Training and Mentoring of Chemists: A Study of Gender Disparity
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- Nolan, S.A., Buckner, J.P., Marzabadi, C.H. et al. Sex Roles (2008) 58: 235. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9310-5
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This study was conducted to compare women’s and men’s retrospective perceptions of the mentoring they received during their training and career development in chemistry. Participants were 455 graduates (135 women) who received doctoral degrees from 11 top US chemistry programs over a 5-year period (1988–1992). In 2003, graduates completed surveys of undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral, and initial employment experiences. In line with Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent et al., Journal of Vocational Behavior 45:79–122, 1994), which posits that perceptions of barriers can affect career decisions, results suggest that women perceived that they received less mentoring than men at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral levels of training, likely related to gender differences in eventual career success. Possible interventions at the individual and institutional levels are discussed.
KeywordsChemistryScienceMentoringGender equity Social Cognitive Career Theory
“Raise your hand if you’re a woman in science” (p. B01, Valian 2005) urged one of the hundreds of headlines that have proliferated in the popular media in recent years. The media, along with myriad academic venues, have increasingly documented the obstacles faced by women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It’s no secret that women are underrepresented in these fields, particularly at the highest levels. The obstacles that lead to underrepresentation appear to be twofold; at the developmental level, gate-keeping effects limit women’s entry to the higher levels of these fields, and at the retention level, environmental effects limit women’s longevity in these positions. Mentoring might be central to both of these factors. In line with this, the current study aims to document the mentoring-related obstacles to development and retention with respect to women’s advancement in the field of chemistry. Male and female doctoral recipients completed a survey to ascertain their perceptions of their training at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral levels, as well as during early career experiences. An understanding of gender differences in perceptions of training and careers would document ways in which women are disadvantaged in comparison with men, and would elucidate ways in which chemists and academic chemistry departments might respond to decrease gender disparities.
Despite considerable progress toward gender equity in the labor force over the last several decades, women continue to be in the minority at the highest levels across a range of fields (Valian 2000). The STEM fields are replete with examples of the problems faced by women; indeed, there are fewer and fewer women at each succeeding level of education, a gate-keeping pattern often described as a “leaky pipeline” (e.g., Kuck 2001). Even more problematic, for women who do enter the upper levels of the field, there is a perception of a hostile environment that leads to differential retention rates for women (Preston 2006). There has been frequent postulation that a lack of mentoring for women has contributed both to the leaky pipeline and to the hostile work environment (e.g., Rosser and Zieseniss 2000).
These patterns occur across STEM fields, and are observed at all levels of training and career development—from the early years of training (when individuals form their career expectations, interests, goals, and identities as scientists), through the later years as women and men evaluate their outcome expectations and may revise their career choices and behaviors. Indeed, recent data suggest that in chemistry and mathematics, women received approximately 50% of bachelor’s degrees in 2002, yet, in the same time period, received only 34 and 29% of the doctorates in chemistry and mathematics, respectively (National Science Foundation 2002). Furthermore, across all doctorate-granting institutions in the STEM fields for the years 1998–2002, the average doctoral attainment rate of women ranged from 68 to 94% of the rate of men (Kuck 2001).
The decrease in the number of women continues into employment sectors (e.g., NSF 2001). The disparity is greatest in the most elite positions, tenure-track professorships at the top 10 National Research Council (NRC)-ranked institutions. Both Long and Fox (1995) and Sharpe and Sonnert (1999) reported that women held disproportionately more of the lower-ranked and less prestigious tenure track positions than did men. This pattern of underemployment of women is demonstrated vividly by the low percentages of women who hold full-time faculty positions in engineering, mathematics, and the physical sciences (5.9, 11.7, and 11.4%, respectively) at Research I institutions (Long 2001; Long and Fox 1995). This lack of women directly translates into a lack of female mentors and role models.
What follows from this mentor-related pattern of gender differences in training environments is a perceptible disparity in the persistence of women and men in academic STEM positions. Thus, in the formative periods of education and career development, women and men may face different obstacles to success and may utilize different strategies to enable them to make career decisions. We anticipate that such obstacles will include mentoring-related difficulties among women more than men, a gender disparity that would be apparent in an investigation of women’s and men’s perceptions of training and careers.
The Case of Chemistry
Within the field of chemistry, there has been slow but consistent progress with respect to the percentages of women at the top ranked schools, but gate-keeping and environmental factors are clearly present. In 1994–1995, women held 6.6% of the full-time faculty positions at the top 50 federally funded chemistry departments (Brennan 1996). This increased to 10.7% in 2001 (Byrum 2001) and rose slightly to 12% in 2003 (Marasco 2003). It is important to note, however, that during the years 1979–2000, the elite departments in this group of chemistry Ph.D. programs, namely the top 10 ranked chemistry programs, awarded nearly double the percentage (approximately 21%) of their doctorates to women (Kuck et al. 2004). This group of graduates is the preferred applicant pool for faculty positions at these elite institutions (Kuck 2001). Thus, despite the anecdotal complaint that there are not enough qualified available women with doctorates, the field of chemistry is hiring well below the available pool of women. For example, one study showed that at the top 10 institutions, among the STEM fields of chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and materials science, chemistry was the only field in which the percentage of women at the assistant professor rank was below that of the percentage of available female doctoral graduates (Kuck 2001).
Although there is a large pool of women who could be recruited, it is crucial for faculty recruiting committees to be proactive in identifying, interviewing, and including women in the final selection lists. A recent report by the National Science and Technology Council (2000) documented that the number of non-Hispanic, White men who graduate from programs in STEM disciplines, including chemistry, will not be able to meet the future needs of these fields. It is important both to increase the numbers of White men and to recruit more women and ethnic minorities into these fields. The reasons for the underutilization of available women in chemistry, particularly when compared with other STEM fields, have received little empirical attention. There are, for example, no data on whether female chemists perceived that a lack of female mentors presented a barrier for their success in training and early careers.
