It’s the 8th of March, so today is International Women’s Day. To celebrate this day, our university organises lectures and a debate on women’s careers in the academic world. The meeting is called Stop the leaking pipeline: the future of female academics. In the Dutch debate, the hypothesis of the Leaking Pipeline is often encountered, and I’m sure this is also the case elsewhere. But, what exactly is this leaking pipeline?
The Hypothesis of the Leaking Pipeline
Female academics are a minority, compared to male academics. This overrepresentation of men is even stronger in higher ranking positions. The Leaking Pipeline hypothesis explains this discrepancy by focusing on the strongly selective nature of an academic career. In every step (let’s say: each step from Bsc to Msc, Ph.D. to Assistant Professor, to Associate Professor, and finally to Full Professor) a strong selection in the number of candidates takes place. The Leaking Pipeline hypothesis argues that in each of these steps relatively more men are selected, and more women leave academia. As a result, the overrepresentation of men increases with each ‘juncture in the pipeline’ of an academic career (Alper, 1993).
The Leaking Pipeline is a very general hypothesis, without an explication of the exact mechanisms that are at work. Indeed, many causes can lead to the described outcome. Pell (1996) acknowledges that much of the selection between men and women takes place even before academia is entered, and goes on to argue that critical phases in the selection towards an academic career include early childhood, adolescence, sophomore year of college, and the later part of graduate school and the job entry period. Reasons include (but surely are not limited to): development of self-esteem in early life-course, girls receiving a smaller amount of training in science-related subjects during adolescence – partly due to the non-applied way science is taught (Travis, 1993), student-teacher interaction in classrooms leading to lower aspirations and performance amongst girls, female graduate student receiving less financial support, fewer female role models, and conflicts with family responsibilities.
Leaking Pipeline in the Netherlands
So, how ‘leaky’ is the ‘pipeline’ of Dutch universities exactly? At each distinct step in the academic career (from Master to Full Professor), the percentages men and women were calculated. In most discussions on the Leaking Pipeline these percentages are plotted in a scatterplot. However, this implies that each step in the academic career takes equally long (both for every individual, and on average). Therefore, a bar chart seems more applicable and is shown below. Data apply to 2007 and were derived from vsnu.nl, statline, and Van Den Brink (2009).
This figure shows several interesting things. First of all, more women than men are present at the Master level. In each step after the Masters degree, however, the percentage of women decreases and consequently the percentage of men increases. In 2007, approximately 42% of the Ph.D. students were women, and this percentage decreases at every subsequent step. 10% of all Full Professors are women. So, indeed, women are clearly underrepresented in Dutch universities.
One critical remark
To conclude, I’d like to make one single critical remark on a common interpretation of the figure above. Does this figure alone really provide conclusive evidence that in present-day Dutch universities the steps in the academic career really are leaking?
I don’t think these data are conclusive, because the numbers in the figure are also influenced by cohort replacement. Each academic step takes a couple of years, and from Master to Full Professor will average on something like 20 years. Therefore, the current situation shown in the figure results both from current appointment practices, and the practices of decades ago. In technical terms, we observe the combination of both period and cohort effects. So: even if current appointment practices have changed and now give truly equal opportunities to both men and women, we still would observe a discrepancy like shown. Also, given the fact that amongst Master-level student women are overrepresented, the figure leaves (some) room for the interpretation that future generations of academics will show a much more equal number of women and men, even when appointment procedures are left unchanged.
Opportunity for Research?
I would love to get my hands on data on academic careers to really evaluate current and past appointment practices, but as far as I’m aware these are not readily available. Such an analysis would pose high demands on data quality, for ideally one would want to analyze the combination of both the academic life-courses of academics (including those who left academia), and the outcomes of appointment procedures. Also, previous studies have shown that unexpected paradoxes can arise in this line of research. Nevertheless, the statistical techniques are there, but I’m afraid getting the data will prove more difficult …
Alper J (1993). The pipeline is leaking women all the way along. Science (New York, N.Y.), 260 (5106), 409-11 PMID: 17838262
Van den Brink (2009). Behind the scenes of science: Gender practices in the recruitment and selection of professors in the Netherlands Ph.D Dissertation, Radboud University, Nijmegen.
Pell AN (1996). Fixing the leaky pipeline: women scientists in academia. Journal of animal science, 74 (11), 2843-8 PMID: 8923199
Travis, J. (1993). Making Room for Women in the Culture of Science Science, 260 (5106), 412-415 DOI: 10.1126/science.260.5106.412