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Diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion

Isolated female students more likely to drop out of PhD programmes

19 Sep 2018

Female doctoral students in science subjects are more likely to drop out if there are few other women in their cohort. That is according to an analysis carried out by economists Valerie Bostwick and Bruce Weinberg from Ohio State University, who call on female graduate students to receive additional support if they are in the minority or the only ones entering a doctoral class.

A study by economists at Ohio State University found that lone females in a PhD cohort were up to 16% less likely to graduate than their male counterparts

The study tracked 2541 students who enrolled in graduate programmes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at six public universities in Ohio between 2005 and 2016. For the analysis, which was published on the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research, the students were grouped into cohorts based on a doctoral programme identifier code, known as the Classification of Instructional Programs.

The duo found that when female STEM post graduates were the only women in their intake group, they were 12% less likely to complete their PhD than their male counterparts. Such women were also 10% more likely to drop out in the first year of their doctoral programme than men. A 10% increase in females in a cohort, however, increased the probability of women graduating by more than 2%.

Supportive role

The gender gap in PhD completion rates was found to be larger in subjects that are dominated by men such as physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering, with lone females being 16% less likely to graduate from these subjects than their male counterparts. They are also 18% more likely than men to drop out in their first year. “We should be concerned about women having systematically higher drop-out rates in more male-intensive STEM programmes,” Weinberg told Physics World.

The researchers found that differences between males and females in first-term grades or the likelihood of obtaining research funding are not enough to explain the drop out and on-time graduation rates. Instead, they say that their findings show that having more female students creates a female-friendly environment that encourages women to persist in doctoral programmes.

Weinberg adds that recruiting more women into programmes, avoiding classes with very low proportions of women and creating more female-friendly environments would all help to reduce the female drop-out rate. “Although this goes beyond our study, my sense is that change often comes from the top, so having faculty and mentors be more supportive, model, and encourage more supportive behaviours would be obvious policies,” says Weinberg.

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