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Voices from the Pipeline

by Sheila Widnall

Sheila Widnall is Institute Professor of Aeronautics & Astronautics and of Engineering Systems at MIT.
She has served as secretary to the Air Force and as a member of the Columbia accident investigation board. The following is an excerpt from her 1988 AAAS Presidential Lecture which was published in Science (v241, pp1740-5, 1988) and is reproduced with permission of the AAAS and the author. The editor has selected passages that discuss three gender surveys of students made in the late 1980s (please contact Fran Bagenal if you know of a more recent survey). For a full version see http://web.mit.edu/aeroastro/www/people/widnall/aaas_pres.pdf

June 2004


Graduate Student Surveys

Several recent surveys of male and female graduate students preparing for scientific and technical careers were carried out at Stanford University (8) and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) (9, 10). In addition to quantitative detail about differential attitudes, expectations, and experiences of these students, the wealth of comments from students provides considerable insight about the process of graduate education as seen from the student’s perspective.

In the Stanford study, graduate students in medicine, science, and engineering were surveyed,
with a 54% return rate for a total number of 627 students. The results were presented only for the
combined group. The major conclusions of this work were that the women were indistinguishable
from the men in the objective measures of preparation, career aspirations, and performance
in graduate school. They differed significantly in their perceptions of their preparation for graduate
study, in the pressures and roadblocks that they experienced, and in the strategies that they developed
for coping with these pressures.

Graduate students at MIT were surveyed both by the Graduate School Council (9) and by the
presidentially appointed Committee on Women Students Interests (10). Both surveys covered all
of the departments in the institute. More than 1600 questionnaires institute-wide were returned
in the first survey. Within the School of Science, 476 student questionnaires were returned in the
second survey. The MIT surveys reinforced the conclusions of the Stanford survey. In addition, in
both the MIT surveys, the results differed widely across departments, including responses to questions
focused on the academic environment for women students. Whether these distinctions are due to
differences in fields, the different percentage of women students in the various departments, the
personality of the departments, or specific policies and practices that a department uses to
provide information and academic guidance to the students is not clear. However, the survey results
indicate that for departments with a poor environment for women students, a few specific measures might lead to a considerable improvement for all students.

Nationally, women enter graduate school at about the same rate as men relative to their presence
in the B.S. pool (2). The career aspirations of women in the Stanford survey were the same as
those of the men. Objective measures of their academic achievements and potential indicate
that the entering women students were as qualified for graduate work as the men. Men in the
Stanford survey scored slightly higher on the math section of the Graduate Record Examination,
whereas women scored higher on both the verbal and the analytical portions of the exam and had a
higher undergraduate grade point average. The grade point averages of the male and female
students as graduate students were essentially the same (8). As a group representative of only a
fractional percentage of the cohort of females of their age, statistics of large groups or preconceived ideas
about their specific interests, attitudes, aptitudes, or commitments cannot be applied.

Graduate Education and Research

Education can be seen as a continuum, a progression from the development of career-related
skills in a preset curriculum to the achievement of autonomous professional capabilities. However, it
is at the graduate level that the student begins to function as an independent scientist–indeed, that
is the purpose of graduate education. Ideally, graduate education should proceed from an
explicit set of tasks–acquiring advanced skills through courses, preparing for and passing a set
of qualifying exams to demonstrate mastery of one’s field, and carrying out technical work
under the close supervision of a faculty adviser–to the development of independence in the student.
During this process the faculty gradually begins to remove the props supporting the student and
to place more responsibility on the student for problem formulation, evaluation, execution, and
defense. Ideally, as the process occurs, the student has access to a variety of structured professional experiences designed to enhance self-confidence and build independence. These experiences
include opportunities to present and defend research results in regular and productive group
meetings, to evaluate and criticize the work of peers, to formulate and carry out research tasks
of increasing importance, to participate in dialogues and debates about scientific and technical
issues, and to discuss future career plans as they relate to current interests and activities.

Faculty members often do not make these latter parts of the educational process explicit to the
student. Much of the stress of graduate education results from lack of student understanding of this
hidden agenda. Students who duck such professional experiences because of a lack of self-confidence
or because they find them painful are deprived of an important component of the graduate experience.
Although they may be successful in achieving a Ph.D., they may not be equipped to take full
advantage of the next set of career possibilities, and they are unlikely to be recommended by their
mentors for important opportunities in their profession. Attention to how women and minorities
are affected by and respond to this hidden agenda will be valuable in developing strategies to allow
them to achieve their full potential.

