For postdocs aspiring to work in academia, research output is critical to secure a job as a university professor. As a result, the postdoctoral phase is typically plagued by much stress and career uncertainty. Moreover, this career phase is particularly taxing for women because it often coincides with their childbearing years. Add to the mix other challenges that disproportionately affect women such as sexism, the glass ceiling, and gender pay inequity, and you have a situation where postdoctoral women are opting out of an academic career at greater rates than men.

What can be done to diminish the rate at which postdoctoral women opt out of a career in academia?

A paper involving two studies, published in June 2019, explores factors affecting the mental health of postdoctoral women to understand which factors are more likely to contribute to career abandonment during the postdoctoral stage.

The following article highlights the findings of the paper authored by:

  • Renate Ysseldyk, Carleton University
  • Katharine H. Greenaway, University of Melbourne
  • Elena Hassinger, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids &Technical University of Munich
  • Sarah Zutrauen, Carleton University
  • Jana Lintz, Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids
  • Maya P. Bhatia, University of Alberta
  • Margaret Frye, University of Michigan
  • Else Starkenburg, Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics Potsdam
  • Vera Tai, University of Western Ontario

A Leak in the Academic Pipeline: Identity and Health Among Postdoctoral Women

Why postdoctoral women leave academia

The “leaky pipeline” is a metaphor widely used to describe women dropping out of STEM (i.e. science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and other fields before reaching senior positions.

Within academia, along with gender bias and discrimination, existing studies have also identified having children as another major factor driving the loss of postdoctoral women from the field. Indeed, previous research has reported that married women with young children are less likely to get tenure-track positions compared to married men with young children or single women without children.

Over time, these factors and uncertainty about career prospects can take a toll on women’s mental health. Studies have shown that the pre-tenure track and postdoctoral stages are when women in academia are the most likely to abandon their careers.

Why identity matters

Numerous studies suggest that social identities, in other words the groups to which people belong and with which they can identify, are often beneficial for mental and physical health.

For postdoctoral women grappling with the uncertainties of establishing a career in academia, some studies suggest that it is the uncertainty of maintaining those identities themselves that causes stress. Moreover, some identities seem to have conflicting goals adding to the stressors for women—for example, being a mother expected to devote time for family while being an academic expected to allocate a great deal of time to research.

The paper by Ysseldyk et al. argues that identity and a sense of belonging may be key in safeguarding mental health and keeping women in the academic field.

Stress and uncertainty dominate women’s postdoctoral experiences

The postdoctoral phase is a temporary transition period where individuals with a Ph.D. conduct research at a university or other research institution while they pursue a career in academia. Multiple studies describe women’s postdoctoral stage as a period marred with mental health issues such as anxiety and stress triggered by the frustration and uncertainty women feel about their career prospects.

Researcher Dr. Renate Ysseldyk commented, “Many women expressed the need to be realistic and keep their options open. Some have basically already abandoned the idea of pursing a tenure-track professorship believing there are too few jobs.”

To identify challenges postdoctoral women face in academia, researchers interviewed 21 women holding a postdoctoral position from a variety of academic disciplinary backgrounds in both Canada (13) and Germany (8).

Career uncertainty: When asked about their postdoctoral experience, study participants liked the flexibility in working hours and freedom to develop new research ideas; however, the lack of permanent positions in academia was considered to be a major source of uncertainty and stress.

Sexism: The women also discussed how sexism impacted their work environment and opportunities. Examples include assumptions that women are physically and mentally weaker and did not belong in their disciplines. Many women mentioned the challenges of being taken seriously and networking with male colleagues without being misinterpreted as having romantic interest. Interestingly, one interviewee also mentioned unintentional sexism, where despite her male counterparts coming across as nice and supportive, they still excluded her from significant work such as planning, papers, and writing.

Having children: Taking maternity leave was the most prominent challenge among women interviewed. The prevalent perception was that the academic job market did not take the loss of productivity during a women’s maternity leave into consideration when considering hiring and promotions. In the interest of progressing their careers, postdoctoral women discussed feeling pressured to postpone having children, or to take shorter maternity leave. They also mentioned having given up academic pursuits to have children or feeling penalized and stigmatized for taking maternity leave.

Only 6 of the 21 women interviewed had children. Remarkably, most of them had taken less than a year maternity leave even though the norm in both Canada and Germany is one full year. Several other women interviewed expressed the struggle to plan if or when to have children for fear of sacrificing their careers.

Work-life balance: Interviewees spoke of the uncertainty of the competitive academic job market and how having to move from one temporary job to another and needing to be flexible to relocate to other countries was not conducive to starting a family. They also highlighted the lack of acknowledgement within academia to balance work and family life.