Social Cognitive Career Theory
Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT; Lent et al. 1994) provides a framework within which to understand gender disparities in training and employment patterns in STEM fields. SCCT posits that career development is shaped by variables related to one’s self (person variables) and one’s environment (environmental variables). The three primary person variables are self-efficacy, one’s belief that one can succeed at a given task; outcome expectations, one’s belief about what will occur if one succeeds at said task; and goals, or one’s desire to achieve a given outcome. These variables interact with environmental variables, including gender, ethnicity, social supports, and barriers, to influence one’s career-related motivations, interests, decisions, and behaviors.
These environmental variables can be viewed as integral components of mentoring; specifically, gender and ethnicity affect the mentoring relationships that one is likely to forge, and the social supports to which SCCT refers are likely to include mentoring relationships as a central component. SCCT further suggests that environmental variables, such as mentoring, can directly shape person variables. For example, a lack of mentoring can decrease self-efficacy and negatively color one’s expectations of possible outcomes, and, conversely, good mentoring can increase self-efficacy and positively color outcome expectations. In support of the strong interplay among environmental factors, person variables, and eventual success, Lent et al. (1999) argue that actual outcomes are based on much more than one’s interests. It appears that person variables and environmental factors, then, are likely to cull women from scientific careers by erecting gate-keeping barriers that keep women out and strengthening environmental variables that drive women out. In the current study, we aim to assess mentoring experiences, in an attempt to understand how women and men perceive this particular environmental variable. Differential perceptions of mentoring across levels of training and career would suggest that women and men are likely receiving different inputs that directly affect their person variables, and thus, their career choices.
An important feature of SCCT is the emphasis on the perceptions, and not just the reality, of barriers. Albert and Luzzo (1999) go so far as to say that “even those barriers with no basis in reality can, and often do, have a direct impact on the career decision-making process of an individual” (p. 431). Brown and Lent (1996) note that having high levels of all three person variables (i.e., self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and goals) is not necessarily sufficient for a successful STEM career, particularly when individuals perceive overwhelming barriers, and thereby reduce their persistence and motivation to succeed. Several studies have examined gender differences in STEM fields in an SCCT context (e.g., Lent et al. 2001, 2003, 2005; Luzzo and McWhirter 2001; Nauta et al. 2002), and have appropriately cited this model as a possible explanation for the lack of women at the highest levels of STEM fields. In fact, relations between efficacy and career-building choices have been observed as far back as high school (Ochs and Roessler 2004; McWhirter 1997).
Such a model would view perceived barriers, including a lack of social support such as mentoring, as potential causal factors in lowering women’s self-efficacy. Decreased access to mentoring and advising throughout training—at undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral levels—and career development may also be directly linked to an ensuing decrease in career interest in STEM fields. And, conversely, better mentoring, which might be derived from strong advisor–advisee relationships, might decrease perceptions of barriers and increase the person variables of self-efficacy, outcome expectations, and goals. To our knowledge, however, no study has directly examined women’s and men’s perceptions of their mentoring experiences across a range of contexts. Documentation of differential perceptions of mentoring would provide important evidence for the environmental aspects of the SCCT model.
Experience of Training
It is clear from previous research that the environmental variable of mentoring is an important ingredient in success in training. For example, research across a range of fields (e.g., Jacobi 1991; Thile and Matt 1995) has documented the powerful role that faculty mentors play in undergraduate students’ development; outcomes have ranged from increased retention of students to improvement of academic performance. There are fewer studies of mentoring at the graduate level, but the results of these studies suggest the likelihood that mentoring also plays an essential role throughout one’s academic career. In fact, Preston (2004) has shown that mentoring appears to lead, among female scientists, to a greater likelihood of completing graduate school and of successfully attaining employment, whereas her studies suggest that mentoring does not seem to have the same beneficial effect for male scientists, whose success rates are similar regardless of the presence of a strong mentor.
Some researchers, across a range of disciplines and levels of training, have examined specifically the role of female mentors for women, with several researchers commenting on problems with cross-gender mentoring relationships (e.g., Gumbiner 1998; Jacobi 1991; Schlegel 2000). Moreover, Gilbert and Rossman (1992) described three ways in which mentors might help female students. They suggested that female students benefit specifically from exposure to new models for careers, feelings of acceptance and empowerment, and sponsorship by a mentor (i.e., introduction into the social systems of the academy).
Any gender differences in students’ perceptions may be due to differences in the mentoring styles of female and male faculty members (Fox 2003). For example, female faculty members are more likely than male faculty members to emphasize participation in laboratory meetings, frequent interaction with faculty, and acquisition of a broad range of skills, and they set higher standards for female students in seminar presentations. It would follow then, that if women benefit from having a female mentor, the lack of available female mentors might be particularly detrimental for them.
There are several reasons specific to STEM fields, therefore, why women may be at a disadvantage compared to men with respect to mentoring. Sharpe and Sonnert (1999) reported the absence of a “critical mass” of senior women available to mentor female junior faculty members and graduate students, which may leave many women without a necessary support system (e.g., Riordan et al. 1999). Preston (2004) found that, despite the particular benefits of mentoring for women, women were less likely than men to have reported having a “strong” mentoring relationship in graduate school. In addition, women without mentors find it more difficult to make contacts with the recognized authorities in their fields and do not have critical advocates to push for their promotion, tenure, and nomination for awards (Farley 1990). Recent data on the top 50 NRC-ranked chemistry departments noted that, on average, there are four female faculty members out of an average of 33 faculty members per department; 12 departments have 2 or fewer female faculty (Marasco 2003). This trend appears to be continuing, rather than improving (Kuck et al. 2007). Despite the documented importance of mentoring, particularly for female students and particularly by female mentors, research has not documented whether women and men perceive their mentoring experiences differently. The perception of barriers, such as problems with mentoring, is the link by which SCCT posits that person variables would be affected in ways that might affect career decisions and career outcomes.