These familiar facts of life of graduate education are at the heart of much of the stress felt by all
graduate students. However, the white male students benefit from the self-reinforcing
confidence that “they belong.” The self-identification with the predominantly white male faculty reassures
them that graduate school is a step on the way to a productive career in science, and that many others
with whom they can identify have done it before them. For women students, minority students,
and many foreign students, the environment is not as reinforcing. Their acceptance by the system
is not automatic. Results from the Stanford survey (8) indicate that 35% of the men compared to
24% of the women were confident of “making it” in their chosen field; 62% of the men, but only
51% of the women, anticipated an academic career.


Results from Student Surveys

In the various student surveys, students commented on their personal experiences in
graduate school. Most of the comments were complaints about their current system. There
were subtle differences in the responses of men and women. The men most often expressed
anger, even rage, at the system and suggested ways that it should be changed, whereas the
women more often described the effect that the current system had on them and expressed feelings
of frustration and discouragement. For example, the following comments were made by students
from the same department when asked what hindered their graduate education (10):

  1. From a man: “The absolute insensitivity of the professors, department, and university to
    the inevitable depression experienced by young scientists when their research doesn’t work so
    well. The … university’s … willingness to ignore all graduate students but the … top 10% elite.”
  2. From a woman: “Despite denials, as a woman in … science … I had something to
    prove–and yet the most difficult part about it is that I don’t know what it is or how to prove it.
    There is just the knowledge that I have at least one more test to pass than my male counterparts.
    Or maybe it’s one more test to pass daily.”

As revealed by student surveys, the issues affecting minority, foreign, and women students
are related to their differences from the majority, their feelings of powerlessness, and feelings of
increased pressure and isolation. For example, significantly larger percentages of women
students than men students in both the Stanford and the MIT studies reported that the environment
was detrimental to their health (8, 10). In the Stanford survey, 23% of the women versus 9% of
the men reported that they thought they were on the verge of a nervous breakdown. The data on
minority students are too sparse to draw any conclusions, but it is likely that graduate school is
an extremely stressful environment for them.

Women students are not a minority at the undergraduate level in our colleges and universities.
Yet the effect that education has on them sets the stage for their minority presence in graduate
school. Studies indicate that the self-esteem of women students is lowered in college, while the
self-esteem of male students is raised.

The Illinois Valedictorian Project (11) was a study that followed a group of 80 students (46
women and 34 men) who had graduated in 1981 at the top of their high school classes. The group
continued their high academic performance, with the women earning a final grade point average of
3.6 and the men an average of 3.5 for their college years. In spite of this objective record,
when this group was surveyed at several points in their educational careers concerning their
self-estimate of intelligence relative to their peers, the results shown in Fig. 4 were obtained. The
shift of self-esteem to lower ratings is quite evident for the women students. At the end of high
school the groups were quite comparable, but females suffered a significant loss of self-esteem
in the sophomore year of college. At the senior year of college, no women had a self-estimate in
the highest category, whereas 25% of the men did, even though the grade point average of the
women was higher than that of the men. In contrast, the self-esteem of the men increased slightly during
the college years. Even though women in science have degree completion rates above those of the
men and carry on to graduate school at about the same rate, these results suggest that they arrive at
graduate school with some uncertainty about their abilities, even though their academic records and
test scores are equivalent to those of the men.

A second trend noted in this study (11) was the lowering of career ambitions by the women students.
The researchers linked lowered career ambitions in part to the unresolved dualcareer
problem: that is, the student’s uncertainty about how to combine career and family responsibilities.
One of the most effective antidotes for these uncertainties about career goals was the opportunity for
successful professional experiences: independent research, professional employment, opportunity for
interaction with graduate students, and the support and encouragement of a faculty mentor. Most women
scientists of my generation can probably point to a single individual who was supportive at the
undergraduate level without whose encouragement they would not have gone to graduate school.

