Honors Thesis Spotlight: Women’s STEM Success in Biomedical Science Graduate Programs: An Exploratory Study

While the proportion of women graduates with advanced degrees in STEM has increased in recent years, disparities across disciplines are profound. In particular, female representation in Biological and Biomedical Sciences programs are much higher than in the other STEM disciplines. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics reported that in 2018 women received 54 percent of the doctoral degrees in Biological and Biomedical Sciences while men received 46 percent. This trend of women receiving more Biological and Biomedical Sciences degrees has been occurring for over a decade. However, in other STEM fields, such as Physics and Astronomy, women make up the minority. In 2018, women received 22 percent of the doctoral degrees in Physics and Astronomy while men received 77 percent. Women are also the minority in Chemistry. In 2018, women received 38 percent of the doctoral degrees while men received 62 percent. These discrepancies show that gender representation is not equal across STEM fields.

The reasons behind the difference in gender representation in Biological and Biomedical Sciences compared to other fields is important to understand in order to gain insights into the inclusion tactics that were effective, potentially leading to initiatives that could improve gender equality in other STEM fields. Ensuring that women graduate students feel welcomed equally with men in all STEM fields is critical because allowing these fields to persist as male- dominated may contribute to women choosing not to pursue or continue in these fields. Therefore, addressing gender-related barriers in STEM may lead to more women following or continuing on a STEM path. Moreover, this increase in women would give younger women a role model, which is shown to be beneficial. On a societal level, an increase of women in male-dominated STEM fields can further economic equality, since Ph.D.-recipients in these fields often make higher-than-average salaries, remedying somewhat the overall gender wage gap.

To understand how the situation of women graduate students in STEM might be improved, the researcher compared two STEM programs at one university to answer the following questions: What factors lead to better experiences for women graduate students in Biological and Biomedical Sciences? Do the barriers to women in Biological and Biomedical Science differ from those of women in a comparison STEM field, in this case, Chemistry? Are the nature of barriers similar but less pronounced? Do women in Biological and Biomedical Science have more resources to help them overcome barriers?

To answer this question, the researcher conducted in-depth interviews with ten women Ph.D. students at a major research university. Five were enrolled in Biomedical Sciences (a degree program in the College of Medicine) and five were enrolled in Chemistry (a degree program in the College of Arts and Sciences). Findings showed that women in both departments faced barriers due to negative social interactions with professors and peers and to real or anticipated work-family balance problems. Women reported being ignored or interrupted, having their intelligence questioned, and being held to different standards than their male peers. Women in both departments also reported penalties and negative attitudes associated with a decision to have children, they worried about having to carefully plan and time their life transitions, and they struggled with the societal expectations that came along with motherhood.

Creating a positive environment for women in STEM fields matters because it may lead to a more gender equal distribution in these fields, which could benefit women’s economic situation, as these jobs tend to offer higher salaries. The current state of academia due to the pandemic also shows how important these recommendations are. Since the pandemic started, women have struggled to maintain a balance between family life and their academic careers, and universities have struggled to make policies that are understanding of this challenge. If women held positions of power responsible for making work-family balance decisions, it is possible that these decisions would be more helpful to the family needs of women scientists, and also men scientists. Following recommendations like these may help women scientists, men scientists, and society more broadly as all qualified personnel can bring their skills to the scientific arena.

Jessica Short is psychology and sociology major at Florida State University. This post was based on Jessica’s honors thesis. You can learn more about Jessica here. You can learn more about this project here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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