End the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor when discussing women in science: Technical knowledge can be used in many domains
I’m familiar with the argument that we shouldn’t speak of a “pipeline” because students come to STEM (and computing, specifically) in lots of ways, and go from computing into lots of disciplines. The below-linked essay makes a particular point that I find compelling. By using the “leaky pipeline” metaphor, we stigmatize and discount the achievements of people (women, in particular in this article) who take their technical knowledge and apply it in non-computing domains. Sure, we want more women in computing, but we ought not to blame the women who leave for the low numbers.
However, new research of which I am the coauthor shows this pervasive leaky pipeline metaphor is wrong for nearly all postsecondary pathways in science and engineering. It also devalues students who want to use their technical training to make important societal contributions elsewhere.
How could the metaphor be so wrong? Wouldn’t factors such as cultural beliefs and gender bias cause women to leave science at higher rates?
My research, published last month in Frontiers in Psychology, shows this metaphor was at least partially accurate in the past. The bachelor’s-to-Ph.D. pipeline in science and engineering leaked more women than men among college graduates in the 1970’s and 80’s, but not recently.
Men still outnumber women among Ph.D. earners in fields like physical science and engineering. However, this representation gap stems from college major choices, not persistence after college.
Other research finds remaining persistence gaps after the Ph.D. in life science, but surprisingly not in physical science or engineering — fields in which women are more underrepresented. Persistence gaps in college are also exaggerated.