Open pipes gushing water

Pipeline Guilt

One of the most common metaphors for discussing retention problems for women in science is the leaky pipeline, which paints a picture of women slipping out of the track to the upper echelons of scientific research. The idea is that for, say, the track to being a professor in the sciences, even if you start with a large proportion of undergraduate women studying some field, if some leave before graduate school, before doing postdoctoral research, before landing tenure-track jobs, before landing tenure, or really at any point before becoming department chair and Nobel laureate, that is A Problem. The pipeline that was supposed to shuttle women to the top is leaking. And you can see how the same idea could apply to women reaching any position of power that involves many steps to get to: if you lose women at each step in larger numbers than you lose men, those at the top will be mostly men.

The pipeline metaphor is a useful one for encouraging people to think about the many career stages and how women’s choices are constrained differently at each one. For example, the fact that women are assumed to shoulder more of the burden of child-rearing, as well as the physical tasks of pregnancy and childbirth, affects the work situations of women of parenting age far more than men. And as women get older, they are less likely to receive cultural support for their voices as voices of authority, whereas for men the opposite is true. It’s important for these issues to be discussed among policy makers and hiring officers if women’s experience in the workplace is to be normalized, in order to increase their representation at later career stages, and in this sense the ‘leaky pipeline’ is an apt description of the problem.

But there is another effect of this idea that I’ve observed among women in science that is far less helpful: pipeline guilt.

One of the most natural reactions for women working in a field where women are under-represented, who have heard about the leaky pipeline and want to be an advocate for women in that field, is the desire not to contribute to the leaks. Knowing that women leaving a career progression early precludes women from occupying positions of power at the end of that progression, it can be pretty difficult to change your own path. This is related to the idea of a model minority, and wanting to be the most successful representation of your minority group possible to show that your group can do X, whatever X may be. And even people who embrace alternate models of success for others can have a difficult time accepting those models in their own lives; it is easier to tell someone else that leaving academia to write books is a valid choice than it is to make that choice yourself. It’s a heavy burden to want to be the best example for women in your field, at the expense of your own happiness. And it’s easy to hear about the leaky pipeline and see it as prescriptive, implying that individual women have to choose to stay in the pipeline in order to help solve the problem.

However, I think that there are other ways to look at the prospect of leaving the pipeline. I’ll stick to the sciences as an example, but this analysis can apply to many other fields.

For one, leaving research science and its prestigious end-pipeline positions does not necessarily mean ceasing to be an ambassador for women in science. Science communicators, science writers, science teachers, and science policy makers all serve as faces and voices of science, and having women in these roles does quite a bit of good. People in science outreach and education can also help get young people into science, which adds to the number of women entering the pipeline. People in policy and activism roles can provide support for women still in the pipeline, and work to promote cultural and institutional acceptance of women in science. In fact, it’s really important to show that these support and outreach roles matter, since they are routinely undervalued and dismissed. And even those people who choose careers or life paths completely unrelated to science are still scientifically literate citizens, perhaps raising their children to enjoy science, perhaps raising their voices in support of science during discussions with friends and family, perhaps throwing their vote behind scientifically literate candidates. Most parts of the world have a problem with public understanding of and support for science, but change can start small, on the individual level. And I for one would enjoy having more musicians, novelists, and lawyers who know anything about science, just as I enjoy finding scientists who know the slightest thing about art, business, or history.

Thinking about the leaky pipeline can definitely be helpful in identifying when underrepresented groups leave career paths that seem stacked against them. But when it comes right down to it, ‘the pipeline’ is a very simplistic view of what constitutes achievement in the world. Not only is it important to make decisions that will make you happy, but it’s also important to recognize that there are many ways to advocate for underrepresented groups, and many ways to lead by example. Many of them are outside the pipeline, and it isn’t a betrayal of all the women who couldn’t make it to the top to choose a different path.

7 thoughts on “Pipeline Guilt

  1. Ms. Scientist

    This speaks directly to how I feel as an early-career scientist and my ‘guilt’ over the fact that I’m not sure I’m ready for tenure-track jobs. Thanks!

  2. MCA

    How much effect does the percentage of women at the end of the pipeline have on its leakiness? As opposed to things like difficulties of spousal hiring, university maternity leave and childcare policies, etc. that lead to such leakiness in the first place?

    It seems to me that even with a 50/50 mix of Big Name PIs, if the problems like those listed above that cause people to “leak” remain, the only way to maintain that 50/50 mix is to have more women than men enter (in order to account for unequal leaking). However, fixing the leaks alone should result in a mix at the end that equals the starting mix. Not that it’s an either-or situation, just that an individual pressuring themselves unhealthily to not leak out may not being doing as much to help as they could if they did leak and used the newfound freedom to advocate for fixing the leaks (thus, hopefully, will feel less pressure and be more able to leave if that truly is the best option for them).

    1. S.P.Zeidler

      Part of the problem is that you don’t really know what actually would have been best for you. There is always the nagging question if you should have pulled through the thing(s) that made you go away.

  3. Jane

    This is an awesome post and it spoke directly to my heart. Thank you!

    I think that another important factor in “pipeline guilt” are the university/department ranking systems. In my program (a social science at a large R1 institution), it is made very clear to us that the program is concerned about rankings and that one factor in these rankings is where graduates find jobs – graduates who go on to prestigious tenure-track positions reflect positively on the program, while those who leave academia or take less prestigious positions reflect negatively (or at least do nothing to boost the rankings). A friend of mine, a very talented psychology student who wanted to go on to a teaching institution, was told by her advisor that in the eyes of the program she was a “waste of resources” because she didn’t want that wonderful R1 position. Though I haven’t had such a thing explicitly stated to me, I have definitely *felt* that my desire to leave academia (for NUMEROUS reasons) makes me a burden in my program.

    1. Nina

      Yikes. That was a really inappropriate thing to say! It’s a shame that they feel that way – I mean, where do they think the next generation of psychologists is going to come from, if not from people taking those teaching jobs and training future psychologists?

      jessamyn, great post! As someone whose education is in the humanities and who is not actually doing much with that education right now, I really appreciate that your analysis of the pipeline problem includes people like me as part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

  4. jlstrecker

    But when it comes right down to it, ‘the pipeline’ is a very simplistic view of what constitutes achievement in the world.


    So let’s change the metaphor. The endpoint is “prestigious researcher”? I declare the endpoint to be “fulfilling career and life”.

    That solves the problem of conflating genuine “leaks” — people who would have liked to become researchers, but didn’t get to — with people who could have become researchers, but didn’t want to.

    It solves the problem of pipeline guilt. It shifts the focus, from simply shunting more women up the pipeline, to where it belongs — aligning “prestigious researcher” with “fulfilling career and life” for the (diverse) set of people who would make good researchers.

    It presents the problem, however, of convincing certain prestigious researchers and researchers-to-be that not everyone wants to be like them!

    (I say this as someone who supposedly leaked. I got my PhD and decided to be “just” a software developer. There were a variety of reasons (attractive forces and repulsive forces), but the very short story is that I like making things and helping people, and I believed I could that more as a software developer. Did I feel pipeline guilt? No. But I got a lot of pushback from professors and colleagues. It was pretty condescending at times — not just to me, but to all software developers — saying that our jobs are boring and unimportant.

    Miriam at Brute Reason tells about a similar experience where her mentors tried to push pipeline guilt on her — and she pushed back. Well worth reading.)

    1. jlstrecker

      I guess there are two kinds of guilt here… There is “you’re letting yourself down” and there is “you’re letting women down”.

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