The Current Study
In line with the need to understand perceptions of barriers, the aim of our study was to elucidate differential patterns in female and male doctoral recipients’ perceptions of training environments and subsequent careers, particularly as they relate to mentoring experiences. Our motivation was to understand why there are smaller proportions of women at each ascending level of academia. Much of the research on the gender disparity in chemistry has been based on anecdotal evidence or on studies drawn from small samples. Although these small studies are important in highlighting areas in which women have fallen short of men, and in identifying factors that may impede the progress of women in chemistry, they cannot be used to elucidate perceptions of specific environmental variables—particularly mentoring-related variables—that may mediate the performance of women in general.
As described above, SCCT provides a framework for the questions we asked our respondents and for our hypotheses about the patterns of responses. Specifically, we queried respondents to assess their retrospective perceptions of the environmental variable of social support, particularly with respect to the mentoring inherent in the advisor-advisee relationship. For example, we asked graduates questions related to how much interest advisors took in aspects of their training, how much help advisors gave with respect to careers, and how respondents would qualify the quality of the overall relationship with advisors. Other areas of social support were assessed as well, including the presence of support groups and the respondents’ reliance on other people including peers and faculty. It is important to examine the perceptions of women and men in order to ascertain how training and career development are different, whether in reality or in perception, for women and men. Such data might lead to change at individual, social-relational, and policy levels, and, therefore, assist in the move toward gender equity.
Although there are numerous archival studies that outline gender disparities in employment inside and outside of academia (e.g., American Chemical Society 2000a, b; Kuck et al. 2004, 2007; Tullo 2006), we chose to use survey methodology because, to our knowledge, there are no direct examinations of the perceptions of graduates themselves regarding career preparation in chemistry and the effects of these perceptions on subsequent training and career decisions. Further, we targeted both women and men to allow for a comparison of experiences, rather than just a description of the perspectives of women.
We focused our questionnaire specifically on graduates from the most elite institutions because of the preponderance of these graduates in the most elite academic employment positions. For example, since 1979, 60% of the hires at the top 50 ranked schools earned their doctorate at a top 10 school (Kuck et al. 2004). Moreover, 91% of women and 75% of men on chemistry faculties at the top 10 institutions received their doctorates from these elite schools. Based on these data, one would expect that graduates from elite institutions—both men and women—would have the best opportunities to obtain prestigious employment positions. Thus, any gender differences among this group in career attainment should be attenuated, relative to other applicant pools.
It is important to remember that, in line with SCCT, career attainment is often affected by career perceptions, including perceptions of barriers and expectations of particular outcomes. Findings suggest that female scientists are less likely than are male scientists to choose positions at top research universities (e.g., Schneider 2000), perhaps because of perceived barriers. For this reason, it is quite valuable to study the environment variables that might interplay with person variables in order to determine reasons that women might make different choices from men, particularly given that a prestigious graduate education ostensibly provides access to the most prestigious employment positions. Fox and Stephan (2001), for example, studied 3,800 doctoral students in STEM fields and found that subjective views about what opportunities actually are available—outcome expectations that are based in part on person variables such as gender and in part on environment variables such as mentoring—can affect career decision-making. With this study, we intended to examine those subjective perceptions to better understand gender differences in career outcomes of top chemistry graduates.
Mentoring at the undergraduate level: We hypothesized that men would be more likely than women to report the kinds of mentoring that ameliorate students’ progression to graduate school, including help obtaining research experiences and choosing a graduate school.
Mentoring at the graduate level—dissertation advisors: We hypothesized that men would be more likely than women to report positive experiences with their dissertation advisors, as assessed by a range of criteria: satisfaction with the advisor selection process, whether they changed advisors, how frequently they met with advisors, how helpful advisors were, how positive their relationships with advisors were, and whether advisors helped them identify their post-doctoral advisors or first employment positions.
Mentoring at the graduate level—other sources: We hypothesized that men would be more likely than women to report receiving mentoring from individuals other than their dissertation advisors, as assessed by others’ help in choosing an advisor.
Mentoring at the post-doctoral level: We hypothesized that men would report higher ratings than women with respect to their post-doctoral advisors’ interest in them, and with respect to general mentoring experiences and interactions. We also hypothesized that men would be more likely to report that post-doctoral advisors helped them find their first employment positions.
Mentoring related to employment: We hypothesized that men would have higher ratings than women with respect to mentoring-related employment experiences, including their perceptions of gaining the respect and support of colleagues and managers or department chairs, of having mentors, and of having access to helpful information.
The presence of a female mentor: We hypothesized that women with female mentors would have better outcomes than women with male mentors in terms of successful progression to a post-doctoral fellowship and desired employment position, and in terms of employment criteria such as salary raises, increased financial and non-financial research support, and additional monies for instruments.
Demographic variables by gender (counts followed by percentages—for those of a given gender who responded to that question—in parentheses).
Women (n = 135)
Men (n = 315)
One or more
Percentage of time spent doing childcare***
Other North America
Group 1 (about the same percentages of women and men completing grad school)
Group 2 (women completing grad school at somewhat lower rates than men)
Group 3 (women completing grad school at much lower rates than men)
Targeted participants included all women and men who received a Ph.D. between the years 1988 and 1992 from one of the top 10 ranked chemistry programs, as identified by the NRC. Participants also included graduates in the same 5-year period from a large, public, Midwestern university (Purdue University) that is not ranked as a top 10 school, but is ranked as the 11th “supplier” of doctoral graduates who seek and attain academic employment at a top 50 school (Kuck et al. 2004). The inclusion of Purdue in the pool evened the distribution of the number of doctorates earned at private and public universities. The top 10 universities included, in rank order: University of California, Berkeley; California Institute of Technology; Harvard University; Stanford University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Cornell University; Columbia University; University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, University of Wisconsin–Madison; University of Chicago. All contacted universities agreed to participate.
