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When you’re the only woman: The challenges for female Ph.D. students in male-dominated cohorts

When Carolyn Virca embarked on her chemistry Ph.D., she noticed a clear gender rift right from the start. The men would grab beers before seminars or arrange other social activities that didn’t include her—the lone woman in the cohort. “They bonded in ways that I was not privy to,” she says.

Virca, who is now a postdoc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, got through her initial feelings of social isolation by bonding with women who had started the program a year or two ahead of her. But the experience made her appreciate how students could get lost if they feel like outsiders during graduate school. So she wasn’t shocked by the results of a new study, which found an association between female Ph.D. students’ graduation rates and their cohorts’ gender ratios.

Gender skew

Two-thirds of Ph.D. cohorts were less than 50% female (x-axis shows percent of women in cohort).

(Graphic) K. Langin/Science; (Data) Bostwick & Weinberg (2018) National Bureau of Economic Research

Women with no female peers were 12 percentage points less likely to complete their degrees within 6 years than men in the same cohort. But for each increase of 10% in the proportion of female students in a cohort, their graduation rate increased by 1 percentage point. That’s based on graduation data for 2541 students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) who entered 33 doctoral programs at six universities in Ohio between 2005 and 2009. Because the programs’ gender ratios fluctuated from year to year, the researchers could look at how changes in gender composition within programs influenced completion rates.

As for the underlying reasons, there is no definitive answer—although the researchers did not find any evidence that academic performance or grant funding played a substantive role. Senior author Bruce Weinberg, a professor of economics at The Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, thinks that social climate is the most likely explanation. “We’re not suggesting necessarily that this takes the form of harassment or abuse, but even more subtly that gender composition may influence the friendliness of the environment,” he says.

That makes sense to Susan Gardner, director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program at the University of Maine in Orono, who has interviewed Ph.D. students about their experiences in graduate school. Students usually drop out because of some other factor besides intellectual ability, such as poor advising, a toxic climate, or because they want to pursue other options, Gardner says. “Very few people drop out of doctoral education because they got bad grades.”

Regardless of the reason, Gardner says, the study makes it clear that “there’s something systemic going on. And systemic problems have to be dealt with at the institutional level.” In a lot of disciplines, especially in STEM, there’s an attitude that “we’re here to separate the wheat from the chaff, and we’re proud of our attrition rates,” she says. Instead, faculty members should do more to think about how to make “our students feel like they belong.” The study’s lead author, Valerie Bostwick, a postdoc at OSU, hopes that the findings will spur universities to develop policies that are more sensitive about creating an inclusive environment.

On an individual level, Weinberg notes, graduate school isn’t for everyone, and sometimes it’s best for students to drop out and pursue opportunities that better serve their long-term career and personal goals. (Most of the students who dropped out did so within the first 3 years of their program.) “The point is not that we don’t want to have women ever dropping out of STEM doctoral programs; it’s that we don’t want to have women dropping out … differentially” based on how many women are in their cohort, he says. “In the ideal world that would not be affecting the outcome.”

Doctoral program attrition

Half of Ph.D. students in Ohio graduated by the end of their sixth year.

(Graphic) K. Langin/Science; (Data) Bostwick & Weinberg (2018) National Bureau of Economic Research

Women in a sea of men

The data in the new paper tell part of the story. But they don’t shed light on what the female students actually experienced. It’s a “pity they were unable to survey some women,” notes Wendy Williams, the co-director of the Cornell Institute for Women in Science at Cornell University. Williams wonders whether the female students experienced a toxic climate—sexual harassment, demeaning jokes, dismissal of their ideas in lab meetings—or something subtler, such as social isolation.

To find out what the experience is like for some students, Science Careers spoke with four women who have dealt with being in the very small minority in their graduate cohort (none of whom were part of the Ohio study). Their accounts highlight the complexity of the experience, and also provide pointers for others who may find themselves in similar situations.

“My first few years of grad school were really hard, and I thought about leaving,” says Lisa Nash, who was one of two women to start a Ph.D. program in physics at the University of Chicago in Illinois in 2012. In grad school, “your life is very restricted to whatever department you’re in, so the social things that you feel there become more important,” says Nash, who describes herself as shy and says that she naturally gravitates toward socializing with the people who are immediately around her.

