Don't be fooled by the closing gender gap in science PhDs

Career advancement is often described
metaphorically as a pipeline. In many
fields – law, film, business, journalism and
academia, to name just a few – the pipeline
leaks. And most of all, it leaks women. As
we move further along the career path, we
usually find an increasing percentage of
men and a decreasing percentage of
women.
Figures produced by the European Union
illustrate the trend in academia. In 2010,
59% of undergraduate degrees went to
women, while 46% of PhD graduates were
women. It continues: 44% of entry-level
positions at universities were held by
women while 37% of the next level were.
By the time we get to full professors, only
20% are women.In science and engineering fields, the
numbers are even worse: women make up
35% of PhD graduates, 32% of entry level
positions, 23% of the middle rank and only
11% of full professors.
But recruitment trends may be changing,
according to research which followed
students in the US and was published in
Frontiers in Psychology. It promises a more
nuanced picture of the issue. While the
traditional recitation of percentages at
various points along the career ladder
provides a snapshot of women’s
progression, this new study is more like a
time-lapse film, examining trends over a
30-year period.
Researchers identified students who
earned a bachelor’s degree in science,
technology, engineering and mathematics.
Then they studied the percentage of these
students who went on to complete a PhD –
something they call the “persistence rate”.
They found that historically men have had
higher persistence rates than women, with
a greater proportion of men having
continued for a PhD. Since the 1990s, we
see something else. The persistence rates
have coverged: men and women continue
in equal rates. That’s great news. Or so it
would seem.
Unfortunately, the new study doesn’t
actually show a pipeline being tightened
up to leak less – it shows the opposite. The
convergence in persistence rates for men
and women is not a result of an increase in
the rate of women taking a PhD: it’s the
result of a decline in the rate of men doing
so, which now stands at 3%.
Is this something to celebrate? I can’t
imagine why. The first author of the paper,
David I. Miller of Northwestern University,
is quoted saying the study “indicates that
women are leaning in when getting their
Stem PhDs after college”. Really? How does
bringing the persistence rate of men down
to the level of women tell us anything at
all about changes in the behaviour of
women?
In addition to the dubious celebration of
the decline of male persistence rates, the
new research article only shows half the
picture. In particular, it leaves aside the
important issue of which institutions PhD
students get into.For young researchers moving towards
academic careers, we know that a few high-
prestige universities are responsible for
training future faculty members at nearly
all other research universities. Are women
and men getting into those elite
universities in the same numbers? Or do
women go to lower prestige institutions?
We don’t know. The research methodology
doesn’t address this. If the sex of a PhD
candidate allows us to predict whether
that individual is at a high or mid-prestige
institution, then progression through the
pipeline is different for men and women.
And this difference is likely to affect their
future careers. Men and women might
avoid leakage in the same numbers but
still end up in different places.
This new research does add to our
knowledge. It gives a view over time, it
shows that there has been little change in
the persistence rates of women and a
decline in the persistence rates of men. It
also demonstrates the value of early
interventions: as the number of women
earning bachelor’s degrees has increased,
so has the number of women earning PhDs.
We should, as the authors advocate, start
much earlier in recruiting women to
science.
Still they leave important questions
unanswered. Why are relatively fewer men
completing PhDs than a few years ago?
Why are women still not completing more?
Has the PhD become an unattractive
degree? How can we seal the pipeline,
instead of just watching it get leakier?
These are the big questions and they
require our urgent attention.