But it's not just family issues: Research now shows that women experience subtle, pervasive gender bias beginning as students and extending to the highest levels of their careers, causing many to leave the field.
As a geosciences student coming up in the 1970s and 1980s, Brigham-Grette said gender bias was almost expected. "I wanted to study climate change in the Arctic, and not many women did that," she said. "I had one professor tell me I could come along as a cook."
Brigham-Grette noted most male mentors were supportive of her research interests and goals, and colleges and universities have come a long way in breaking down gender barriers in the past 30 years. But there is still work to be done, and now Brigham-Grette sees herself as a role model for both male and female science students interested in an academic career. "Men need to see that women can succeed at this just as much as women need to," she said.
Still, subtle bias against women persists, said Jo Handelsman, a biologist at Yale University and lead author of a study looking at gender bias among faculty from major universities that was published last month in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Handelsman and her team randomly assigned either a male or female name to the application material of an undergraduate student who was applying for a laboratory manager position. More than 100 science faculty members from various universities were then asked to rate the application materials. Both male and female faculty members rated the male applicant as significantly more competent than the identical female applicant. They also selected a higher starting salary and more career mentoring for the male applicant.
The bias may be unintentional, said Handelsman, but it shapes women's beliefs about their science abilities, which may influence their career goals and persistence in the academic field.
"We have to rethink our assumptions about why women choose to leave. Would they be making the same choices as they would be if they had a man's name? Given the data, I have to wonder whether these choices aren't being distorted by experience of bias," she said.