Inside Higher Ed: Women lead in doctorates

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed

September 14, 2010

With female enrolments growing at all levels of higher education, doctoral degrees have been one area where men have continued to dominate. No more. New data being released today show that in 2008-09, for the first time, women earned a majority of the doctoral degrees awarded in the US.

The data are part of an analysis of graduate enrolments and degrees from the Council of Graduate Schools. The majority for women in doctoral degrees is slight – 50.4 per cent. But the shift has been steady and significant. As recently as 2000, women were earning only 44 per cent of doctoral degrees. In master’s degrees, where women have already accounted for a majority of degrees, their share now stands at 60 per cent.

Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis for the Council of Graduate Schools, said that the female majority for doctoral recipients was “a natural progression of what we have been seeing” in the rest of higher education. Given that female enrolments have overtaken male enrolments in associate, bachelor’s and master’s programmes, he said, “the pipeline is increasingly female”.

In fact, he said, the only reason women did not become a majority of doctoral recipients earlier is because more doctoral degrees are awarded in fields, such as engineering, that remain disproportionately male than is the case at the undergraduate level.

The majority for women in doctoral degrees is not seen in all disciplines. Only 22 per cent of engineering doctorates in 2008-09 were awarded to women, and only per cent in mathematics and computer science. But the fields in which women now make up a majority go well beyond arts and humanities, and include health sciences and the biological sciences. Further, the rate of increase in doctoral awards for women outpaces that for men in all disciplines. Overall, women became the majority of new doctorate recipients in a year in which their numbers increased by 6.1 per cent while male numbers rose by 1.0 per cent.

For now, the odds of a new doctorate holder being male or female depend on the field studied:

Percentage of women among new doctoral recipients, by field, 2008-09
FieldFemale graduates
Social and behavioural sciences60%
Public administration and services61%
Physical and earth sciences33%
Maths and computer science%
Health sciences70%
Biological and agricultural sciences51%
Arts and humanities53%

The female percentages are likely to go up if trends of the past 10 years continue. During that time, the average annual rate of increase in doctorates earned by women was 5.5 per cent, more than twice the male rate of increase, 2.1 per cent. Although the size of that gap varies by discipline, it is present even in disciplines where the vast majority of doctorates today go to men.

Average annual change in number of new doctoral degrees, by gender, 1998-99 to 2008-09
Social and behavioural sciences+3.2%+0.5%
Public administration and services+5.8%+0.3%
Physical and earth sciences+4.7%+0.2%
Maths and computer science+7.0%+4.3%
Health sciences+14.0%+3.9%
Biological and agricultural sciences+7.7%+1.2%
Arts and humanities+1.4%-0.2%

The Council of Graduate Schools report features a range of other data on those entering and finishing graduate school and what they are studying. One figure may suggest some boost for the male share of enrolments. In 2009, the council found that first-time enrolment in all graduate programmes grew by 6.7 per cent for men compared with 4.7 per cent for women. But Bell, noting that this figure includes master’s programmes in addition to doctoral programmes, said that this increase is likely “a blip” on a larger trend in which women will earn more and more doctorates relative to men.

So is the trend of more doctorates going to women than to men something to celebrate (for the academic success of women), to worry about (for the shortage of men), or both?

Richard Whitmire, the author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System Thats Leaving Them Behind and the blog Why Boys Fail, said he was not surprised by the results, given the trends he has been writing about at high-school and undergraduate levels. He said the development with doctorates points to the need for colleges to take seriously not only the issue of falling male enrolments, but also that of the correlations between gender and course of study. “We should care that men and women major in different things,” he said, not because there is anything wrong with women pursuing social science or men engineering but because “we are not fielding our best team” if some groups aren’t part of the equation.

Bell, of the Council of Graduate Schools, had a similar view. “If the US is to remain competitive and economically strong, it is important that we recruit and retain the best and brightest students in graduate education, and that means from all segments of the population,” he said. That’s why it matters that many minority groups are not represented in the doctoral education cohort in the same way they are in the general population – and the same is true for men, especially if the gender gap grows as expected. “We cannot depend on one segment of our population to provide for the majority of our workforce needs in individual fields,” he said.

Here are some of the other highlights of the report on graduate enrolments:

• The increasing share of women in graduate education is not reflected among international students, where they make up only 42 per cent of students. The share of women is much larger among US citizens, and reaches 71 per cent for African American graduate students

• The representation of minority groups in US graduate schools continued a pattern of modest increases. In 2009, the percentage reached 29.1 per cent, up from 28.3 per cent the year before

• With US enrolments rising, the percentage of international students among first-time graduate enrolments fell in 2009 to 16.5 per cent, from 18 per cent the year before

• The number of applications to US graduate schools (for master’s and doctoral programmes) increased by 8.3 per cent from 2008 to 2009

• The most popular fields in total number of applicants are business, engineering and the social and behavioural sciences, but the largest percentage increase came in health sciences, up 14.6 per cent.

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