The academic attrition of female students is a serious issue

This time last year, as I was making my way through my philosophy reading list for the term, I noticed that there was only one woman on it.  After mentioning this to my tutor, I discovered that I was mistaken: it turned out that Shelly Kagan is a man, and there was actually no writing by female philosophers in my entire term on Ethics.

In Hilary and Trinity terms, there was one woman apiece, and I felt oddly compelled to defend them, even though I didn’t agree with their views.  They’d made it into the boys club, and I wanted to support them – at the expense of my essays.

I did at least have female tutors.  Women in the physical sciences face a more immediate lack of representation.  A friend of mine was inspired to look into the low retention of female chemistry doctoral students after discovering that at the lab where she works as a DPhil candidate, the ‘women’s bathroom’ is actually a disabled toilet repurposed by a blue-tacked sign.  She found herself feeling unwelcome, as if she didn’t belong in the lab.

She studies Chemistry, a subject where on average only a quarter of female doctoral students go on to pursue an academic career, compared to 40% of males.  Overwhelmingly, evidence from the Royal Society of Chemistry suggests that the low retention rate stems from the less positive experience of female doctoral students, whether that is in feeling isolated within their research group, or a lack of female academic role models.

When I started asking friends whether they had any anecdotes related to academic attrition – the failure to retain women at each step up the academic ladder – I was a little overwhelmed by stories of sexist signs and off-the-cuff remarks.  I study a male dominated subject (PPE), but it’s in a more evenly balanced faculty, so the lack of women is usually contained to lectures and tutorials.  I don’t really know what’s it’s like to walk into every lab or library expecting to see only a handful of women.

One female STEM grad told me about how she often feels discouraged by the lack of women in academia, describing asking herself, “Is there a reason that nobody else seems to be doing this?”  Feeling like an impostor can be a common feeling for many people who comes to Oxford to study, but especially for women who work in environments that are male-dominated.

An undergraduate scientist, who spent the summer working in a lab in part to decide whether or not she wants to pursue research, told me about talking to a female graduate student she was working alongside. The grad had first looked at their lab simply because it had a female supervisor – an exceedingly uncommon thing.  While it wasn’t the whole reason behind her decision to apply, it certainly played a role.

The same undergrad also described how working in a lab with a female supervisor and professor made a career in research seem more relatable and attainable.  Prior to this summer, the lack of women in leadership in science had prevented her for wanting a career in science research.

It does us no good to pretend that academic attrition isn’t a serious issue, or to subsume it under problems to do with undergraduate admissions or the provision of childcare (though these areas are undoubtedly related).  The unease of many women working higher up in academia, and the sore lack of female role models, is very real.  And not it’s just on our reading lists.