Campus, News

Study points to gender bias among doctoral students

Male Ph.D. candidates submit and publish papers at higher rates than their female peers. PHOTO COURTESY ORIN ZEBEST

A recent study announced male doctoral candidates submit and publish papers at significantly higher rates than their female peers, even within the same institution — a trend many Boston University doctoral students said likely extends to the university.

The study, released earlier this month in Educational Researcher, is titled “Sex Differences in Doctoral Student Publication Rates” examined publication differences among doctoral students at one Big Ten institution, using survey data from 1,285 doctoral students who recently graduated, according to Sarah Theule Lubienski, a mathematics professor at Indiana University and the lead author of the study.

Lubienski explained that differences in publication rates tended to be wider in STEM fields, where men submitted 7.2 articles versus women’s 5.5 articles, but were also significant in the humanities and arts, where men and women submitted 3 articles and 1.7 works for publication, respectively.

Lubienski described some of the factors that might contribute to the disparity as identified by the study.

“There was some evidence that males received better research mentoring from faculty, and that family responsibilities were more of a hindrance for women than men,” Lubienski wrote in an email. “The data point toward other possible explanations, including greater teaching responsibilities for women and possible career goal differences between women and men.”

She said although she feels confident that this gender gap applies to other institutions, the study requires replication in order to generalize its findings to other universities.

“This study focused on just one institution, and so it needs replication,” Lubienski wrote. “The fact that the pattern was pervasive across so many disciplines makes me suspect that the pattern will occur at other institutions.”

In order to mitigate this disparity, university administrators can start by “paying special attention to their female students’ research publications and the research mentoring they receive, as well as whether females are disproportionately serving as teaching assistants,” Lubienski added.

Several doctoral students at BU in a variety of fields described their experiences with gender disparities over the course of their studies.

Shrabastee Banerjee, a third-year Ph.D. student in the Questrom School of Business, said she has not personally experienced a gender bias in her studies, but has witnessed other women struggle with it.

“I don’t have children/family commitments that could potentially require me to make ‘compromises,’” Banerjee wrote in an email. “However, this just speaks of my privilege — I’ve seen many women in academics having to make suboptimal career choices to deal with these trade offs. I’ve also heard of examples where male advisors have been hostile towards their female students, and that would only exacerbate this gap by demotivating these students.”

Lee Tucker, a doctoral candidate in the department of economics, said he thinks the inequality in the number of papers published by male and female doctoral students is likely due to the preexisting sexism in society.

“I think it has to be said that there are systematic, institutional issues that I think do make it more difficult for women to succeed at various levels of the process,” Tucker said.

Tucker also said he has observed a gender bias within his own field of economics.

“What we’ve observed in economics at least … is that every stage of the process, there’s a lower percentage of women,” Tucker said.

Petra Niedermayerova and Chelsea Carter, two Ph.D. students in economics, explained that they formed an organization called BU Women in Economics last fall in attempt to combat gender inequality in their field.

They jointly wrote in an email that the group’s primary goals are to “inform both men and women of the challenges unique to women’s careers, to give female economists a collective voice, and to facilitate a discussion on gender in the economics profession.”

Students in the School of Theology said they did not notice such a prominent bias within their school.

Francisca Ireland-Verwoerd, a doctoral student in the School of Theology, said she has not experienced any discrimination based on gender during her time at BU, but still noted that other women might still experience it.

“I think I have been accepted in everything that I have submitted,” Ireland-Verwoerd said. “I have not experienced any of the discrimination. Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t.”

Another theology doctoral student Matthew Beal said he believes the department is working to address its gender disparities and that this bias is likely less prominent at BU than at religious institutions.

“The School of Theology is working really hard to be honest with itself about its lack of diversity and to foster increasing diversity,” Beal said. “I’m confident that BU is doing … a lot better than more religious institutions.”

Beal also said the results of the study are very reflective of broader gender imbalances.

“It’s probably accurate, the research … it’s very problematic, but reflective of our culture,” Beal said. “Just like the pay gap and the problems with physical and sexual violence, I think it reflects the reality of our culture, that we live in a sexist culture.”

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