The particular 5-year range utilized in the present study was chosen because graduates in this cohort would have had ample time by 2003 to complete post-doctoral training, embark on a career, and become familiar with the demands and expectations associated with their first employment positions. We also anticipated that individuals in this cohort would have begun to evaluate whether their training had appropriately prepared them for their current employment.
Materials and Procedure
In 2002, a letter from the president of the American Chemical Society (ACS) was sent to a faculty member, departmental chair, or college dean at each participating institution. The letter outlined the study as an investigation of the training and career development of chemists, assured the participating university’s anonymity with respect to specific findings, and documented the receipt of Institutional Review Board approval by the authors’ university. Moreover, the letter stated that the study had the full support of the ACS. Institutions were invited to mail a questionnaire and letter of solicitation directly to their graduates from the selected time frame (1988–1992) in pre-stamped, pre-sealed envelopes, or to release the mailing addresses of this select group of alumni to the investigators of this study who would do the mailing themselves. Regardless of whether the institutions or the investigators sent the questionnaires and letters of solicitation, these packets of materials were identical; potential participants would have no way of knowing whether packets were sent by their alumni institution or the investigators.
In these packets, sent in 2003, letters from the ACS president, similar to those sent to the faculty members, chairs and deans, were included. They described the study as above, indicated that the participant’s name was received from her/his institution, promised anonymity of survey responses, avowed ACS’s support of the study, and encouraged participation. Reminder postcards were sent to all chemistry graduate participants 1 and 2 months after the initial mailing of the questionnaires. Participants returned the questionnaires in pre-stamped envelopes to the ACS. The ACS subsequently mailed the completed questionnaires to the investigators, thus assuring the anonymity of participants.
Questionnaires were mailed to 1,932 doctoral graduates in 2003. Two hundred eighty-three questionnaires were returned unopened by the post office. Of the remaining 1,649 questionnaires, 455 were completed for a 27.6% response rate. However, analysis revealed that the response rate is more likely to be 32.1% because of a problem in the distribution of the questionnaires. We initially divided the institutions into three groups. Group 1 (response rate of 33.3%) included schools with nearly equal Ph.D.-attainment rates for men and women. Group 2 (response rate of 27.0%) included schools with somewhat lower rates for women than for men. Group 3 (response rate of only 10.98%) included those schools with a much lower rate for women than for men; the low response rate led us to question whether all schools in Group 3 participated. For two of these schools we sent surveys directly to graduates, whereas the third school said they sent the surveys themselves (after repeated reminders). It is possible that the surveys from this school were not sent; without this school, the response rate for Group 3 was 29.4%, in line with the other two groups, and the recalculated overall response rate was 32.1%.
The measure employed in the study was a four-page questionnaire that we developed in consultation with numerous chemists in academia and industry; items were carefully tailored to match the experiences of these highly qualified female and male chemists. We also consulted with the Survey Subcommittee of the ACS Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs during the development of the questionnaire; they have successfully used questions with similar content and in a similar format for previous research in assessing the training and careers of chemists. In line with SCCT, items assessed participants’ perceptions of the environment variables related to social support, and in particular, to mentoring. We asked participants to evaluate their undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral, and career experiences, including the support of mentors in influencing their career choices. The questionnaire items addressed here focused on issues related to social support, particularly mentoring; however, these items were part of a larger, more general study on education and career trajectories of chemists.
Most questionnaire items involved closed-ended choices; often participants were asked to rank their experiences relative to others in their peer group. With one exception, a scale of 1 to 7 was used such that 1 corresponded to the lowest ranking (e.g., “little,” “minor,” or “worse than”), 4 corresponded to a medium ranking (e.g., “neutral,” “same as,” or “neither worse than nor better than”), and 7 corresponded to the highest ranking (e.g., “a lot,” “better than,” or “major”). There also were several open-ended questions that invited participants to provide additional comments where appropriate.
As an example of a survey question about environment variables, participants were asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 7, the interest their post-doctoral advisors showed in a range of variables, including the post-doc’s research findings and employment search. With respect to graduate school, participants rated, on a scale of 1 to 7, the amount of help/support they received from dissertation advisors in a range of areas, including learning the necessary lab techniques, overcoming research difficulties, and developing career goals. Another question asked participants to evaluate their situations relative to others in their graduate school research group (e.g., their interactions with their dissertation professors). (The questionnaire is lengthy which precludes its publication with this report. Please contact the first author if you wish to receive a copy of the questionnaire.)
Undergraduate research assistants who were blind to the research hypotheses entered data from the questionnaires and coded the responses to the open-ended questions. Research assistants utilized a coding scheme developed by the investigators after examination of the variability in participants’ responses. Reliability coefficients of this post-hoc coding scheme were calculated between principal coders (the investigators) and these carefully trained research assistants. Inter-rater reliability between the principal coders and research assistants was greater than .85 for all items.
Representativeness of the Sample
Because several institutions chose to mail questionnaires directly to their alumni, we do not have demographic information on our targeted sample. However, we examined the representativeness of our sample by comparing aspects of our results with data from the ACS Early Careers of Chemists survey (2002), a dataset that included demographic variables of ACS members. We expected percentages in our dataset to be comparable to those reported in existing data sets, a finding that would support the validity of our overall results. We were able to examine data for graduates who received Ph.D.s from 1988 to 1992, the years targeted by our study. In support of the representativeness of our sample, 70.2% of participants in the ACS survey were men, whereas 29.8% were women, almost exactly the same as the 70 and 30% rates of men and women, respectively, in our study. Thus, neither male nor female graduates appeared to be more likely to respond to our questionnaire or to the ACS questionnaire.
We also were able to compare data on marital status. In the ACS study, 86.5% of men and 74.4% of women were currently married. In our study, there were similar percentages, and a similar gender difference: 80.3% of men and 75.4% of women were married. In the ACS study, 72% of men had children, whereas 58% of women had children. In our study, these percentages were higher for both genders: 80.4% of men and 72% of women had children. However, our representativeness is bolstered by the fact that, in both cases, the direction of the gender difference is the same. Although the ACS questionnaire was general, rather than focused on gender, there was one question that asked whether participants had ever experienced discrimination based on gender. In agreement with the gender differences that were found in this study, 3.5% of men and 45.9% of women reported such discrimination, which further enhances the likely external validity of our findings.
