Where are the women?

Sociologist Kristen Schilt explores gender differences that shape academic career decisions.

At every level in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the gender gap persists. Compared to men, women hold far fewer degrees and jobs in STEM fields. And they are less likely than women in other fields to pursue academic careers after graduate school.

Kristen Schilt, an assistant professor in sociology, has teamed up with researchers at Rice University to find out why. Since 2007, they've conducted annual surveys and interviews with women and men in natural sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities PhD programs at an elite, private research university. The longitudinal study of "Southern U." aims to pinpoint how gender and discipline influence the graduate school experience and students' subsequent career moves.

Although their research isn't finished yet, Schilt and her colleagues have some unexpected answers to provocative questions. For example, are women in STEM fields foregoing academic careers because they're unhappy in graduate school? No, the researchers found. Despite their minority status, women in STEM programs report greater satisfaction with their graduate experience than women in the social sciences and humanities—and more than men in all the fields surveyed.

The researchers also wondered whether more attention from faculty advisers might keep STEM women on the academic career track. Apparently, the opposite is true—at Southern U., women graduate students in all fields reported lower program satisfaction and academic job intentions as academic support from their faculty mentors increased. The team is in the midst of analyzing these findings.

Since more women in the social sciences and humanities aspire to be professors, these fields could potentially offer a useful model for thinking about how to integrate STEM women into academia. Yet the study data suggests otherwise, says Schilt. Women in the social sciences and humanities who feel dissatisfied with their PhD programs stay, not because they feel they have better job possibilities, but out of fear that there is nothing else they could do.

Molehills and mountains

"We were originally interested in the question of why fewer women are going into the STEM fields as professors," explains Schilt, a coprincipal investigator on the study with Rice sociologists Bridget Gorman and Jenifer Bratter. "If women are getting more PhDs in these fields but it's not really translating into more women faculty, what's going on?"

Women were more likely than men to attribute their academic success to luck.

Funded by the American Sociological Association and an ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation, the study proposed to track a cohort of male and female graduate students for five years, from 2007 to 2012—including students who drop out of their programs. Using both quantitative and qualitative data, the project explores the concept of cumulative disadvantage—that is, whether or not small advantages and disadvantages corresponding to gender (which the researchers call "molehills") become obstacles to equal outcomes (or "mountains") over time.

Interviews and surveys revealed a few potential molehills at Southern U. For instance, women in all fields were more likely than men to attribute their academic success to luck rather than skill. Female graduate students often took faculty criticism as a signal they should quit, while men might feel challenged to prove a professor wrong. Women benefited more than men from close relationships with peers. Men reported that they often socialized one-on-one with faculty advisers, while women were more likely to spend time with faculty as part of a group.

Most strikingly, says Schilt, women in the study expressed far greater concern than their male peers about issues of work-life balance. "When we asked how much thought they gave to the ideal time to have a family, the women were just so far ahead of the men from day one," she says. "Men were like, 'I'm 22—why would I think about [having children]?' It was laughable to them, and women are really serious about it."

Women's choices

Despite the challenges they face, women in science, technology, engineering, and math programs reported the highest levels of satisfaction with their graduate experience. Although that finding was unexpected, Schilt admits, two factors explain it. Early on, as undergraduates, STEM women learn that there are few women in their field so they develop strategies to cope by graduate school. Second, whether they leave with a master's, a PhD, or no degree at all, "women in the STEM fields have so much confidence that they're going to get a good job … that they have a certain skill set and know they will find something to do."

In contrast, women in the humanities and social sciences may find graduate school to be different and harder than they imagined—even though there are more women around. While dissatisfied, they may stick with a PhD program because they've already invested the time and see few alternatives to academia even though jobs in their field are scarce.

Nationwide, women leave graduate school without finishing their PhD at a higher rate than men. In the Southern U. study, women in STEM and non-STEM fields have abandoned programs in roughly equal numbers—about 20 percent overall. But their later experiences vary: When women in the humanities and social sciences drop out, says Schilt, "it takes longer to regroup, because most anticipated they would be professors." When women leave STEM programs, it is often to take lucrative positions in private industry.

When Schilt and her colleagues began the study, they wondered how faculty mentors shaped women's graduate school experience and willingness to pursue academic careers. Paradoxically, they found that women in all fields reported less commitment to academia as instrumental help from their mentors increased.

Nationwide, women leave graduate school without finishing their PhD at a higher rate than men.

"We're really working on what the qualitative interviews can tell us about this," says Schilt. Getting help from advisers shows students what it takes to be successful in their careers. But at least at Southern U., when graduate student women get close to professors in their departments, they don't always like what they see: "Either there are not many women in their field, or they don't like the way they see women balancing work and family."

Understanding inequality

To investigate such issues more deeply, Schilt and her colleagues hope to obtain funding for a national study that can draw on their pilot data. Southern U. may represent a "best-case scenario" for gender equity since most grad students are young, childless, and fully funded. The team would like to explore attitudes toward work-family balance, role models, and attrition in other settings where the playing field for men and women may be less level.

The research team is completing an article on the Southern U. study and plans to publish the results in 2012. Meanwhile, Schilt has taken some of the preliminary findings to heart in her interactions at UChicago. "Working on this project, I think, has made me a better adviser to students," she says. The study made her realize, for example, how having diverse, positive role models is crucial for graduate student women to gain a sense of the kind of academics that they want to be.

To help demystify the profession, Schilt organizes quarterly practicum sessions where faculty and graduate students can share advice about how to write a dissertation proposal, get papers published, or talk about gender and sexuality in the classroom. "Students want to know, 'how do I actually do the work of being a professor?'" she says; having more information will give them a better idea of what's involved.

"We still have very persistent cultural beliefs that men and women are naturally different, that they're good at different things."

The Southern U. study, while engaging, is a side project for Schilt. After earning her PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2006, she spent two years at Rice as a postdoctoral research fellow. She joined the Chicago sociology faculty in 2008 and is an affiliated faculty member of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality. Earlier this year, Schilt published her first book, Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality (University of Chicago Press).

Building on that research—which focused on workplace experiences—she's launched a new project that looks at how men and women are treated after "making a major life change in an area that we generally think of being determined by biology." She's chosen four case studies: men who have transitioned to become women, people who lose 200 to 400 pounds through weight-loss surgery, people who "come out" later in life, and people who convert to Judaism.

A common thread runs through her scholarship, explains Schilt: "If we know there is persistent inequality between men and women, what is the source?" Despite changes in law and policy, "we still have very persistent cultural beliefs that men and women are naturally different, that they're good at different things. It's been very hard to change people's hearts and minds about gender."

Such views shape the experiences of women and men in graduate school and determine who stays in the pipeline in academia, politics, and other spheres. "I'm interested in these beliefs about natural differences—whether its sexual orientation, race, or gender—and how this plays out in creating different relationships to privilege or disadvantage."