Mental and physical health: This lack of work-life balance impacted women’s mental and physical health. The frustration and uncertainty women felt about their careers coincided with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and stress. Psychological stress in turn, was accompanied by stress-related physical symptoms such as insomnia, high blood pressure, stomach issues, and back pain.

Dr. Ysseldyk commented on the perils of normalizing poor work conditions.

“When extreme stress and lack of sleep are accepted as a normal part of the postdoctoral experience, there is no drive for change.”

Institutional barriers: Women felt there was often a lack of institutional support to help them cope with health issues. Examples included students and faculty having access to mental health support via university health services, whereas postdocs had none. They also pointed to a need to have consistent policies around maternity leave and childcare. Because postdocs typically get paid by the source(s) that fund their research, there is often inconsistency in healthcare coverage.

Support, mentorship and identity: In the face of the above-mentioned challenges, having support from friends and family was important for the women interviewed. Support from others sharing the same professional identity (e.g. other postdoctoral women, others within the same discipline) was also vital in helping women persevere through difficult times and gaining a sense connection. The women particularly mentioned the importance of having a mentor, especially from strong female role models that have experienced and persevered through similar challenges.

Interestingly, the opposite was also mentioned. In some cases, women felt that the male-dominated competitive environment within academia also prompted some women with an established career to lack empathy for the struggles faced by women aspiring to work in the field. Competition to “get ahead” also affected the sense of togetherness and support among women.

A sense of belonging and connection could mitigate postdoctoral challenges

Similar to existing research, findings from these studies suggest that support from various group members could help to alleviate postdoctoral women’s mental health issues, mitigate impacts from stressors, and keep them in the field.

To explore the connections between a sense of belonging and mental health, Ysseldyk et al. also conducted an online survey among 146 postdoctoral women. Roughly a third (37%) had at least one child and the majority (80%) worked in natural sciences (e.g. Astrophysics, Biology). Survey participants were based in Germany (43%), the United Kingdom (18%), Australia (10%), the United States (6%), Canada (6%), Portugal (4%), France (4%), the Netherlands (2%), Sweden (2%), or other countries (5%).

The postdoctoral women identified themselves most strongly with their social group (i.e. friendship), work group (i.e. disciplinary field), and gender group. However, among these identities, identification with one’s discipline was consistently associated with women’s mental health and well-being most significantly during their challenging postdoctoral phase.

A sense of belonging within one’s discipline was associated with lower depression (i.e. ability to experience positive feelings), lower stress (i.e. ability to relax), greater perception of life satisfaction (i.e. extent to which one’s current life is close to ideal), life control (i.e. feeling of being in control of one’s life) and work control (i.e. extent to which one’s efforts result in positive work outcomes).

Institutional change could help keep postdoctoral women in the field

Findings from these studies suggest that creating a strong sense of belonging and inclusion is critical for tackling the factors that often drive women to abandon their academic careers. The paper also suggests that institutional change could play a key role in removing barriers that contribute to academic workplace inequality that can especially affect postdoctoral women.

Dr. Ysseldyk and her co-authors emphasized the importance of institutional cultural change.

“Academia often acknowledges barriers women face, but more is needed. Significant changes in work-life balance and gender gaps in productivity will only begin once hiring and promotion decisions depend less heavily on benchmarks like ‘how many papers did you publish’.”

To address barriers and cultivate a greater sense of belonging among postdoctoral women, the study suggests the following changes within academia:

  • Promote a sense of inclusion and respect for women
  • Address inequitable institutional policies related to research output that create a sense among women that an academic career is not amenable to family life
  • Improve institutional policies related to maternity leave
  • Place competition secondary to cultivating support among women

The authors of this paper hope their findings will help academic institutions understand and address challenges affecting women during the postdoctoral stage, where women are most at risk of leaking from the academic pipeline.

Article Notes

Research Highlight writer: This Research Highlight was written by Fiorella Jansen-Nicorescu. CRIW’s Research Highlights share relevant and actionable information about workplace inclusion with a broad audience.

References: This article references work of other scholars, a list of references is available in the published study, A Leak in the Academic Pipeline: Identity and Health Among Postdoctoral Women.

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This study was made possible, in part, through the generous support from the RBC Foundation.

About the Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW)
The Centre for Research on Inclusion at Work (CRIW) is a research centre at the Sprott School of Business, Carleton University, focused on conducting and sharing research that advances diversity, equity and inclusion at work. By making research findings available to the public and connecting academia with the broader community, CRIW aims to advance knowledge and drive change towards more inclusive workplaces that welcome and support greater participation of all peoples.