The remainder of the results is organized by hypothesis.
Mentoring-Related Gender Differences in Training
Mentoring at the Undergraduate Level
We hypothesized that men would be more likely than women to report the kinds of mentoring that facilitate students’ progression to graduate school. To this end, our first set of analyses indeed revealed significant differences in the proportions of men and women with respect to their responses to the question: “Who helped you obtain (your undergraduate research) experience?” [χ2(4, N = 438) = 12.51, p < .05, Cramer’s ϕ = .17], a small-to-medium effect by Cohen’s criteria. A higher percentage of male (62.1%) than female (53.8%) respondents reported receiving help from a professor. Women (18.2%), on the other hand, were significantly more likely than men (9.5%) to report having learned about research experiences as part of their academic program or through a placement office; women (7.6%) also were more likely than men (2.9%) to learn about a research experience through an individual other than a faculty member (e.g., peer, teaching assistant, family member). There were similar proportions of women and men who did not respond (male, 18.0%; female, 13.6%) and who said “myself” or no one (male, 7.5%; female, 6.8%). This finding is an indication that men might be receiving mentoring more readily within their departments.
Second, we found a gender difference in response to the question: “At your undergraduate institution, who helped you the most in choosing a graduate school?” [χ2(3, N = 438) = 8.70, p < .05, Cramer’s ϕ = .14], a small effect. We found that men (83.3%) were more likely than women (71.2%) to report that a professor had helped them to choose a graduate school. In addition, the second most common response to this item (either “myself” or “no one”) was reported more frequently by women (15.2%) than by men (7.8%). Interestingly, in line with research that suggests that women receive better mentoring from women, when we asked participants to provide the gender of the person who helped them to choose a graduate school, women (13.5%) were more likely than men (4.6%) to report having received help from a woman, χ2(1) = 9.54, p < .01, Cramer’s ϕ = .16, a small to medium effect.
Mentoring at the Graduate Level—Dissertation Advisors
As hypothesized, men tended to report more positive experiences with their dissertation advisors than women did, although not on all assessed criteria. First, a higher percentage of women (35.1%) than men (23.9%) responded yes to the question: “In retrospect, should you have used different criteria in selecting your dissertation professor?” [χ2(1) = 5.93, p < .05, Cramer’s ϕ = .12], a small effect, but a possible indication of less satisfaction with their graduate mentoring situation. Similarly, a higher percentage of women (14.2%) than men (7.7%) responded yes to the question: “Did you switch dissertation professors during graduate school?” [χ2(1) = 4.58, p < .05, Cramer’s ϕ = .10], again a small effect, but further evidence of women’s greater dissatisfaction with the mentoring that they received.
Means and standard deviations for men’s and women’s ratings for the question: rate how much help/support your dissertation professor gave you.
In ensuring that you:
Learned the necessary laboratory techniques
Knew how to do Independent research**
Could properly evaluate data*
Had access to the proper equipment**
Clearly understood your thesis requirements
Knew your research goals*
Knew how to overcome research difficulties**
Understood the teaching/research balance**
Worked on a project that would have impact***
Supportive of your career goals*
Knowing your personal motivators**
In obtaining a job*
Means and standard deviations for responses to the question: relative to other graduate students in your research group, rate the following items.
Your interactions with your dissertation professor**
Your interactions with the post-docs in your research group
Your interactions with other graduate students in your research group
The appropriateness of the criteria used in choosing a dissertation professor*
The interest your dissertation professor had in your research project***
The potential value or impact of your thesis research
The complexity of the experimental aspects of your research
The complexity of the theoretical aspects of your research
Finally, significantly more men (78.6%) than women (63.4%) responded “Yes” to the question: “Did you seek the advice of your dissertation professor in choosing a post-doc advisor?” [χ2(1) = 6.84, p < .01, Cramer’s ϕ = .16], a small to medium effect. Moreover, of those who received help from their dissertation advisors, men (M = 4.07, SD = 1.10) reported higher average ratings than women did (M = 3.77, SD = 1.34), on a scale of 1–5, in response to the question: “[If yes,] how helpful was your dissertation professor in your efforts to obtain the post-doc position that you wanted?” [t(267) = 1.97, p < .05, R2 = .01], a small effect. Similarly, we asked participants: “How did you find your first [employment] position? (Check all that apply).” One possible response was Dissertation Professor. Significantly more men (9.2%) than women (3.7%) reported that their dissertation advisors assisted them in finding their first positions, χ2(1) = 4.10, p < .05, Cramer’s=0.10, a small effect.
Mentoring at the Graduate Level—Other Sources
Means and standard deviations for ratings for the question: rate how helpful the following individuals were in identifying criteria for you to use in selecting a dissertation advisor.
Experienced graduate students
Student organizations (if in existence)
Administration (e.g., Dept. Chair, Dir. Of Grad. Studies)**
Other graduate school faculty*
Mentoring at the Post-Doctoral Level
Means and standard deviations for responses to the question: rate how much interest your post-doctoral advisor showed in.
Teaching you new skills/lab techniques
Advising you about your research efforts
Being available to discuss your career goals
Your research findings**
Listening to your research ideas*
Helping you find employment
Being supportive of your career aspirations
Helping you to get publications*
Means and standard deviations for responses to the question: relative to other individuals at your institution holding a post-doc position, characterize.
