Should I stay or should I go?

What mechanisms lie behind who gets a career in physics and who leaves academia for other kinds of employment? What role does the workplace culture play in this? These and similar issues are being studied in an ongoing EU-project.

October 6, 2008

Why do the women leave physics instead of going into research? (illustration: Colourbox).

Physics is one of the areas where women are still markedly underrepresented. But the percentage of female faculty in physics varies from country to country in Europe. Interestingly enough, it is not countries with the strongest focus on gender equality that have the most gender balanced faculties.

On the contrary, countries with a high industrial development and strong women’s rights movements, like the Nordic countries, have a more skewed gender balance than countries where more traditional gender roles still dominate society. Why is this so?

This is one of the questions asked by the UPGEM-project (Understanding Puzzles in the Gendered European Map), which consists of studies in various physics departments in Europe. The project is coordinated by Cathrine Hasse, University of Aarhus and she presented some of their results at the conference Crossing Perspectives on Gender and Physics, in Uppsala in September.

Puzzling variations

“We wanted to find out more about why there was such a distinct difference between various countries in Europe,” explained Cathrine Hasse in her lecture.

Cathrine Hasse, University of Aarhus.

“That former communist countries historically have had a high percentage of women in the natural sciences is well known. Their relatively even gender balance in physics is thus not very surprising. But why does Italy have a higher percentage of women physicists than Finland and Denmark? To understand this we operate with the distinction between class societies, where class belonging is significant for the individual’s position in society, and gender societies, where gender is more significant than for instance class.”

“Class-based societies have a less gender segregated labour market than gender based societies. Our hypothesis is that in the class based societies, the significance of class makes it relatively easy for individuals from the higher social classes to go into many different kinds of jobs – regardless of if they are men or women. Once the women are there, they have a rather secure position, based on family background, mentorship and social and cultural capital. Women in more gender based societies do not have the same kind of class-based advantages, and might therefore struggle more.”

Brain drain

One of the aims of the project was to look at the ‘brain-drain’ within physics from a cultural and gender analytical perspective and based on qualitative material. The research teams in the participating countries carried out interviews with both men and women and the people interviewed included both ‘stayers’ and ‘leavers’. The main focus was however on those who had chosen to leave academia, more specifically individuals who had started postgraduate studies, but quit before they obtained a PhD-degree.

“We looked at the ‘push- and pull factors’ ”, explained Cathrine Hasse in her talk. The factors that make people stay in research or decide to leave. Many problems turned out to be the same for both men and women, but some were particular to women. Aspects such as discrimination, family responsibility, downplay of femininity and sexual harassment, were mentioned primarily by the interviewed women and described as factors that had contributed to them leaving academia.

Aspects such as discrimination, family responsibility, downplay of femininity and sexual harassment, were mentioned primarily by the interviewed women and described as factors that had contributed to them leaving academia (illustration: Colourbox).

To better understand why some individuals decide to leave academia and physics, the research teams used not only a transnational perspective, but also a more local perspective, where they concentrated on the various physics departments and the workplace culture that dominated there.

“In the project we talk both about physics in culture, where we look at differences between countries, and physics as culture, where we look at what is typical for physics as a culture in general. What is the workplace culture like in physics departments around Europe, and how is this related to who stays on for a research career and who leaves to do something else?”

Competitive or group oriented?

To discuss these issues, the project has constructed three ideal types in physics cultures. Cathrine Hasse emphasized that the categories they use are ideal types, and that there in other words are no workplaces that look exactly like this. Each physics department can however be dominated by one of the cultures, which in its turn has effects on the work environment.

“The first culture that we talk about in this project, we call the Hercules culture. It is characterized by being competitive, individual and with a focus on physics as such,” Hasse explained.

In the Hercules culture, physics always comes first, also before family. This has negative consequences for the work/family balance and can cause problems for those who want to prioritize family life. The study shows that this is a contributing reason for why women leave academia, but it may also be a problem for men who want to spend time with their family

“In the work places dominated by ideal type number two: the Caretakers culture, this is less of a problem,” declared Hasse. The Caretakers culture is group oriented, it encourages being a social person and has a focus on physics in society.