Without such opportunities a woman student may carry through with excellent performance in classes but be unsure about her actual potential as a professional. She may also develop the welldocumented
“imposter” syndrome with its accompanying fear of eventually being “found out.” This insecurity
shows up in several ways. In spite of objective data indicating that women in graduate school
have academic backgrounds comparable to their male peers, a significantly higher percentage of
women in the Stanford survey (8) reported that their preparation for graduate school was
inadequate. In the MIT survey (10), women students reported more difficulty in acquiring
research skills. Whether these self-assessment reports are true or represent women students
who downgrade their capabilities is not clear from the data. The reports could also be related
to the student’s interactions with her research adviser. In some cases the process of acquiring
research skills may be unconsciously set up for women to fail: women may be given too much
help on easy skill-building programs (because it is perceived that they cannot do the work alone)
and then are left to flounder on the more difficult problems. In the Stanford survey, 82% of the men
and 73% of the women reported being satisfied with their programs; 72% of the men and 61% of
the women reported that they believed they were progressing as well as other students (8).

For the women students themselves, as well as the departments in which they study, some serious
attention to these issues is warranted. Objective discussions between adviser and student about
the academic background required to undertake certain lines of research should take place, and
ways to fill in any weak areas should be identified. Discussions of the expectations of the department
for graduate student performance beyond the classroom, identification of objective criteria that
should be met on the way to independent research, and some specific attention to methods
of acquiring research skills are suggestions to deal with these issues.

Studies of objective evaluations of the potential and the accomplishments of women give quite
discouraging results. Such studies in which male or female names are applied to résumés, proposals,
and papers that are then evaluated by both male and female evaluators consistently show that the
potential and accomplishments of women are undervalued by both men and women, relative to
the same documents with a male attribution (12- 15). I believe that graduate admissions officers
are aware of this and attempt to correct for it in the admissions process, but I would be surprised
if individual, hard-pressed faculty were immune from this behavior.

Lower expectations by an adviser, whether conscious or unconscious, are quickly perceived
by the student. This perception may occur more often with women students, who need additional
feedback because of their tenuous position. The student surveys show that women meet less
frequently with their research advisers; a smaller percentage of women than men meet weekly; a
larger percentage of women than men report meeting rarely with their advisers. Also, more
women report that these interactions with faculty do not provide helpful feedback on their research
progress. There seem to be qualitative differences in the type of feedback that some women
students are looking for. To quote one woman from the MIT survey (10): “My adviser tells me
whether it’s right, not whether it’s important.” Women reported less frequently than men that
they felt free to disagree with their advisers or that their ideas were respected by their advisers
(8). The issue of barriers to effective communication needs to be examined by both advisers and their
women students.

Many faculty socialize extensively with their graduate students through sports and informal
get-togethers and may unintentionally leave out their women students or even suggest that they
are unwelcome at such gatherings. Women students often conclude that this is a direct reflection of the quality of their research (10). Perceived lowered expectations lead directly to a loss of
self-esteem and over time to a lower performance–a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women students give
their advisers a great deal of power in assessing their ability, and women are apt to internalize and
validate their perceptions of this assessment.

On all of the questions in the Stanford survey designed to elicit the level of self-confidence in
the academic setting, the women students scored consistently, and in some cases alarmingly, lower
than the men: 30% of the women versus 15% of the men questioned their ability to handle the
work; 27 versus 12% found criticism difficult to accept; only 30% of the women versus 57% of
the men felt confident speaking up in class; and 33 versus 9% feared that speaking up would
reveal their inadequacies (8). In view of the importance of the hidden agenda that uses
structured professional experiences to elicit independence in the student, some significant
fraction of the women students is less equipped to seek out, to engage, and to profit from these
experiences. Explicit attention to structuring positive professional experiences for all graduate students
will improve the environment for women students.

In the Stanford survey, more women (20%) than men (6%) reported never having had major
responsibilities within their research group (8). In both the Stanford and MIT surveys, women
reported less opportunity to publish, or less frequently being the first author on publications
(8, 10). However, these results differed across departments, with the most encouraging results
obtained in those departments that had high percentages of women students.

Environmental Issues

Women graduate students report being subject to inappropriate treatment by faculty and student
colleagues. Inappropriate treatment in the context of graduate school is any treatment that emphasizes
the student as a women first and a student second. It is any treatment that stresses the social nature
of the interaction rather than the professional or educational nature (12-16). Many women
students report the necessity to continually fend off such inappropriate behavior in order to be
allowed to concentrate on the professional issues of graduate school. This continual need to
respond to such treatment can seriously interfere with the self-esteem and productivity of women
graduate students (15).