Interaction with advisor
Interaction with other post-docs in group
Interactions with grad students in group
Appropriateness of criteria used to select advisor
Interest of advisor in your project
Difficulty of your experimental research
Number of publication opportunities
Number of grant writing opportunities
Finally, as noted previously, participants were asked “How did you find your first position? (Check all that apply).” One possible response was post-doc advisor. There was no significant difference in reports that post-doctoral advisors helped participants to find a first job (8.4% overall reported that their post-doctoral advisors provided help; p > .05). Note: We were unable to assess the two possible sources of assistance, Dissertation Professor and Post-doc Advisor, in one chi-square analysis because six participants (all male) indicated that they received help from both their dissertation advisors and their post-doctoral advisors. This small number meant that two of the six cells had expected counts less than 5; thus, we did not meet the assumptions to conduct a single chi-square analysis on both types of advisors.
Mentoring Related to Employment
We hypothesized that men would give higher average ratings to mentoring-related experiences within their first employment positions. We asked participants: “For the following items, compare your experience to that of other individuals with similar backgrounds at your first place of employment.” The possible responses included the following items related to formal and informal mentoring: gaining the respect of colleagues, gaining the support of colleagues, gaining the support of managers/dept. chair, having mentors, and accessibility to helpful information. A MANOVA with these items as dependent variables did not indicate significant overall gender differences, F(5, 399) = 1.05, p > .10, R2 = .01, a small effect.
The Presence of a Female Mentor
Finally, we hypothesized that women would have better outcomes on a range of variables if they had female mentors than if they had male mentors. If the presence of a strong mentor is necessary for professional success, and if women, on average, are receiving less mentoring from male advisors than are men, we would expect that outcome variables, such as salary raises, increased financial and non-financial research support, and additional monies for instruments would be better for women with female advisors than for women with male advisors. To examine this possibility, we had planned to compare women who had had female advisors with women who had had male advisors. We did not plan to include men with female advisors, due to the expected paucity of such pairs, nor did we plan to include men with male advisors because of the likely presence of numerous confounding variables.
However, because very few of the 135 women who responded to our questionnaire had female advisors, far fewer than expected, we were not able to conduct these analyses. Only 11% of women reported having had a female advisor as an undergraduate student, 7% as a graduate student, and 7% as a post-doctoral fellow. Only 4% of men reported having had a female advisor as an undergraduate, 3% as a graduate student, and 3% as a post-doctoral fellow. Moreover, for the most part, these were different people who had female advisors at different levels. No man or woman had a female advisor at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral levels, whereas 45% of men and 34% of women had a male advisor at all three levels. No man had a female advisor for both graduate and post-doctoral levels, and only one woman had both a female graduate advisor and a female post-doctoral advisor.
Several patterns emerged in our data that suggested that women perceived more barriers related to a lack of social support and mentoring than men did. First, our hypothesis that men would be more likely than women to report mentoring at the undergraduate level was supported. Specifically, men were more likely than women to report having learned about research experiences from a professor, whereas women were more likely than men to report learning about research experiences through other avenues. In addition, men were more likely than women to report having received help from an undergraduate professor when choosing a graduate school. Conversely, women were more likely than men to report relying on themselves or on “no one” to make their choices.
Second, we found support for our hypothesis that men would report more positive graduate school experiences than women with respect to their dissertation advisors. Women were more likely than men to say that they wished they had considered different criteria in selecting their advisors and to say that they actually had changed advisors. Women also reported having received less mentoring from their advisors than men did. For example, men gave higher average ratings than women to interactions with their dissertation advisors and to the interest their dissertation advisor showed in them. Moreover, men reported having received more help than women, on average, in ten out of twelve of areas assessed on the survey, including conducting independent research, properly evaluating data, having access to the proper equipment, formulating research goals, overcoming research difficulties, understanding the teaching/research balance, and working on an important project. Men also gave higher average ratings than women to their advisor’s supportiveness of their career goals, knowledge of their personal motivators, and help in obtaining a job, three areas that likely involve a more personal connection with one’s mentor. Similarly, men were more likely than women to say that their dissertation advisors helped them choose their post-doctoral advisors and find their first employment positions.
Although there were not statistically significant gender differences on all variables assessed in the survey, including the frequency of meeting with their advisors, overwhelmingly, men reported better relationships with their graduate dissertation advisors than women did. Importantly, these experiences included both more concrete learning experiences such as knowing how to formulate research goals, as well as more abstract areas such as understanding the teaching/research balance. Such experiences and concepts are of great import for individuals who wish to pursue a successful academic career in chemistry.
Moreover, the gender difference with respect to participants’ dissertation advisors helping them identify post-doctoral advisors and employment positions is potentially an obstacle with far-reaching consequences for women. Although upon first consideration, the decreased amount of help in finding a post-doctoral advisor might not seem as important as the decreased amount of help in finding employment, because of the large impact of the post-doctoral decision on career outcome, their decreased likelihood of having received this advice puts women at a distinct disadvantage. According to the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2001), “The decision about whether to undertake a post-doctoral appointment is seldom easy and should involve consultation with one’s advisor and as many mentors or other experienced contacts as possible” (p. 21). Women clearly are at a disadvantage compared to men if they are less likely to receive such advice.
Third, we found support for our hypothesis that men are more likely than women to report receiving mentoring from those other than their dissertation advisors. Specifically, when choosing the all-important dissertation advisor, men reported having received more help than women did from research and work supervisors, and their institution’s administration, faculty members, and post-doctoral fellows. Although the amount of help that participants reported having received from these sources was generally low, regardless of participants’ gender, this finding might mean that male students who do need extra help are more likely than are female students to perceive that it is available.
Fourth, our hypothesis that men would report better post-doctoral mentoring experiences than women was supported. Men gave higher average ratings than women to their interactions with their advisors. In line with this, men reported, on average, more advisor interest than women did in their research findings, research ideas, and publication opportunities. In addition, men were more likely than women to report that their post-doctoral advisors had helped them find a job. Although there were not significant differences on all assessed variables (e.g., in ratings of the post-doctoral advisors’ assistance in finding employment), it does seem that, as in earlier stages of training, men reported preferential treatment in mentoring at the post-doctoral level.
