It’s no surprise that the number of PhD degrees in scientific and related disciplines conferred upon US students has leapt by half in the past decade — from about 18,000 in 2006 to more than 27,000 in 2016 — according to a recent report. But “Snapshot Report – Science and Engineering Degree Completion by Gender,” released last month by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in Herndon, Virginia, shows that the proportion of women who earn those degrees has stayed stagnant — at a dismal 39%.
“So much attention has been paid to making hard science disciplines more inviting to women, and a lot of institutions can claim progress,” says Douglas Shapiro, the centre’s executive research director. “But when you look at the big picture, you don’t see it.”
The report offers the first national-level snapshot of science and engineering degrees awarded in 2015-2016, which the centre compared to those earned in 2006 and all years inbetween. It breaks the degrees into eight fields, including engineering, computer science, Earth/atmospheric/ocean sciences, physical sciences, maths, biological and agricultural sciences, social sciences, and psychology.
The proportion of PhD degrees earned by women in all fields increased by only a percentage point or two over the decade save in maths, where it fell slightly from 29.2% to 28.4%. The share of bachelors degrees earned by women in maths, as well as in computer science, Earth sciences and physical sciences, also fell during the decade. Fewer bachelors degrees, of course, translates into fewer advanced degrees later on. “It’s disheartening,” says Shapiro.
Since 2009, women have earned a higher proportion of doctoral degrees only in biological and agricultural sciences, according to the report. In 2006 they received 47.9% of PhD degrees in the discipline but that ratio shifted to 51.6% by 2009. The trend continued through 2016 when women earned 51.8% of PhDs in biological and agricultural sciences. The proportion of women who earned PhDs in engineering rose by nearly 4% during the decade to 23.6% — encouraging but not quite stellar.
Shapiro says that the overall gender imbalance reflects the need for institutions and policy makers to track the data at different degree levels across all scientific disciplines.
Virginia Gewin is a freelance writer in Portland, Oregon.