International mobility trends shaping academic gender imbalance

Figures from latest Education at a Glance report show low share of women among international doctoral students    

October 4, 2020
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The lack of female representation among senior positions in research is a problem that universities in many countries have been acutely aware of in recent years.

Much of the focus on solving the problem has often been concentrated on boosting interest in science at an early age as well as fixing the “leaky pipeline” into academia that causes female participation in some subjects to decline the higher one moves up the academic ladder.

But data from the latest edition of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual education dataset show how international student mobility – especially at PhD level – may also be playing a part in the issue.

A key chart in Education at a Glance 2020 shows the gender mix of incoming international students in some countries, and how it often varies considerably depending on the level of degree.

For instance, in some OECD countries, well over half of bachelor’s degree students from abroad are women, a share that is closer to 60 per cent in Sweden, Italy and South Korea.

However, at doctoral level, all but one country (Chile) has a majority of male PhD students from overseas and the proportion of women is under 40 per cent in some major research nations such as Germany (37 per cent) and Canada (38 per cent).

What is perhaps most surprising is that some places that see a gender balance among international students skewed heavily towards women at bachelor’s level, such as Sweden, South Korea or the Netherlands, see that share drop by at least 10 percentage points (or almost 20 percentage points in Sweden’s case) for doctoral level.

Other countries meanwhile have much more similar proportions of men and women among international students, whether the degree level is undergraduate or postgraduate.

For example, Switzerland’s gender balance is equal for international students doing bachelor’s courses, with the share of women dropping just a few percentage points (to 46 per cent) at doctoral level. And although female students travelling to the US make up a relatively low share of international undergraduates (44 per cent), it is not very different at doctoral level (41 per cent).



The evidence from countries with the lowest female student shares among international PhDs is that the subjects attracting the most doctoral students from abroad play a significant role.

According to data from Statistics Canada, almost half the PhDs awarded to international students in the country are in engineering, traditionally a subject that has struggled to attract women. Meanwhile, fields that tend to be more popular with women studying PhDs in the country, such as education or health, make up a much lower share of international doctoral students.

In Germany too, the popularity of some subjects among international doctoral candidates is likely to be a major reason for the figures.

Alexander Hasgall, head of the European University Association Council for Doctoral Education, said that engineering and natural sciences in Germany “can be particularly attractive to foreign doctoral candidates” thanks to universities’ global reputation in the subjects, the high levels of funding and the use of English in such disciplines.

He said that the “overall challenge” was about attracting more female doctoral candidates – both domestic and international – in such subjects, so providing support for female students “who aim for the doctorate and also for an academic career” remained important.

“Failing in this would make research less inclusive and cement current inequalities. Diversity is an important precondition for innovation and excellence,” he added.

However, are there specific policies that could still be implemented to open more PhDs in certain subjects to international female students?

Anna Cristina D’Addio, senior policy analyst at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Global Education Monitoring Report, which assesses progress towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on education, said that targeted policies could include scholarships.

One example, she said, was Faculty for the Future, a fellowships programme run by the non-profit Schlumberger Foundation that supports women from developing countries applying for PhDs or postdoctoral studies in STEM fields.

Dr D’Addio added that without action in this area, and the low enrolment of women in some STEM subjects generally, there were implications not only for university workforces, but also economies and wider society.

“Under-representation of women in these fields means not only that their professional opportunities are limited but their specific perspective is missing from these sectors,” she said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Numbers mean nothing, individual choice, aptitude and ability care not for gender nor race, as long as everyone has equal opportunity for their capability society will get those best suited to each role, keeping parental connections and money out however is vitally important.

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