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Challenges of female doctoral students in STEM

by Lexin Chen

Although women receive about 53% of all doctorates in the United States, they are often underrepresented in STEM, especially in physical science, computer science, geoscience, and engineering. From the total doctoral graduates in 2017, men account for 76.6% in engineering, 74.9% in mathematics and computer science, 65.9% in physical and earth science [McCarthy et al, 2018]. There are many reasons that attribute to a lower ratio of female to male scientists and engineers. Difficulty blending in, managing between work and life, lack of female role models, dual-career problems are some of the main issues hindering greater diversity in doctoral studies.

In disciplines that are mostly male, involving physical science, computer science, geoscience, and engineering, women may have a difficult time blending into the work environment. They might face doubts and harassments from male peers and advisors due to cultural and societal stereotypes. Being the only female in the lab might attract strange looks or unnecessary contacts from male counterparts over female presence or way of style. Sarah Livingston, now a post-doc, said, ‘if I’m the only woman, I become the target” (Langin, 2018). The worst scenario a female might face is sexual harassment. By being a small minority of the cohort, it is unacceptable but sometimes inevitable that males speak or act insensitively. A toxic environment that is uninviting to females can have significant emotional and physical distress on them; for example, it can be as simple as discomfort or as severely as filing for Title IX or a lawsuit. These stresses can affect their work by consuming their time from concentrating on writing manuscripts, working in the lab, or running analysis (Langin, 2018).

Between working in the lab to working at home, most women express that they do not have time for anything else if they ought to graduate on time. Most women doctoral students are in their prime reproductive age: between 23-30. However, a doctorate program is highly demanding with limited financial resources. Marriage and child responsibilities will soon be burdens on the mothers as they struggle to balance the pillars of work and life. A classic example can be examined through Japan's low fertility rate, which was 2.1 percent since 1974 and 1.26 percent in 2005 (Statistics Bureau); it has hit an all-time low in 2019. Higher education, increased women in the workforce, conservative expectations of women, and poor work and life balance all attributed to this trend. Japanese wives are expected to spend 27 hours per work on household and child responsibilities, while Japanese husbands are only expected to spend 3 hours (Tsuya, 2017). Despite the extent of the wives' employment, most husbands spend at most 5.3 hours (Tsuya, 2017). Because of the demanding nature of Japan’s workforce, women are less willing to give up their careers for marriage and children. Despite the government’s intervention to provide paid maternal leave and expansion of childcare, the fertility rate is unwavering mainly due to the lack of family-friendly workplaces and strain on childcare affordability (Tsuya, 2017). Although Japan demonstrated a severe case of work-life balance due to the surrounding traditions of mothers and demanding workforces, the struggle of work-life balance is something women struggle with all around the world.

The imbalance of females and people of color recruited in higher education discourages students to seek doctoral research. The contradiction is conspicuous between the higher education's mission statements promising diversity and the unfaltering demographics of STEM faculty, especially in physical science, computer science, and engineering. Again, motherhood is a factor that hinders the recruitment of women in high academic positions and less willing to offer tenure for female faculty. Women also have a more difficult time receiving funding, because they are expected to publish at least twice as much compared to men (Dewandre, 2002; Williams, 1998). In addition, the lack of female role models stems from the lower ratio of women doctorate students; therefore, there is a smaller selection of women to recruit from.

After female scientists and engineers receive their doctorates, many will face a dual-career problem, which refers to the struggle to balance their own careers, spouse’s career, and maternal responsibility. Although this is a common problem for women of all professions, this generally affects women scientists and engineers more (Chaudhuri, 2011). These women often marry other scientists within their field or other fields, so they might face “two-body problem”, which refers to the difficulty of couples working in the same university or within proximity of one another (Sonnert, 1999). In science and engineering jobs, this is particularly true as there are not many academic positions available. Additionally, it is even less unlikely for universities to hire a couple in the same field (Chaudhuri, 2011). From studies shown, 43% of women are more prone to relocate and accept lower-profile jobs to accommodate their husbands’ careers while 7% of husbands are willing to relocate to support their wives’ careers (Chaudhuri, 2011). Although there are a lot of arguments and negotiations involving where the couple will move, more women are willing to sacrifice personal relationships for better career opportunities (Etzkowitz et al, 1994).

Although there are many challenges surrounding women scientists and engineers, challenges bring opportunities. Even if you are the minority, never be discouraged because there is not enough of “you” in that field. Find organizations and clubs that support who you represent. When applying to a male-dominated field, you should inquire about the work environment and communicate with other females in the cohort. However, there are many opportunities now than ever before, so make sure you take full advantage of the education that is available– you can be the next role model for the next generation.

Works Cited

[1] Chaudhuri, D. (2011) Career Path Barriers of Women Doctoral Students in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) Disciplines. PhD Thesis. Arizona State University, Tempe, retrieved June 30, 2020, from

[2] Dewandre, N. (2002). European strategy for promoting women in science. Science, 295(5553), 278-279. Doi: 10.1126/science.1063487

[3] Etzkowitz, H., Kemelgor, C., Neuschatz, M., & Brian, U. (1994). Barriers to women in academic science and engineering. In Willie Pearson Jr. and Irwin Fechter (Eds.), Who Will Do Science? Educating the Next Generation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

[4] Langin, K. (2018, October 26). When you're the only woman: The challenges for female Ph.D. students in male-dominated cohorts. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from

[5] McCarthy, N., & Richter, F. (2018, October 08). Infographic: U.S. Women Earned More PhDs Than Men Last Year. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from

[6] Sonnert, G. (1999). Women in Science and Engineering: Advances, Challenges, and Solutions. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Volume 869 Women in science and engineering: choices for success, Pages xi–xix, 1–261

[7] Statistics Bureau, M. (n.d.). Retrieved June 30, 2020, from

[8] Tsuya, N. O. (2017, September 22). Low Fertility in Japan-No End in Sight. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from

[9] Williams, N. (1998). EU moves to decrease the gender gap. Science, 280 (5365), 822. DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5365.822

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