Fifth, we had hypothesized that men would report better mentoring than women in their initial employment positions. We did not, however, receive support for this hypothesis. It is interesting that findings at the level of first employment did not coincide with findings throughout training; however, it is conceivable that neither women nor men rely heavily on mentoring once in their careers. Data suggest high rates of flight from the field of chemistry among both women and men with doctoral degrees (e.g., Preston 2004). The fact that there is no statistically significant gender difference in mentoring that favors men at this level, is not an indication that both women and men are both receiving strong mentoring. Rather, it is possible that both women and men are receiving very little mentoring. We would venture that there is great room for improvement in mentoring of both men and women early in their careers.
Many of the above findings are consistent with our SCCT-driven hypotheses. Given that women have poorer career outcomes than men within the field of chemistry, we expected that women would be more likely than men to perceive the existence of mentoring-related barriers. The perception of such obstacles might diminish women’s self-efficacy and outcome expectations, leading women to make different career decisions than they might have otherwise (e.g., Lent et al. 1994). Overall, our data are in line with the SCCT model, in that women are less likely than men to report having received strong mentoring across all levels of training, likely because, at least in part, there are fewer female faculty members available to mentor them. We reported, for example, that women were less likely than men to have undergraduate professors help them in choosing a graduate school; yet, women who did receive help were more likely to receive help from a woman than a man who did receive help. Perhaps the gender disparity in having received help at all would diminish were there more female mentors available. Because advisors at all levels of training hold enormous power in one’s preparation for future training and employment, as well as in the attainment of prestigious training and employment posts, any disruption or disadvantage in such relationships can markedly shape, and even attenuate, one’s career prospects. Moreover, disadvantages in such relationships can affect the person variables of the SCCT model, such as self-efficacy (Lent et al. 1999), further compounding the detriments of this barrier.
It is important to note that most of the statistically significant gender differences observed in our study are small to medium effects according to Cohen’s statistical conventions. Thus, although the differences are statistically significant and, therefore, likely to exist beyond chance, they tend not to be large in size, and may not be readily observable in these graduates’ training environments. The fact that many of women’s disadvantages are “small” or “medium” and often cannot be perceived readily may account for the fact that many deny the existence of such differences and even decry the implementation of institutional change as unnecessary. But even small differences accumulate and can have a large negative impact on one’s long-term career, particularly because such perceived differences exist on so many levels, and across a range of training and employment settings. Valian (2000) described the sociological theory of the “accumulation of advantage and disadvantage” (e.g., Cole and Singer 1991) which, as she explained, “suggests that, like interest on capital, advantages accrue, and that, like interest on debt, disadvantages also accumulate” (p. 3). Valian has cited myriad empirical findings highlighting the career damage done by a series of small slights to women. Her convincing evidence supports the need for elimination of even the smallest differences in favor of men, because, as she succinctly stated, “mountains are molehills, piled one on top of the other” (italics in the original; pp. 4–5).
One limitation of the current research is the low response rate. However, our response rate does appear to be in line with those of related research. The ACS (2002) surveyed members under the age of 40, and reported a response rate of 44% of a targeted sample of 10,000 individuals; this is the largest recent response rate for such a study. Although our response rate is lower than theirs, there are data from other samples that suggest that we have an adequate response rate. For example, in a study comparing response rates to a mailed survey versus an emailed survey, the mailed survey led to a significantly higher response rate (31.5%) than an emailed survey (20.7%; Kaplowitz et al. 2004). In this same study, emailed surveys combined with reminder postcards in different combinations led to response rates of 29.7 (not significantly different from mailed surveys), 28.6, and 25.4% (both significantly lower than the response rates for mailed surveys). All of these response rates were similar or lower than that in the current study. In addition, surveys of clinicians typically obtain response rates around 25% (Blashfield and McElroy 1989). Moreover, Blashfield and McElroy compared data from two samples, one that was offered no incentive for participation (15% response rate) and one that was offered $100 for participation (67% response rate). Although one might surmise that the latter group would provide more valid data, the authors reported no differences on a number of important variables, and concluded that there is a scant evidence for a meaningful self-selection bias in such research.
On the other hand, it is possible that those who responded are those who felt most strongly about the issues we were targeting. However, the fact that our gender breakdown mirrors that of the target population suggests that women, a group that we would expect would feel strongly about many of these issues, were not more likely to respond than men were. It also is possible that those who are least happy with the field of chemistry are more likely to participate, a phenomenon that, if true, might lead to more negative responses across the questionnaire. Clearly, a higher response rate would provide more valid data. Future researchers might include the option of completing the questionnaire online to make participation easier and thus to increase response rates; however, more empirical work is needed to determine if online questionnaires will have this effect.
The examination of perceptions is both a limitation and a strength of our study. Although we could not ascertain to what degree women actually have received less advice than men in various areas, it is very important to examine perceptions as they often dictate identity-formation and the decision-making that is based on one’s identity and level of self-efficacy. Moreover, choices frequently are based on one’s perceptions about factors such as available support, possible opportunities, and likelihood of success. For example, a woman who does not feel welcome in a research group might choose not to interact with that group; this might limit her opportunities. A woman who feels unprepared or unqualified might not choose to apply for a particular job, or might choose to leave the field of chemistry. Thus, perceptions not only reflect beliefs about appropriate roles and behaviors, but also can shape motivation for and proclivity to make certain training, networking, and employment decisions. This very tenet is a key component of SCCT theory (Lent et al. 2003, 2005).
