women.
    In comparison, 28.8% of lawyers, 24.5% of physicians, and 26.3% of computer programmers are women.
    (All 1999 data from the U.S. Statistical Abstract.)

    These numbers do not suggest to me that women are fleeing science for the professions at all. Nor does it seem that women are necessarily averse to high-competition, can-you-win-the-lottery career choices, since there are so many women authors. I guess in acting and sports, men and women tend to be segregated by sex rather than competing head-to-head for exactly the same jobs.

  26. Philip: I want to thank you for slapping me in the face. I’m 23 and entering a graduate program in physics next fall. Your observations depress the hell out of me, because I know you’re right on target. I’ve watched as two brilliant 40-something professors at my undergraduate institution were denied tenure and made to uproot their families as they sought menial positions at 4th-tier universities.

    Thank you for making it explicit that I’ve made the choice to give up things I would really love to have in my life for the chance to pursue a subject I love. I think a large part of unhappiness is failure to meet with personal expectations, and maybe so long as I know I’ve made the choice that I won’t be able to have family/nice things/a social-life/tenure, I won’t be so bitter about being without them.
    Anyway, you’ve given me a lot to think about.

  27. Dear Dr Greenspun

    You are right. Most of my MD friends are very business-oriented people: they are thinking how to make more money every day before their feet hit the ground after they woke up from bed in the morning. I am trying to point out medicine might pay you well but it does come with lots of other undesirable side effects most people are willing to tolerate. High salary was NOT the primary reason I chose my profession.

    Thanks again for an interesting yet flawed writing on why few women want a career in science. Dr Larry Summer (former president of Harvard) should have the freedom to express his ideas and/or guesses regarding the topic without risking rounds of no-confident votes from the Harvard professors. I am depressed about how he was treated by the media and his professors at Harvard; the most recent Newsweek did talk about his vision and detailed plan to improve Harvard undergrad experiences which I found admirable. I don’t pretend to know whether he should be “fired” or not but to concentrate his comments on women in science is extremely unfortunate. Correct me if I am wrong, Harvard has one of the highest number of women professors in the country in science.


  28. While you’re getting your students all depressed about their future, let me try to throw a bit of cold water on the alternatives. Yes, many top lawyers in large firms are making $500,000 at age 44. But most firms that hire 20-25 first year associates each year promote 1, 2 or maybe 3 associates to partner. Of those who make partner, as many as half will leave in their next five years. Expect more lawyers in the original class of 20-25 first years to end up as 44 year civil servants than $500,000 a year partners at big law firms.

  29. Off-topic a bit, but I think, from 3500 miles away, that Summers was fired from Harvard largely because of the Russian debacle, and partly because of a personal style that prevented him from gaining support from neutrals. The number of people, reputable people, who’ve met him & blogged that he was the nastiest man they’d ever met, is remarkably high.

  30. Today’s WSJ discusses the problems women face trying to obtain tenure during their prime (potentially) child-bearing years, and the more family-friendly policies universities are in the process of crafting and adopting so female academics don’t experience de facto discrimination in the “publish or perish” world.
    On a side note, WSJ, whose editing is usually pristine — compared to my local Wash Post which is riddled with typos — calls Larry Summers “former President of Harvard” and Derek Bok the “interim President”. I thought this changing of the guard wasn’t due to take place until June . . .

    The women scientists in my neighborhood, and there are a number of them in research at NIH, seem to earn a good enough salary to hire full-time nannies to mind their children. However, as when Lani Guinier was up for nomination under Clinton, it is shocking to me that these privileged women haven’t hired the best British nanny that money can buy (to borrow a thought from economist Bradford DeLong). Instead, they’ve hired minimum wage women with barely a high school diploma. Sweet as these babysitters may be, I would want someone with more common sense and education watching my kids if I chose to work full-time (from my observation of these babysitters at the playground, at the nursery school, etc.). But now I’m entering the emotion fraught territory of the new “Mommy Wars” book.

    I have actually read the full transcript of what Summers said at NBER back in Jan 2005, and from my own experience observing the girls at a math-science high school in the Wash DC area, who constitute less than 1/3 of the enrollment, and whose raw test scores were lower on average than the boys’ scores to gain entry, there was little if anything untrue in Summers’ remarks. Maybe he’ll win the Nobel Prize with some research into the question of women & science. I would venture that the disparity between boy/girl scores at this magnet high school is lower for the Asian boys/girls than the non-Asians. But I doubt Montgomery County is delving too deeply into this question, as they are currently being sued because non-Asian minority enrollment in the magnet program is extremely low.

    Stay tuned for more on women & science. As Philip has said, this story appears to have a lot of mileage.

  31. Suzanne,money can’t buy Mom’s love. British nanny or babysitter as a sweet high school student, there is no body can really instead of Mom’s function in most of cases.Otherhand, What is the purposes for the woman who wants to have the baby? or what is more important for child’s need. For me, I am enjoying to be a Mom, real Mom, spending my most of time with my son. He is growing, and I am growing too.I have learn a lot from being a mother. It is kind of nature things, we have to respect it and obey it. There is not right or wrong answer for why ” few women…in science”. I am looking forward to hearing more comments from women.

    Philip, I couldn’t see any woman in science, but I saw few womem who train the dogs to run for competition in the field from your photo on the same article, smile.

  32. Philip
    Your essay brings to mind discussions at Stanford back in the 70’s … The pipeline of chemists for American industry/academia had a major source in the farms of the Midwest. Poor but moderately well-educated farm boys (mostly) had a good shot at becoming a chemist; the educational sophistication for physics and mathematics was generally out of their reach. Frequently they went to college at a land grant university and then on to the “big time”. For a farm kid in the middle of the 20th century, being a scientist was a great deal! I remember Bob Grubbs (Nobel 2005) telling about stacking 60-pound sticks of tobacco in a tin-roofed barn in Kentucky summer for 15 hours a day… by comparison, a lab was heaven! Anyway, this pipeline is essentially dry in the U.S., but sure is full in China and India.

  33. As has been mentioned above, most of the culling occurs at the postdoc level when people are in their 30’s. The only 40-something prof I personally know of being denied tenure walked directly on to Wall Street (an atypical case perhaps).

    The other added benefit is that if you do achieve tenure, it is roughly the equivalent of early retirement. The actual job demands of a tenured academic are quite light – sit on a few comittees, teach one or two classes per year. After a few years you will have taught all the classes before and can re-use your lecture notes and problem sets. That leaves you lots of free time to pursue whatever hobbies you want, just label them as “research”. Not a bad life.

    Of course, many tenured professors end up engaged in academic turf wars, chasing after grants and status among their peers, so they do not take full advantage of this benefit.

  34. I think you come close to describing my own experience.
    I was a physics major in college who decided not to go on to graduate
    school. Your story about your student who dated a biology graduate student
    is roughly what happened to me.

    The point you fail to make is that this experience is a lot more likely
    to happen to women (who usually date men who are older than they are)
    than it is to men.

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