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What's a Leak?

FairerScience friend Suzanne Franks at Thus Spoke Zuska has been doing some interesting posts about women and science and the "leaking pipeline." She is doing an excellent job describing the pressures, negativity and just plain awfulness that can lead people (ok read that women, because there sure seems to be some extra awfulness for women) to leave the sciences, especially the academic sciences.

In one section she talks about her leaving as being "marked by an increase in choices: what kind of work to do, who to work for, where to live, which path to take in the career. There was no longer one model for success; success was whatever we defined for ourselves, whatever we set out to make of our lives."

That section calls to me because it so pushes us to think about what "leaks in the science pipeline" mean and when leaving science is a success rather than a failure. I think about my own life. After getting a BS in mathematics with a physics minor, I thought about what I wanted to do next. I was clear that I wanted to use math not do it. I'm doing just that and am happy and productive. It is pretty clear that I'm not a failure but am I a leak?

I once had a fascinating discussion with microbiologist and former Radcliffe President Polly Bunting about this. She spoke of then famous people like McGeorge Bundy who had left science and went on to do other things. Her point was if you go on to have an interesting and successful career you are neither a failure nor a leak.

Ten years ago my daughter Kathryn went to Stevens Institute of Technology's summer engineering program. ECOES She had a wonderful time, learned a lot, met interesting people and found out that she would NEVER want to be an engineer. Was the program successful? According to Polly's (and now my) definition yes!

Now what does all this mean? Darned if I know. But I do know that there needs to be a distinction between those who leave the sciences because they want to and those who leave because they are forced out. The latter are leaks; the former not. And the failure is one of the system, not of the individual.


Two points. One, I think you mean more like 14 years ago. :-)

Two, I think this is an affirming and useful way for individuals to look at their own life paths. But if the goal is to maximize successful women in the sciences, this distinction could be problematic. If you can't have the life you want in a given field and so leave, is that because you want to or being forced out? What if the life you want involves living in a specific country or state vs. wanting to have children and spend time with them? Where's the line between a legitimate feature of a career that some might choose to avoid and a presumably illegitimate one that is forcing people out?

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