Career Selection for Women in Science: Is it really Hobson's choice after 30 years of progress?


First published in AWIS Magazine Volume 30, issue 2 (Spring 2001)

The American Heritage dictionary defines Hobson's choice as "an apparently free choice that offers no real alternative." 1 Thomas Hobson (1544?-1630), an Englishman who kept a livery stable, had a leasing policy that allowed his customers to take either the horse nearest the stable door or none at all. If Mr. Hobson were alive today, I think he would be surprised to learn that his 17th Century livery policy generated a phrase that so deftly describes career choices facing many 21st Century women scientists.

I never realized until I started researching this column that I was given Hobson's choice at a very important juncture in my career. I have always made career decisions based on professional satisfaction and have never consciously felt hampered in career selection because of my gender. When I decided to embark on an academic career in reproductive physiology and biotechnology, I did so because I truly loved the subject matter. I entered my program thinking that science was about everyone working together to find the answers, and thought a career in academic science would allow me to work in that way. I wanted science to be an integral part of my life, but not to rule it. When I chose to leave my doctoral program prior to completion, I still loved my research, but realized that a career in academic science - as I knew it - was not compatible with what I wanted from work or from life. Until now, I never thought to question this incompatibility; I just knew it existed. It never entered my mind that my decision to leave academic science may have been the result of a Hobson's choice. Yes, I could have stayed in academia, or I could have left. I did indeed have a choice, but I realize now that my choice may not have been free.

I began to question the nature of my decision to leave academia while gathering information for this column. Initially, I had intended to present a column showing how women's career choices have increased over the last 30 years, and I performed a casual survey of some friends and colleagues regarding career choice. 2 The force of their answers really struck me, and I realized I needed to change the focus of this column. For example, one answer read: "If I had had a child or was pregnant during my tenure review, I never would have received tenure." Another friend in academia feels that one of the challenges she faces as a woman scientist is ". . . the need to prove oneself and 'outperform' male colleagues to earn deserved respect." The following answer, from a friend in industry, indicates to me that the problem is in industrial as well as in academic science: ". . . Women can go on to prominent careers within industry - in sales, marketing, and management - but it is very rare to see a female head of research [in industry]." Finally, I think this answer from a retired woman scientist sums up our difficulties: ". . . I look back on my career with a sense of accomplishment and pleasure, but not because of a lot of opportunities." These answers made me question just how far career choices for women have really progressed. Upon further inquiry, I found that although women scientists have greatly broadened their selection of career choices over the last 30 years, women involved in academic science are still subtly limited in career choice and in career progression.

The subtle limitations seem to arise from the fact that the architecture of academic science was created by males for a male constituency. The "rules" are based on a "male model" of "doing" science that requires an absolute time commitment from the participator and an aggressively competitive attitude toward peers 3 . Many women scientists, however, would like to see balance between their personal and professional lives, and most are perceived to be less aggressive, combative, and self-promoting in the pursuit of career success in comparison with male scientists 3,4 . This leaves women scientists in a bit of a bind. We want to participate in and contribute to science, but because science is framed within a system that we did not help to build, it does not take our beliefs, wants, and needs into consideration. We are forced to work in an atmosphere that is incompatible with our psyche or get out. Hence, Hobson's choice.

Frida Kahlo once said, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." 5 By working together with our male counterparts to solve the overt problems facing women in science today, we are slowly working to change the underlying cause of these problems - male misconceptions of women scientists and the rigidity of the current academic system of science 3 Of course, to achieve such change we will have to also change what is in essence a patriarchal culture. Remember, any change to culture takes time - a long time perhaps, but once it is done, women scientists can paint their realities in colors of their own choosing.

If you are a woman scientist, the next time you must make a decision regarding your work or career, think about why you are doing it. Is it what you really want? Or is it as Owen Wister writes in The Virginian: "When yu' can't have what you choose, yu' just choose what you have." 6 If that is the case, think about doing it differently. If, starting today, all scientists work together for the right to make career decisions based on what we really want, then perhaps in another 30 years we might see the demise of an outdated cultural system that holds us all back.


1 The American Heritage Dictionary, Third edition, 1996, p. 859.

2 Many thanks to friends and colleagues who worked so hard to complete the career choice survey in time for a deadline that happened to be at the end of semester and right in the middle of the holiday season. You are the best!

3 H. Etskowitz, K. Kemelgor, M. Neuschatz, and B. Ussi, 1994, "Barriers to Women in Academic Science and Engineering" in Who Will Do Science? Educating the next generation (W. Pearson Jr., and I. Fletcher, eds.), Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore (also online at

4 "Digging Deeper: The present status of women scientists suggests avenues of further research" in Scientific American: Explorations: Women in Science, 1998. [Article excerpted from a paper prepared by Gerhard Sonnert for the New York Academy of Sciences conference "Choices and successes: Women in Science and Engineering"] (also online at

5 A. Eisen, ed., 1997, Believing in Ourselves: The wisdom of women, Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City, MO, p. 339.

6 O. Wister, 1929, The Virginian, 13:149. As recorded in Platt, Suzy (Ed.), Respectfully Quoted, dictionary of quotations requested from the Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. 1989, p. 44.

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