Prestige matters: Women’s under-representation in the most prestigious graduate programs

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Prestige matters: Women’s under-representation in the most prestigious graduate programs

by Erin Cech on Thursday, February 2, 2012 - 2:00am

BYU graduation: source Wikimedia CommonsGlancing at the faculty nameplates on the office doors in a random selection of university departments, one will quickly notice a great deal of gender segregation across academic disciplines.  Women tend to be over-represented in English and psychology departments, and under-represented in engineering and physics departments. But, if one were to open those office doors and glance at the Ph.D. diplomas hanging on the walls, would gender segregation also be apparent in the prestige of the graduate programs faculty attended? Do men and women earn their Ph.D.s from equally prestigious graduate programs?

Not really, say sociologists Kim Weeden, Sarah Thébaud, and Dafna Gelbgiser.  Their research found that, in almost all academic fields, women are under-represented among graduates of the most prestigious Ph.D. programs.  There’s more at stake to prestige than just bragging rights: Other studies show that men and women who graduate from higher prestige Ph.D. programs have greater chances of obtaining tenure-track positions, obtain better paying and more prestigious positions, and are more likely to be tenured in the future.

Analyzing gender segregation in graduate program prestige

In their analysis of gender segregation in graduate program prestige, Weeden and her colleagues matched data from the National Center for Educational Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) from 2000 to 2009 with National Research Council’s 1995 graduate program rankings.  With these data, they were able to tease out the effects of prestige segregation from other factors, such as segregation by field of study.

The researchers found significant gender inequality(Exponentiated and graphed on a logarithmic scale; Values greater than 1 correspond to an over-representation of women) (taken from Weeden et al. 2011) in the cream-of-the-crop graduate programs:  Among  the top 10% of programs, men are over-represented by a factor of 1.3. In other words, although women earn nearly 50% of research Ph.D.s in the U.S., they earn only 38% of the Ph.D.s conferred by top programs.   Additionally, in order for men and women to be equally represented in all program prestige groups, across the most and least prestigious programs in the U.S., a full 9 percent of Ph.D. students would have to change graduate programs.  This prestige segregation isn’t just a byproduct of field segregation, however.  Prestige segregation exists independently of the dispersion of women and men into different academic fields.   

This segregation story becomes a little more complicated among middle- and lower-prestige graduate programs.  The representation of women across prestige rankings has an upside-down U-shape:  Women are under-represented in the most prestigious (top 10%) programs, but are also under-represented in the least-prestigious (bottom 40%) programs.  On the other hand, women are over-represented in the middle-prestige programs.  (This U-shape can be seen in the bar graph pictured above.)

Could male academic prowess explain prestige gender segregation?

What could account for women’s under-representation in the most prestigious graduate programs, as well as the “inverted U” shape of prestige segregation?  Some might be tempted to claim that such effects are the result of men’s superior academic ability.  However, Weeden explains that the inverted-U-shaped distribution is a potent argument against ability-based explanations.  If men had superior ability to pursue graduate education, women would be under-represented in the most prestigious programs and over-represented in the lowest-prestige programs.  The latter scenario doesn’t fit the data:  Women are over-represented in the middle­-prestige programs, not the lower ones. 

A related explanation could lie not in observed ability, but in self-assessed ability. Gender research consistently shows that women assess their ability lower than men, even men with the same test scores and other signals of ability.  High-performing women may tend to underestimate their chances of getting into or succeeding at the highest prestige programs, and apply to lower ranked programs instead. Like observed ability, though, gender-biased self-assessments don’t help explain why women are under-represented in the lowest-ranked programs.

A third possibility is that departments’ decisions about who to admit are affected by their position in the prestige order. According to this “middle status conformity” argument, top-ranked programs are secure in their status, and relatively more immune from institutional pressures to diversify their graduate programs; as such, they may place greater weight on test scores, assessments of the quality of the written work, letters of recommendation, and other observable measures of “quality,” some of which may be biased in favor of male applicants. Low-status programs have little to lose, and are similarly unconcerned about how their graduate admissions procedures affect their status rankings. 

Programs in the middle of the status order, by contrast, are less immune to internal pressures to diversify and more eager to avoid the status-damaging reputation of being a “woman unfriendly” department. To avoid any potential loss of prestige, Weeden and colleagues argue, middle-status programs take extra precaution to be reflexive and gender neutral in their graduate admissions procedures.  The result?  Greater representation of women Ph.D.s in middle-status programs. Weeden and her colleagues’ data cannot speak directly to what goes on in admissions committees, so the middle-status conformity argument remains just a hypothesis. It’s useful, though, because it shifts some of the focus toward departments as key actors in the selection process.

Looking beyond traditional hiring procedures

Weeden’s research offers an important lesson for departments that are attempting to increase the diversity of their faculty. Departments tend to hire graduates from equally or higher ranked Ph.D. programs. This practice tends to reproduce gender and racial imbalances among the faculty of top programs, because top programs produce fewer women or minority Ph.D.s than middle-ranked programs.  One solution implied by Weeden’s research is for high-ranked programs to make a more concerted effort to look beyond the Ph.D.s produced by the schools from which they usually hire to ferret out talented women and underrepresented minorities from lower-ranked institutions. In practice, this may mean putting more weight on writing samples and research promise, and less weight on letters from high-status colleagues.

In an era where women earn half of the Ph.D.s in the U.S., prestige segregation highlights the ways that women still experience inequality in education.  Concludes Weeden, “Women are under-represented in precisely those structural positions that confer the greatest present rewards in prestige, if not also in economic resources, and that offer the greatest chance to obtain the highest-paying and most prestigious positions late in the career.”


Dr. Kim WeedenDr. Kim Weeden presented this research at Stanford University at an event organized by the Clayman Institute for Gender Research and co-sponsored by the Department of Sociology and the Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality. Weeden is an associate professor of sociology at Cornell University and earned her Ph.D. from Stanford’s Sociology Department. Dr. Sarah Thébaud is a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University, and Dafna Gelbgiser is a sociology graduate student at Cornell.  This research was supported by Cornell University’s ADVANCE program, with funding from the National Science Foundation.

This article was written by Erin Cech, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Clayman Institute.  Erin Cech holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego, and B.S. degrees in Electrical Engineering and Sociology from Montana State University.