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Women Outnumber Men in PhD Programs But Still Face Challenges

March marks the annual Women’s History Month, in addition, March 8th is Women’s Day.  It is great to see an entire month and a day dedicated to women and the historical strives that are made. Yet, women who are in PhD, graduates of PhD programs, or employed in higher education still face many challenges.  Even though, women outnumber men in PhD programs.

This article describes the challenges that women face historically and today as they pursue their doctorate degrees.  It discusses how these challenges affect female doctorates and offers suggestions on what can be done to make much needed improvements.

Historical and Personal Challenges

First lady Dr. Jill Biden holds Doctor of Education (Ed.D) in educational leadership from the University of Delaware. In an article by Joseph Epstein, he suggested that the first lady, Dr. Jill Biden, drop the doctor from her title.

Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.

  • Joseph Epstein

How degrading it is to suggest that an hard-earned title should not be used.

While doctorate degrees varying, most commonly it requires a baccalaureate and a master’s degree.  Then, another 2 more years of studying at the doctorate level focusing on theory and research.  Students then take written and oral comprehensive exams to demonstrate their knowledge of the field.  I had to complete three comprehensive exams, one which lasted an entire week.

Then, the student must develop an independent research idea; find a dissertation chair; committee members both inside and outside of the department; then, present their research ideas. At this point the doctorate is classified as ‘All But Dissertation’ or ABD.

Next, the ABD completes their research oftentimes collecting and analyze their own data through qualitative and quantitative analysis.  The student will work with the committee members to finalize their dissertation while subsequently looking for an academic job or post-doctorate fellowship.

At last, the day comes when he/she must present in a public posted forum their final dissertation.  Questions from the committee and the audience are answered in the hopes that their research ideas are acceptable to the experts in the field.

Another round of revisions are oftentimes necessary.  The final dissertation is sent to the graduate school for approval, publication, and printing. My dissertation, “Development and testing of the Primary Care Homeless Organizational Tool (PC-HOAT) to evaluate primary care services for the homeless,” was took over 2 years to complete.  It combined collecting my own data and using existing data that I had to request through open records.  The finished product is over 400 pages long.

I would not call the significant sacrifices I made comical or fraudulent.  I use my doctor title whenever I want to. Now, my focus is in health care and if a person starts talking to me about their health, I do reaffirm that I’m a PhD and not a MD.  When I do presentations about health-related topics, I also state that I am a PhD and not a MD.

As a show of support for Dr. Biden, female academics are now changing their Twitter names to include “Dr.” and have the hashtag #damnrightimadoctor.

Two female PhDs in the early 1900s, Sophonisba Breckinridge and Edith Abbott, described the challenges they faced as early academics.

“Although I was given the PhD degree magna cum laude no position in political science or economics was offered me.”

“Whether you call us doctor or professor is unimportant, but that you should indicate that we have scientific qualification is very important.”

Women in male dominated industries often get left out.  Carolyn Virca embarked on her chemistry Ph.D., she noticed a clear gender rift right from the start. The men would grab beers before seminars or arrange other social activities that didn’t include her—the lone woman in the cohort.

“They bonded in ways that I was not privy to.”

How does the lack of support affect women PhDs?

If women feel unsupported in their degree program, it decreases their likelihood of entering an academic position.  Although I completed 3 degrees, I never had a black, female college professor.  Female college professors in general was not common through my entire higher education tenure.

Women with no female peers were 12 percent less likely to complete their degrees within 6 years compared to men in the same cohort.  Being the only women is not only lonely but can be detrimental to academic and professional success.

When a female PhD graduates, she is faced with more challenges in the classroom.  What she says and how she is dressed are often challenged.

I remember students would criticize me more harshly over my male colleagues.  Male professors would use words such as, “All you’re going to do is graduate and get a job at McDonalds.”  I would say, “I am challenging you so that you can be well prepared for the workforce.”  The students would say I was harsh and my male colleagues were trying to help them.

While my discriminatory outcomes in my previous academic world stemmed more from being black versus a woman, the combination of the two made enjoying the career impossible.

Quantifying the problem

Women earned the majority of doctoral degrees in 2020 for the 12th straight year and outnumber men in grad school 148 to 100.  Therefore, although there are more female dominated PhD tracts that employment world doesn’t match.  Women oftentimes get placed in non-tenure track positions or are offered jobs in less rigorous research focused schools.

“By overall enrollment in higher education, men have been an underrepresented minority for more than 40 years since the late 1970s.”  Yet, they make up the majority of higher positions such as deans, VPs, and presidents.

“Women earned 421 master’s degrees in health and medical sciences for every 100 men, 408 master’s degrees in public administration for every 100 men, and 350 master’s degrees in education for every 100 men.”

I found when I attended academic luncheons, meetings, or conferences, the number of women were disproportionally underrepresented.

“In certain fields like Education (76.2% female), Health and Medical Sciences (78.4% female), and Public Administration (79.0% female), women outnumber men by a factor of three or more.”

“Like for doctoral degrees, women outnumbered men in the same 7 out of the 11 fields of graduate study and in some of those fields, the gender disparity was huge.”

There is an obvious discrepancy that continues to persistent today.

What can be done to make changes?

The first steps to take is that universities, faculty, and administrators should acknowledge that it is a problem that needs to be addressed.

Second, offer support to female students in the form of research assistants or teaching assistants.  This support offers financial relief but also helps to make a connection with an established faculty member. Women who are in assistant positions are more likely to graduate than those with no assistantships.

Third, create support groups to address the challenges that female students face especially when they are balancing careers, schooling, and family responsibilities.

Finally, if you are struggling seek help from your mentors, colleagues, family, and friends.  Everyone wants you to succeed and they just may not know you need help.  You can also schedule a complimentary meeting with me to discuss ways to overcome challenges you are currently facing.


Overall, there are still great strides that need to be made to be sure that women in school and in jobs are adequately represented.  Although I had contemplated getting a PhD when I was in undergraduate school, it wasn’t until I entered my master’s degree and had my first black professor that inspired me to pull the trigger and enter the field. The same can happen for women.