The Mentoring Gap for Women in Science

New study of graduates of top doctoral programs in chemistry shows potential long-term impact of differing ways students interact with professors.
February 28, 2008

Differences between the ways male and female science students relate to mentors could have a significant impact on efforts to attract more women to certain fields, according to a new study focused on chemistry and published in the journal Sex Roles.

The study tracked those who graduated from top doctoral programs in chemistry from 1988 to 1992, and asked the graduates a series of questions about their experience with mentors, finding notable differences. Authors of the study say that while much has changed in society since the period studied, the findings are consistent with more recent analyses of women in science, and also promote understanding of a generation of women currently in academe.

Among the findings:

  • Reflecting on their undergraduate years, men were more likely than women to remember receiving help from a professor (62 percent for men and 54 percent for women).
  • Asked who helped them the most in selecting a graduate school, 83 percent of men and only 71 percent of women cited a professor. The percentage reporting that they helped themselves or that no one helped them was nearly double for women (15 percent) as for men (8 percent).
  • A higher proportion of women (35 percent) than men (24 percent) would have used different criteria to select a dissertation adviser, given the choice again.
  • A higher proportion of men (79 percent) than women (63 percent) relied in part on advice from their dissertation adviser on selecting a postdoctoral adviser.

Cumulatively, the authors suggest, these results point to the ways that mentoring differences affect the experience of female science students throughout their educations.

Susan Nolan, one of the authors and an associate dean at Seton Hall University, said that the data help to provide not "just a snapshot," but the impressions of men and women in science "looking back at their career trajectories." Nolan said she and her fellow authors hope the study will help academics "pinpoint the patterns that lead to gender disparities we still see."

It's clear, she said, "that women do not perceive that they are receiving the same level of advising and mentoring as men."

Nolan and the others at Seton Hall involved in the study -- Janine P. Buckner, Cecilia H. Marzabadi and Valerie J. Kuck -- plan a follow-up study looking at the fields of physics, electrical and chemical engineering, and mathematics.


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