During the 2009-10 school year, 58.7 percent of master’s and doctorate degrees from private institutions in the United States were conferred to women. The population of Princeton’s graduate program was 38.4 percent female over the same time period. While these numbers are not directly comparable, they estimate a stark contrast between the gender breakdown on the local and national level.
The gender gap is even larger in the natural sciences and engineering, where females are only 35.1 percent and 24.7 percent of the graduate student bodies, respectively. Females make up 41.4 percent of social sciences graduate students, and 46.3 percent of humanities graduate students.
Graduate School Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Diversity Karen Jackson-Weaver ‘94 said she is especially concerned with the disparity in the natural sciences and engineering fields. However, she noted that the gender gap in these fields is a national problem and not unique to Princeton.
Out of the 144,677 graduate students in engineering programs across the country in 2009, only 33,318 — 23 percent — were female, slightly smaller than the Princeton figures in 2009. Associate Dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Brandi Jones, who oversees graduate affairs, said female applicants are often surprised that the department’s ratio of females is higher than the national average.
“We’re certainly proud of that, but we’re constantly working to improve that,” Jones said.
Jackson-Weaver attributed the larger number of women in graduate programs on a national scale to other institutions offering part-time programs, while the majority of Princeton programs require graduate students to attend full time. Over the past decade, there has been an increase in the number of women pursuing graduate study on a part-time basis.
“They are able to work full time, take a course or two and have all the flexibility they need,” Jackson-Weaver said of the programs at other schools.
Fifth-year molecular biology graduate student Jessica Rowland Williams GS, one of a handful of Diversity Fellows who helps Jackson-Weaver in the recruitment process, agreed that flexibility is a concern for many female applicants. Williams was a single mother when she entered graduate school and shares her experience balancing education and family at many recruiting sessions.
“It seems like it’s actually a really big issue,” Williams said. “I tell my story a lot, and I’m amazed by the number of people who will come up to me afterward or email me later — all women of course — with questions regarding family life, how you manage marriage and grad school, or children and grad school.”
Williams said she felt that it was more difficult for her to meet her responsibilities in a science field, where a large amount of work has to take place away from home and in the laboratory.
“Traditionally the field of science hasn’t lent well to being family-friendly,” Williams said. “For some women, that’s a problem.”
Still, she said that many women may not know about the programs that Princeton has that help out graduate students with families in all departments. When a graduate student gives birth, she receives 12 weeks of maternity leave during which a mother continues to receive financial support and not have teaching and academic obligations for the time that the student is away. Doctoral candidates who have given birth or adopted a child are eligible for an extension of academic deadlines and one additional term of financial support for each child that they have.
Peer institutions have since followed and adopted similar policies, according to Jackson-Weaver.
“I do know for a fact that Princeton has been a trailblazer in family-friendly policies and policies that support women that want to pursue a career and have a family,” Jackson-Weaver said.
The University also has an affiliated child-care center, and graduate students have access to discounts at child-care centers in the area. They also provide access to the Cambridge Work Life Services Plan that offers at-home child care, among other services.
However, Williams said that even with the discounts, child care is still expensive for graduate students who are not earning a substantial income.
“[Living in Princeton] is expensive, which is kind of a hard thing to negotiate at times,” Williams said. “Your graduate student stipend is not very much, and if you have to put your kid in day care, that can be a huge financial burden.”
Still, she said that Princeton is “a great place to raise a family in,” noting that the Butler Apartments, where she lived for four years before moving off campus, are very “family-oriented.”
However, she understands the hesitations that some female applicants have about balancing parenting and graduate school.
“When women are considering careers, I think that a lot of times we’re thinking about the big picture and not just what we want to do in our career, but also when we want to get married and when we want to have children,” Williams said. “I don’t think you find that as often as a male graduate student.”
The University’s lack of programs that are popular among women nationwide may also detract from the overall percentage of women in the graduate school. For example, in 2009, 68 percent of students enrolled in a clinical medicine graduate program — which the University does not have — were female.
The gender disparity in the graduate schools begins at the application level; demographics of the applicant pool are similar to those of the enrolled population. In the engineering program in 2011-12, 23 percent of the applicants are female, 33 percent in the natural sciences, 43 percent in the social sciences and 45 percent in the humanities.
Jackson-Weaver’s office attends a number of meetings and symposia to try to recruit female applicants in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields and holds hosting programs that bring women to the University to allow them to familiarize themselves with their prospective departments.
“We don’t have the applicants that we want,” Jackson-Weaver said. “We don’t have the women applying to those fields.”
In October, the University participated in the Ivy Plus STEM symposium at Penn that addressed the gender disparity in the field.
The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences also regularly sends graduate students to recruit at three major conferences targeted for women: the Grace Hopper Women in Computing, the Society of Women Engineers and Women of Color in STEM. Jones also encourages undergraduate students who are not seniors to apply to the University’s summer research program because many of these applicants eventually apply to the graduate school.
“It’s an epidemic on a national scale,” Jackson-Weaver said. “For whatever reason we don’t have a pipeline that we need that encourages and cultivates and promotes opportunities for young girls and young women to seriously think about pursuing a master’s degree or a Ph.D.”
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/10/24/31621/