In a recent New York Times Magazine article, Eileen Pollack asks, "Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?" She recalls the isolation of her own experience as a physics student at Yale in the late 1970s and concludes that little has changed. The reasons why so many women still give up on science careers are the same ones that led her to walk away nearly 35 years ago—a lack of encouragement, lack of expectation, and lack of community. "I didn't go on in physics because not a single professor—not even the adviser who supervised my senior thesis—encouraged me to go to graduate school," she says.
Sadly, it was only much later that Pollack learned that her research adviser thought highly of her work, yet it never occurred to him to encourage her to pursue a graduate degree.
In a recent meeting with current graduate students, Pollack talked with one young female physicist who described her teacher's low expectations for girls: He "explained that he couldn't reasonably expect a girl to compete in physics on equal terms with boys." Unfortunately, girls hear such things their whole lives. I remember being in grad school and wanting badly to quit. I polled my classmates and found that most of the women had had similar feelings at one time or another and had called home. Overwhelmingly, their parents told them to come home. What message were the young men receiving? "Toughen up, son. You can do this!" The parents usually expected their sons to stick it out and their daughters to throw in the towel.
I am not qualified to explain why, but I think societal mores run deep. My hypothesis is that parental expectations are often met when daughters earn bachelor's degrees, but sons are more often expected to earn graduate degrees. Perhaps parents are just more willing to allow their sons to strike out on their own across the country.
To make matters worse, grad-school culture often fosters a lack of community. Professors are competitive. Students who have been accepted to grad school are competitive. The lab hours are long and exhausting, and few projects are truly collaborative.
I survived grad school thanks to the support of a subset of my grad-school peers. I don't remember quite how our group formed, but about six of the female students in my class went out for beers around the time we were taking our cumulative exams. We started sharing stories about the bullying or harassment we were being subjected to by faculty or fellow students, and whenever we opened up about such things, we invariably saw nods of agreement. We quickly realized that there was a "common theme" to the hazing, and that anything that all of us were subjected to was probably par for the course, and should be ignored or tolerated. We also quickly realized if one of us had a unique problem, she probably needed to attend to it, stat.
It would be irresponsible to advocate for gender-segregated drinking groups in 2013, and I would hope that now, nearly 20 years after I was a graduate student, that support might come from many directions.
My suggestion is that you find a group of people with whom to talk about grad school and what you are experiencing. Surrounding yourself with those who encourage you, support you, and have high expectations for you can make the long road a lot less lonely. My group still gets together every two or three years for a reunion; we were, and are, that important to each other.