“Keeping a balance between work and family life becomes a dilemma in the Caretakers culture, since both aspects are seen as equally important. The loyalty to the group is great, and those who betray the group or prefer to work alone rather than in a group setting, may find this culture problematic and decide to leave.”

Worker bees

In the Worker bee culture physics is perceived as a job just like any other. You should do it well, but it is not necessarily the most important part of your everyday life or identity.

“The Worker bees are diligent and serious, but uninterested in competition. They can work overtime if it is demanded but are sceptical to long working hours. In a workplace dominated by this culture it might thus be relatively easier to leave work early to pick up the kids, as long as you get the job done.”

This culture is not beneficial for those who challenge the boss and want to do their own thing. It can also be problematic to those who show too many private feelings at work, since this is a behaviour that is not encouraged or appreciated.

Discrimination and harassment

The attitude to gender and the occurrence of discrimination or harassment, were other aspects that the women in the study mentioned as problematic and as “push-factors” that could influence the decision to leave academia. Cathrine Hasse described how the attitude to gender and discrimination in the workplace is affected by which type of culture it is dominated by.

“In the Hercules culture the focus on competition is so massive that all means can be seen as acceptable to reach one’s goals – even discrimination. If discrimination or harassment is tolerated at the workplace, they may use this as a competitive element.”

Worker bees getting the job done (illustration: Colourbox).

“The Hercules culture includes both women and men, she emphasized, even though the women are a minority, and both may use gender as a strategy to get what they want. In our study it is however almost exclusively women who tell stories about being sexually harassed or discriminated against because of gender.”

The least risk for gender discrimination or harassment is within the Caretakers culture, according to Hasse. In a workplace dominated by this culture, the group will react against the discrimination and thus protect the individual.

“The Worker bees on the other hand are not likely to discriminate, since the most important aspect is the work you do. That is what you are distinguished by and judged on. If you do your job well it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman. Thus gender becomes less important and discrimination less common.”

“But if incidents of that kind take place, they will not necessarily react against it, since the system is strictly hierarchical and Worker bees rarely complain. Good leaders may take action and deal with the problem, but there is a distinct risk that they never become aware of what is going on.”

Target the whole workplace

In her talk Cathrine Hasse underlined that all of the ideal types of cultures are equally needed in order to have a good work environment that will encourage people to stay in physics.

“This is something which should be acknowledged in the individual physics departments. We have found workplaces that are well balanced, but many of them are dominated by one of the ideal types. A workplace where one of the cultures has become dominant should try to break the cultural patterns in order to make space also for those who represent the other cultures and make sure that their contributions are equally valued. Otherwise they may leave.”

The results from the UPGEM-project also suggest that it is important to target the whole workplace in order to achieve changes, not women specifically.

“You shouldn’t say that “’women have to be more assertive’ or ‘women have to learn to be more self confident’ etc. We argue that it is the whole workplace that is the problem, and in order to tackle the problem of the lack of women in science you have to target the whole workplace environment.”

“Aspects that are problematic for many women, such as the difficulty to combine work and family life in a workplace dominated by the Hercules culture, are also problematic for men who want to spend time with their family. In the project we discuss this in relation to ‘new masculinities’ ”, said Hasse.

Targeting the whole workplace will in other words help not only the women, but also men who feel that they do not fit in, and thus choose not to have a career in physics.

Cathrine Hasse

Cathrine Hasse is co-ordinator of the project UPGEM. She is an anthropologist and ass. professor at the Danish School for education, University of Aarhus. For the past ten years she has studied physics education and research from a cultural point of view and takes a special interest in the relations between learning, gender, culture and academia.

The UPGEM-project

The UPGEM-project comprises qualitative research studies in five European countries: Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy and Poland. The primary objective is to: “identify relevant local cultural-historical processes behind the brain-drain caused by female physics researchers who leave the academia despite having the same formal qualifications as their male colleagues.”

On the project’s homepage you can find the publications: Collection of National Reports and Draw the Line! Universities as workplaces for male and female researchers in Europe. The publication Break the Pattern where the Hercules, Caretakers and Worker bee cultures are described will be available here from Nov. 1, 2008.

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