Women Lead in Doctorates

September 14, 2010

With female enrollments growing at all levels of higher education, doctoral degrees have been one area where men have continued to dominate. No more. New data being released today show that in 2008-9, for the first time ever, women earned a majority of the doctoral degrees awarded in the United States.

The data are part of an analysis of graduate enrollments and degrees from the Council of Graduate Schools. The majority for women in doctoral degrees is slight -- 50.4 percent. But the shift has been steady and significant. As recently as 2000, women were earning only 44 percent of doctoral degrees. In master's degrees, where women have already accounted for a majority of degrees, their share now stands at 60 percent.

Nathan Bell, director of research and policy analysis for the Council of Graduate Schools, said that the female majority for doctoral recipients was "a natural progression of what we have been seeing" in the rest of higher education. Given that female enrollments have overtaken male enrollments in associate, bachelor's and master's programs, he said, "the pipeline is increasingly female."

In fact, he said that the only reason that women did not become a majority of doctoral recipients earlier is that a greater share of doctoral degrees are awarded in fields like engineering that remain disproportionately male than is the case at the undergraduate level.

The majority for women in doctoral degrees is not seen in all disciplines. Only 22 percent of engineering doctorates in 2008-9 were awarded to women, and only 27 percent in mathematics and computer science. But the fields in which women now make up a majority go well beyond arts and humanities, and include health sciences and the biological sciences. Further, the rate of increase in doctoral awards for women outpaces that for men in all disciplines. Over all, women became the majority of new doctorate recipients in a year in which their numbers increased by 6.1 percent while male numbers increased by 1.0 percent.

For now, the odds of a new doctorate holder being male or female depend on the field studied:

Percentage of Women Among New Doctoral Recipients, by Field, 2008-9

Field Female Graduates
Social and behavioral sciences 60%
Public administration and services 61%
Physical and earth sciences 33%
Math and computer science 27%
Health sciences 70%
Engineering 22%
Education 67%
Business 39%
Biological and agricultural sciences 51%
Arts and humanities 53%

The female percentages are likely to go up, if trends of the last 10 years continue. During that time, the average annual rate of increase in doctorates earned by women was 5.5 percent, more than twice the male percentage of 2.1 percent. While the size of that gap varies by discipline, it is present even in disciplines where the vast majority of doctorates today go to men.

Average Annual Change in Number of New Doctoral Degrees, by Gender, 1998-9 to 2008-9

Field
Women Men
Social and behavioral sciences +3.2% +0.5%
Public administration and services +5.8% +0.3%
Physical and earth sciences +4.7% +0.2%
Math and computer science +7.0% +4.3%
Health sciences +14.0% +3.9%
Engineering +6.0% +3.3%
Education +1.4% +0.1%
Business +1.9% +0.3%
Biological and agricultural sciences +7.7% +1.2%
Arts and humanities +1.4% -0.2%

The Council of Graduate Schools report features a range of other data on those entering and finishing graduate school and what they are studying. One figure may suggest some boost for the male share of enrollments. In 2009, the council found that first-time enrollment in all graduate programs grew by 6.7 percent for men compared to 4.7 percent for women. But Bell, noting that this figure includes master's programs in addition to doctoral programs, said that this brief increase is likely "a blip" on a larger trend in which women will earn more and more doctorates relative to men.

So is the trend of more doctorates going to women than to men something to celebrate (for the academic success of women), to worry about (for the shortage of men), or both?

Richard Whitmire, the author of Why Boys Fail: Saving Our Sons from an Educational System That's Leaving Them Behind and the blog Why Boys Fail, said that he is not surprised by the results, given the trends he has been writing about in high schools and undergraduate colleges. He said that the development with doctorates points to the need for colleges to take seriously not only the issue of falling male enrollments, but also that of the correlations between gender and course of study. "We should care that men and women major in different things," he said, not because there is anything wrong with women pursuing social science or men engineering but because "we are not fielding our best team" if some groups aren't part of the equation.

Bell, of the Council of Graduate Schools, had a similar view. "If the U.S. is to remain competitive and economically strong, it is important that we recruit and retain the best and brightest students in graduate education, and that means from all segments of the population," he said. That's why it matters that many minority groups are not represented in the doctoral education cohort as they are in the general population, and the same is true for men, especially if the gender gap grows as expected. "We cannot depend on one segment of our population to provide for the majority of our workforce needs in individual fields," he said.

Here are some of the other highlights of the new report on graduate enrollments:

  • The increasing share of women in graduate education is not present among international students, where they make up only 42 percent of students. The share of women is much larger among U.S. citizens, and reaches 71 percent for African American graduate students.
  • The representation of minority groups in American graduate schools continued a pattern of modest increases. In 2009, the percentage reached 29.1 percent, up from 28.3 percent the year before.
  • With U.S. enrollments increasing, the percentage of international students among first-time graduate enrollments fell in 2009 to 16.5 percent, from 18 percent the prior year.
  • Applications to U.S. graduate schools (for master's and doctoral programs) increased 8.3 percent from 2008 to 2009.
  • The most popular fields in total number of applicants are business, engineering, and the social and behavioral sciences, but the largest percentage increase came in health sciences, up 14.6 percent.

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