Even today, there are still a few faculty members in science and engineering who publicly, or in
discussions with faculty colleagues, take the position that women do not belong in graduate school.
These individuals are at the least tolerated and seldom publicly challenged by their colleagues.
Female graduate students quickly become aware of such feelings; although such actions cannot be
attributed to an entire department, one wonders how such behavior can be tolerated in a university
environment. It is particularly unfortunate if the individual involved would otherwise be the most
appropriate adviser for the student on the basis of the student’s research area.

Studies of group meetings involving men and women reveal that women are at a disadvantage
with respect to male norms in groups (12-16). Women are interrupted by men much more
frequently than are other men. A woman’s contributions are often ignored or attributed to
one of the men in the group. Many women students report discomfort at the combative style
of communication within their research groups. Studies of men and women in group situations
reveal differences in their modes of communication and tension in their intersexual interactions (12-
16). Men often feel comfortable with a communication style that seeks to reduce one of the protagonists
to rubble in the course of a scientific discussion. After the storm is over, they quickly forget about
the incident. For many women this style of interaction is unacceptable, either as giver or
receiver. A woman student may take weeks or months to recover from such an interchange, and
it may contribute to a permanent loss of selfesteem. Women report that a process in which
points are won only at the expense of putting someone else down is to them an unacceptable
mode of scientific debate. They are looking for a mode of interaction that is other than a zero-sum game.

Women students report being much less satisfied with the information available from departmental
channels on issues such as the structure of qualifying exams and financial support policies.
They also report not being as well integrated into the student network (where copies of past exams,
for example, can be obtained). For access to such resources, the acceptance of women students as
colleagues by their male peers is essential.

A disturbing percentage of women in the MIT survey reported that their gender is a significant
barrier to access to academic resources (10). The quantitative results ranged from 16 to 30% across
the various departments in the School of Science. This was true even in those departments where
women students had high self-esteem. In the Stanford survey, 13% of the women (compared
to 1% of the men) reported that the sex of their adviser had a negative impact on them; 40% of
the women (compared with 30% of the men) reported having had some negative experience
with faculty members, whereas 20% of the women (versus 7% of the men) reported
experiencing some form of discrimination (8).

Women students have raised some fundamental issues about the quality of graduate education for
all students. The continued drop-off in the percentage of B.S. degree holders who eventually
attain the Ph.D. may be related directly to the current environment seen by graduate students.
If we are to escape the projected dramatic decrease in the number of graduate students,
some improvement in graduate education for all students is necessary.

With respect to improving the environment for women students, an increased sensitivity on
the part of faculty to the seriousness of women as professionals and the willingness of faculty to
structure the research environment to enhance self-esteem and provide positive professional
experiences are the most important features. A willingness by the faculty to publicly challenge
professional colleagues who make prejudicial or inappropriate remarks about women students
would improve the climate. An effort by faculty to make the group interaction a positive-sum
game for all students, while being no less insightful and scientifically critical, would enhance the
graduate experience. The positive comments on the student surveys by both men and women reported the
beneficial effects of such an educational environment. Such suggestions, if more widely followed, would
improve the professional and human climate of our graduate schools for all students.



(2) " Professional women and minorities: A manpower data resource service" (Commission
on Professionals in Science and Technology, Washington, DC, ed. 7, 1987).
(8) L. T. Zappert and K. Stanbury, "In the pipeline: A comparative analysis of men and women in graduate programs in science, engineering, and medicine at Stanford University" (Working Paper 20, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, 1984).
(9) " Report of the 1986 graduate student survey " (Academic Projects and Policies Committee of the Graduate Student Council, MIT, Cambridge, MA, November 1986).
(10) "Survey of graduate students" (Presidential Committee on Women Students Interests, MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1987).
(11) K. Arnold, "Retaining high-achieving women in science and engineering," AAAS Symposium on Women and Girls in Science and Technology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, July 1987.
(12) "The classroom climate—a chilly one for women" (Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, Washington, DC, 1982).
(13) ` The classroom climate revisited: Chilly for women faculty, administrators, and graduate students (Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, Washington, DC, October 1986).
(14) R. M. Hall and B. R. Sandler, "Out of the classroom: A chilly campus climate for women? " (Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, Washington, DC, 1984).
(15) J. K. Ehrhart and B. R. Sandier, " Looking for more than a few good women in traditionally male fields " (Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, Washington, DC, January 1987).
(16) M. P. Rowe, "Hypotheses about the effects of subtle discrimination at work and in education" (MIT, Cambridge, MA, 1986).

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