As one of just a few women in a male-dominated group, developing one-on-one friendships can be particularly hard, Nash says. In one case she befriended a male student, but his girlfriend didn’t want them to do things alone together, so their friendship was restricted to group settings. “I remember wishing that there were more women around,” says Nash, who completed her Ph.D. last year and now works as a designer and data scientist at IDEO in Chicago.

After a few years of struggling to find a solid support network similar to what she had developed as an undergraduate, she stepped beyond her comfort zone—going to social events outside of the physics department, volunteering for a leadership role at an outreach organization, and joining a rock climbing club. Now, Nash tells graduate students that “getting hobbies and trying to have a life … I think that helps.”

Virca agrees that it’s helpful to reach beyond your department. In her first year of graduate school at Portland State University in Oregon, she and three other female chemists formed a “women in STEM” group. “It really just blew up,” she says, attracting women (and some men) from across campus. The group met on a regular basis to share personal stories, learn about issues like impostor syndrome, and provide support. “People that were a part of that group really just sustained me throughout the remainder of my grad school career,” she says. “It got a lot of people through difficult times.”

Katrina Guido is still figuring out how to navigate departmental dynamics after starting a Ph.D. program in electrical engineering at OSU, where she is one of four women in her Ph.D. cohort, in August. “Today I’m wearing a skirt and heels, and that’s not normally seen around here,” she says. “I notice that I’m getting some somewhat strange looks.” On days like this, she sometimes wishes that she didn’t stand out. But overall she has felt lucky, she says, because the people in her department have been very welcoming and helpful. Her confidence also helps. “If I’m going to be in this field, then I should be me,” Guido says. “Trying to conform to someone else’s standards, or to what the norm is, is kind of watering that down.”

Guido’s experience doing undergraduate research in a lab where she was the only woman helped to prepare her for life in graduate school. “In that experience, I felt really alone. … I was so miserable,” she says. “If there’s no one there that looks like you or that you can relate to … you eventually just reach the conclusion: ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’” But over time, she got used to being the only woman in the room, and that gave her the courage to keep going and pursue graduate school. “It’s definitely taken a lot of work to get to this point,” she says.

As a Ph.D. student, she makes an extra effort to reach out and be social. For instance, Guido convinced her lab group members that they should eat lunch together once or twice a week, something the group hadn’t done before. “You can’t necessarily control if there are other females around you,” she says, “but you … have to put in the effort to form your group.”  

For some women, though, the lack of female peers manifests in more pernicious ways. “I’ve had about five or six people who’ve either harassed or bullied me throughout the 10 or so years I’ve been in physics,” says postdoc Sarah Livingston*. (Because of the possible negative career repercussions for discussing these issues, Livingston—who hopes to land a faculty job—asked to be referred to using a pseudonym.)

Harassment can happen in any environment, but Livingston thinks that she’s been repeatedly targeted because her subfield of physics is so devoid of women. She didn’t meet another female junior researcher in her subfield until she was in the last year of her Ph.D.

“The times that I’ve been the only woman [are] the times that I’ve encountered the most extreme problems,” Livingston says. Her colleagues sometimes made sexual comments or introduced her as someone’s girlfriend, rather than using her name and a description of her research. With no other women around, “it became more normal for people to do these things and not really think twice about it,” Livingston says. And even if there’s only one harasser in a group, “if I’m the only woman, I become the target.”

Her most extreme problem was during her Ph.D., at a large U.S. institution, when a male peer tried to woo her. “He started to send me messages; he was sending sexually explicit content,” she says. She told him to stop, but the problem only got worse. Some of the messages were violent and she began fearing for her safety, so Livingston filed a report with the university’s Title IX office. “I was spending a lot of time in the Title IX office while a lot of my other peers were writing papers,” she says. The ordeal caused mental health problems, which further hindered her productivity. “I was not in a good mental state, so I could not focus,” she says. “Had these issues not happened, I would have more papers; I would be more competitive in my career.”

Now, when Livingston is searching for jobs and looking at prospective departments, she pays close attention to the social climate. “Before starting out … I had the mentality that I will go to the top program that has the best reputation.” But now she tries to find places that also have healthy atmospheres. “I’m optimistic that that’s putting me in better situations looking forward,” says Livingston, who notes that she’s much happier in her current research group, which has more women.

Her advice for young female scientists in male-dominated fields: Ask a lot of questions before joining a department. “Pay attention to the environment,” she says. “Try to talk to the female students themselves, if you can, to ask what their experience was like.”

*Name has been changed

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