End the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor when discussing women in science: Technical knowledge can be used in many domains

April 27, 2015 at 8:17 am 6 comments

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.

via Essay calls for ending the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor when discussing women in science @insidehighered.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jeff Forbes  |  April 27, 2015 at 9:08 am

    I don’t blame the women who leave, but the leaky pipeline is a problem. Without more proportional representation, we’ll still have decisions/research/products made by a small unrepresentative group. I blame all of us in the system who created an environment where the pipeline leaks far more for women and underrepresented minorities than other groups.

    • 2. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  April 27, 2015 at 3:16 pm

      Jeff, I think you missed the point. The “leaky pipeline” metaphor asserts that we are losing women and minorities at every step of the way. That used to be a good metaphor, but now the problem appears to be getting people to sign on in the first place—retention after that point is no longer a major problem.

      Note: I’m merely restating the claims of the quote—I have no independent information about whether retention is or is not a problem.

    • 3. Mark Guzdial  |  April 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

      Jeff, the problem is that we have too few women and underrepresented minorities in computing. I think we agree on that.

      The “pipeline” is not the problem itself. The pipeline metaphor is one way of thinking about causes of the problem, and the quoted article suggests that it’s not a useful way of thinking about the problem. You wouldn’t care if (for example) mechanical engineering students switched into computer science. Is that a leak in the ME pipeline, or a gain in the CS pipeline? The point of the article (as I read it) is that the pipeline metaphor implies that students who start in some field as (where does the “pipeline” start?) an expression of interest in middle school must continue in that field until they achieve careers (and then retire? Where does the “pipeline” end?). Kevin’s point (reflecting the quote) is that one source of the problem of underrepresentation is the lack of enrollment at the “start” — and it’s not “leaks” in the “pipeline” at all.

      The goal is “more proportional representation.” The pipeline metaphor makes an assumption about how we achieve that goal, through tracking students from some sense of “start” and not “losing” them along the way. The problems may lie outside any definition of pipeline, and the solutions will then, too.

      • 4. Alan Fekete  |  April 28, 2015 at 7:24 pm

        I don’t think you should assume that we all share the goal of “more proportionate representation”. That may be your ideal, but it isn’t mine. At a deep level, I want a happy, mutually supportive and productive community in the IT field (including professionals, amateurs, teachers and researchers). As a strategy to achieve that goal, I want a more diverse community — because diversity in the population should make it more supportive, welcoming and accessible to everyone, and to a lesser extent because there is some evidence that diverse teams do better work. Once most groups of our community have enough members from many different categories (ethnic, gender, type of thinking, soci-economic, native language, handedness, etc), I won’t worry if the proportions of a category don’t match what we see in the wider population.


        • 5. Mark Guzdial  |  April 28, 2015 at 7:57 pm

          Alan, in my response to Jeff, I meant “we” to mean Jeff and I. I don’t mean to speak for everyone.

          You’re not concerned that less than 20% of CS is female, when a few decades ago, it was 40%? I agree that it’s not necessary for the representation in computing to directly match the population’s representation. When women’s share has changed so dramatically, I wonder what happened. And if that change is due to bias (intentional or unintentional, in whatever form), then it’s worth trying to reduce that bias. I believe that the under-representation of minority groups is due to other biases that reduce the opportunities for members of those groups. It’s worth trying to give everyone a fair chance at these well-paying jobs that have a significant impact on our modern world. I see a different relationship between the goals and strategies you describe. I see making computing supportive, welcoming, and accessible as a strategy for achieving the goal of greater diversity.

  • 6. dennisfrailey  |  April 29, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    I think a big part of the problem is the assumption that if one majors in CS (or for that matter any technical field) and then chooses a career that is not a traditional technical career, we see it as a “drop out”. We need to see it from a different perspective. To me, a more important goal than having lots of people or lots of women in STEM fields is having lots of well educated people in all walks of life. Technical fields tend to be very good ways of educating people, particularly in such areas as logical thinking. For example, it has often been noted that a relatively large percentage of corporate CEOs have engineering degrees. (I wish more politicians had STEM backgrounds!)

    Let me give you a real example. For many years I worked for a large, hi-tech company that had both a management and a technical ladder of advancement. I was actively involved in a major way with decisions about promoting people to higher ranks on the technical ladder. We were approached by the human resources department with the complaint that not enough women were reaching the higher levels of the technical ladder (on a proportional basis). We did some research and discovered that, on the other hand, women were over-represented in the technical management ranks and, indeed, many of the most promising, female, potential candidates for higher technical ranks had opted to take positions in technical management. (Frankly, I think this was a very good thing.) Women tend to have skills that make them good technical leaders. (I also note that many of those women had CS degrees – CS was, indeed, a way of breaking the glass ceiling in the management ranks at this hi tech company run almost entirely by people with technical backgrounds. I’ve since seen this effect at other hi tech companies, although not all.)


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