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

Academic Abstract: Several challenges (e.g., sexism, parental leave, the glass ceiling, etc.) disproportionately affect women in academia (and beyond), and thus perpetuate the leaky pipeline metaphor for women who opt-out of an academic career. Although this pattern can be seen at all levels of the academic hierarchy, a critical time for women facing such challenges is during the postdoctoral stage, when personal life transitions and professional ambitions collide. Using a social identity approach, we explore factors affecting the mental health of postdoctoral women, including identity development (e.g., as a mother, a scientist) and lack of control (uncertainty about one’s future personal and professional prospects), which likely contribute to the leak from academia. In this mixed-method research, Study 1 comprised interviews with postdoctoral women in North America (n = 13) and Europe (n = 8) across a range disciplines (e.g., psychology, physics, political science). Common themes included the negative impact of career uncertainty, gender-based challenges (especially sexism and maternity leave), and work-life balance on mental and physical health. However, interviewees also described attempts to overcome gender inequality and institutional barriers by drawing on support networks. Study 2 comprised an online survey of postdoctoral women (N = 146) from a range of countries and academic disciplines to assess the relationships between social identification (e.g., disciplinary, gender, social group), perceived control (i.e., over work and life), and mental health (i.e., depression, anxiety, stress, and life satisfaction). Postdoctoral women showed mild levels of stress and depression, and were only slightly satisfied with life. They also showed only moderate levels of perceived control over one’s life and work. However, hierarchical regression analyses revealed that strongly identifying with one’s discipline was most consistently positively associated with both perceived control and mental health. Collectively, these findings implicate the postdoctoral stage as being stressful and tenuous for women regardless of academic background or nationality. They also highlight the importance of disciplinary identity as a potentially protective factor for mental health that, in turn, may diminish the rate at which postdoctoral women leak from the academic pipeline.

Keywords: Academia, Women, Postdoctoral, Social identity, Mental health

Related Links

Renate Ysseldyk, Katharine H. Greenaway, Elena Hassinger, Sarah Zutrauen, Jana Lintz, Maya P. Bhatia, Margaret Frye, Else Starkenburg, Vera Tai

Ysseldyk, Renate. “Postdocs under pressure: ‘Can I even do this any more?’” Interview by Chris Woolston. Nature 587, 689-692 (2020)