When it comes to addressing gender inequality in STEM fields, the leaky pipeline problem starts with the metaphor

May 5, 2022

By many accounts, women self-select out of STEM programs at various points across the career trajectory because they feel they do not belong, or because they feel less confident in their ability to thrive in a STEM career. When speaking of issues related to gender inequality in STEM, the predominant metaphor used is that of a “leaky pipeline.”

Last year, we completed a report for a scientific governing body on ways they can make their funding services to university faculty more equitable. We interviewed women who opted out of academic careers because the culture in their labs was inhospitable. And we documented stories of interviewees’ colleagues who experienced harassment and likewise opted out of academia.

Taken together, we were provided evidence of a leaky pipeline, and we had conversations with interview participants about what might ultimately be its cause. These conversations were unsettling and unsatisfactory because we kept butting against the issue of recruitment, hiring, and retention. But the real problem with the leaky pipeline explanation of gender inequality is the metaphor itself.

Metaphors structure our most basic understandings of the human experience. They are so powerful as to be ubiquitous, and they can shape our perceptions and actions without us ever noticing them. The leaky pipeline metaphor has become pervasive in explanations of inequality in STEM, and this is problematic for three reasons.

First, a leaky pipeline depicts women passively leaking out of STEM careers. Framing attrition as a matter of “dropping-out” places undue guilt on the individual who leaves. It also undermines women’s agency – their ability to define goals and act on them – in decision-making processes. Whether women leave STEM careers for a safer work environment, better work-life balance, or a more promising career trajectory, they are, in fact, making a proactive decision based on the assessment of alternative options within and beyond STEM careers. While many women are compelled to leave careers, despite their love of science, they are also breaking through.

The leaky pipeline metaphor prompts us to find “plug-and-fix” solutions to patch the problems. Such an approach is reactive and may blind us to opportunities for addressing the underlying dynamics that drive women to leap. The leaky pipeline metaphor is problematic because it does not accurately represent the phenomenon it is meant to describe.

Second, the leaky pipeline metaphor evokes the image of a single pipe; it prompts us to think that if we succeed in plugging the leak by reducing attrition among tenure-track women faculty, then more women graduate students would in turn stay in the pipeline because they would have more role models to look up to. This (rightly) focuses our attention on the hiring and retention of more women. However, it also blocks our view of the whole picture and clouds out other possible solutions to the problem – solutions that may help to shift mindsets and practices that pervade university settings, and that unintentionally reproduce workplace cultures that are unwelcoming to women scholars.

In reality, there exists an entire network of leaking feeder pipes that extend beyond experiences in universities. One example is career setbacks women scientists face due to childcare. While maternity leave benefits and flexible funding programs aimed at supporting women are important, the inequitable division of household labor based on outdated gender stereotypes remains unresolved. The problem is not that women need time off after childbirth, but that men are not equal contributors to childcare. The leaky pipeline metaphor is problematic because it is incomplete.

Third, the pipeline metaphor implies a uniformity of experience preceding the leaks. Put another way, it suggests the pipe only carries water, and since all water molecules are identical, they all leak the same way, out of the same holes. But what if the pipeline carries a mixture of liquids with molecules of different sizes and viscosity, and the pipe itself has holes of different shapes and sizes?  This would cause differentials in leakages based on the experience of those molecules and each kind of leak would require a different patch (or, a diversity of approaches to address).

People’s experiences with inequality in STEM fields are multifaceted, and the conditions prompting academics to opt out of the tenure-track are felt differently depending on one’s social identity and cultural background. The leaky pipeline metaphor is problematic because it does not adequately account for the full heterogeneity of experiences with inequality.

Others have put forth novel ways of reimagining the rigid pipeline metaphor by focusing on more diverse pathways. We support going one step further: in addition to focusing on how to get there, let’s put more emphasis on re-designing scientific workplace cultures to recognize different experiences, perspectives, and approaches, especially those associated with diverse social identities. Scientists are problem-solvers at their core, and intersectional gender inequality in STEM fields is a problem in need of solutions. As Mary Blair Loy and co-authors argue, “The metaphors we choose matter profoundly for the problems we can see and the solutions we can implement.” The leaky pipeline metaphor by itself is unable to inspire adequate policy solutions.

image: Sheila Sund via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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