In a similar vein, our analysis of participants’ retrospective reports and perceptions of earlier training experiences could be seen by some as a limitation. The concern stems from the belief that any report of the past is to some degree influenced by current beliefs, perceptions, and context. Although this is no doubt true to a certain extent, the introduction of subjectivity does not necessarily invalidate participant reports. Any misgivings about a measure of career development are far outweighed by the value of surveying participants’ reflections on their experiences. A survey of experiences can shed light on how the meaning of person variables, as identified by SCCT models, is shaped by the larger, contextual factors that surround individuals. Such factors inform us about the effects of historical, social, and professional/cultural variables on the evolution of career identities. Thus, in our study we were concerned not only with veridical accounts of the past but also with perceived contextual factors that served to shape participants’ professional careers in chemistry. Reports on the numbers of employment positions to which participants applied, the gender of mentors, or the number of hours one met with advisors about the job-search process are all examples of somewhat objective measures of successful advising relationships, but such operational definitions do not lend insight into the motivations and perceived barriers that were involved in participants’ search for and receipt of support. To this end, we viewed individual perceptions as an integral part of participants’ “meaning-making” process.
These findings have important implications for both individuals and institutions. On the individual level, it is imperative that female trainees become aware of the ways in which they might be excluded. Such awareness might encourage women to be more active in seeking support groups, and getting involved in interactive activities, both of which might maintain women’s self-efficacy and outcome expectations in the face of mentoring-related barriers. Such steps might also serve to build support communities beyond formal mentoring relationships. Moreover, with respect to student perceptions, building awareness of the perspective among female graduate students that they are excluded might lead female and male faculty members to be more active in including women in post-doctoral and career-related guidance, as well as in formal and informal departmental networks.
Of equal, if not greater, importance is the task of challenging students and faculty to recognize that discrepancies may exist between female students’ perceptions of training and those of their mentors, who are predominantly men. This incongruity may be of the utmost importance to women because the mentoring relationships they experience not only present the opportunity to glean knowledge about science from experts, but also serve as prototypes for skills in communication and collaboration. Women who are dissatisfied with their mentoring relationships cannot learn effectively about, put into practice, and receive appropriate feedback on the skill sets necessary for their professional development. As mastery experiences are an important part of self-efficacy (Lent et al. 1994), a decrease in such experiences can limit perceived and actual career opportunities, and can have profound effects on attributions regarding subsequent successes and/or failures. Such issues can hinder or suppress the developmental trajectories of young scientists in the formative years of their training and skill-acquisition.
At the institutional level, departmental and university-wide awareness of such gendered patterns in perceptions might lead to more formal mentoring and advising programs at all levels. For instance, universities might develop formal support groups for women or for both women and men. Such support might take the form of senior-junior partnerships, career workshops for graduate student and post-doctoral fellows, research and writing forums, incentives for collaborative initiatives and grant proposals, and networks for external contacts in the field. Institutions also might implement more active “marketing” of strong female candidates to the administrative leaders and decision-making committees at the best post-doctoral and employment positions. If such recruitment is successful, these candidates would become available to serve as role models for the next generation of rising scientists—both female and male—who emerge from their training programs.
Future researchers would do well to examine not only the perceptions of mentoring experiences and other aspects of social support made available to rising STEM scientists, but also the mechanisms by which these experiences may directly or indirectly hinder women from passing the “gate-keepers” of employment success. For example, if female chemists are subject to negative climates engendered by the lack of social support, they may choose to leave their careers in pursuit of more welcoming environments. Although our data suggest that these effects may work through an active process (rather than merely being the result of women’s defensive interpretation of social stereotypes), little work has explored relations between mentoring processes and other forms of social support (e.g., peer networks).
Future work should also examine the outcome of the implementation of measures like those outlined above, both through comparisons of institutions and departments that have and have not developed such informal or formal programs, and through experimental studies in which female graduate students are assigned randomly to different types of support programs. In addition, we are in the process of expanding our own research to other STEM fields, including chemical engineering, electrical engineering, mathematics, and physics. An understanding of how gendered patterns of perception differ across other STEM fields might illuminate techniques that lead to gender equity. For example, we might gain a better understanding of why, among these fields, only chemistry is hiring below the available pool of qualified women, why a lower proportion of women than men who receive doctoral degrees is applying for academic positions at doctoral institutions (Marzabadi et al. 2005), and why a higher proportion of women than men is leaving science (Preston 2006).
In summary, our investigation of the perceptions and experiences of male and female graduate students at top chemistry Ph.D. programs revealed patterns in which women felt less included and less aptly advised than men did across all levels of training—undergraduate, graduate, and post-doctoral, but not to a statistically significant degree at the level of first employment position. The current findings exemplify the processes theorized by SCCT to guide career decision-making. Moreover, these results suggest several areas that are ripe for intervention by individuals and institutions. Despite oft-cited beliefs that women have achieved equity, it is clear that important, deeply-entrenched gaps remain and that interventions are necessary to move toward elimination of the disparity between female and male chemical scientists. It seems clear from SCCT that interventions that decrease barriers and increase self-efficacy play a central role in career success and further enable women, as well as men, to act in line with their career goals (Lent et al. 1999). Without interventions to catalyze transformation, discrepant experiences and self-attitudes will remain an unfortunate aspect of women’s and men’s careers as chemists and as scientists in STEM fields more generally.
This work was supported primarily by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation Special Grant Program in the Chemical Sciences (SG-02-072). We also are grateful for the financial assistance of the Rohm & Haas Company and the financial and other assistance of the Survey Subcommittee of the ACS Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs. In particular, we would like to acknowledge Eli Pierce, past-President of the ACS, for his support of our study in the form of letters to the participating institutions and doctoral graduates, and Christine Pruitt, Assistant to the ACS President, for her efforts in facilitating the participation of the ACS in this study. We also thank our university, as well as the 11 participating universities, particularly their faculty members, department chairs, deans of science, alumni offices, and doctoral graduates in chemistry who assisted us in this study. Finally, we are most grateful for the thoughtful comments from colleagues with respect to our questionnaire, and for the conscientious work of our many research assistants: Samuel Adjei, Prunella Booker, Tamoya Buckley, CelyMarie Cabezas, Krystal Cooper, Anisha Hume, Maribel Munoz, Elizabeth Przybylinski, Niva Rao, Anthony Ritacco, Daniel Spezzacatena, Julianna Vroman, and Elizabeth Winberry.