Gender gap found in Ph.D. fields and in program prestige

It is a truth universally acknowledged that many doctoral programs in the United States are stubbornly segregated by gender. Although women earn just under half of all doctorates in research fields, they are clustered in the language arts, while men are clustered in engineering programs, for example.

But Cornell researchers have discovered that gender also plays a role in “prestige segregation,” where men and women are clustered into doctoral programs that fall on different places on the prestige ladders of their fields. On average, the share of men receiving their degrees from the most prestigious doctoral programs is about 6 percent higher than the share receiving their degrees from all other programs. In some of the most prestige-segregated fields, men’s advantage is much greater.

The study, “Degrees of Difference: Gender Segregation of U.S. Doctorates by Field and Program Prestige,” was published Feb. 6 in Sociological Science. The authors are Kim Weeden, the Jan Rock Zubrow ’77 Professor of the Social Sciences, and chair of the Department of Sociology; Dafna Gelbgiser, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for the Study of Inequality; and Sarah Thébaud, Ph.D. ’10, assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

That women are underrepresented in the highest-prestige doctoral programs has significant consequences for gender inequality in career outcomes, the researchers say.

“Prestige segregation presages gender inequality in the jobs for which the doctoral degree is a gateway,” the authors write. “Prior research has established a strong, positive correlation between the prestige of doctorates’ degree-granting institutions and their later career success.”

Why is there a gender gap in admittance to the most prestigious universities? Calling for more research, the authors offer several theories:

  • Men’s average GRE scores are approximately 20 points higher than women’s scores on the verbal test and 60 points higher on the quantitative test. Admissions committees who prioritize the GRE over other factors (such as letters of recommendation or research potential) would admit more men.
  • Fewer women may be applying to elite schools, because they self-assess their own abilities more harshly than men do: “This gender gap in expectations of others’ competence is especially strong when the task is associated with stereotypically male traits and abilities such as math reasoning or higher-order cognitive thinking,” the authors write, citing a “voluminous body of experimental and survey research.”
  • Nonacademic factors associated with the most prestigious schools may steer women away. For example, the greater geographic diversity of midrange schools gives students more options to be close to family. Also, the highest prestige universities have less faculty diversity, and female students may be more likely to choose programs that offer female mentors.

“Consistent with this claim, a recent study of 20 economics departments shows that the higher the share of female faculty, the higher the share of female students graduating six years later,” the authors state.

In modern academia, there are strong institutional pressures to diversify student and faculty populations, and programs can lose prestige if they gain a reputation for “woman unfriendliness.” However, doctoral programs may vary in how they respond to that pressure, depending on where they stand on the prestige ladder. The lowest-prestige programs may not devote resources to recruiting and retaining women, because they are already at the bottom. And the highest prestige programs may not either, because they know they will remain prestigious regardless of outreach to women. Midlevel doctoral programs seem the most likely to encourage diversity, because they are eager to move up the ladder.

“Regardless of its source, the basic pattern of prestige segregation will be familiar to students of gender inequality: Women are underrepresented among graduates of programs that most often lead to the higher-paying, higher-prestige jobs,” the authors conclude.

The study’s analysis uses a national census of earned doctoral degrees from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, merged with prestige rankings of doctoral programs from the National Academy of Sciences, and field-level measures of math and verbal skills drawn from the graduate school pre-admission General Record Exam.

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