Gender imbalance remains among US business doctorates

The number of women at every level of higher education in the US has been rising for decades. Last year, for the first time ever, women earned more doctoral degrees than men − but the number of women who achieved the distinction in business still lagged far behind.

According to figures from the Council of Graduate Schools, women claimed 50.4 per cent of PhDs awarded in the 2008-09 academic year, overtaking men by only a small margin. The rise is striking, however, considering women earned just 44 per cent of doctoral degrees in 2000. (Figures for the 2009-10 academic year will be released in September, and I will report on them then.)

However, the percentage of women earning doctorates varied dramatically across disciplines. More than 60 per cent of PhD recipients in public administration, health sciences, social sciences and education were female, yet women comprised less than 30 per cent of recipients in math, computer sciences and engineering − and only 39 per cent of business PhDs were awarded to women.

Recently, I spoke to Renée Richardson Gosline, assistant professor of marketing at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, about why she thinks fewer women are entering the world of business academia.

First, she told me, business in general is male dominated, so it is not particularly surprising that business academia attracts fewer women. Second, it is a relatively young field that is less well known to the average person. This accounts for some of the lag.

The third reason, she says, has to do with the lack of female role models at business schools. “The faces students see on the faculty send a not-so-subtle message,” says Gosline, who conducted her doctoral training at Harvard Business School. “When students are able to see a bit of themselves in the person at the head of the classroom, they are more apt to believe that [position is] attainable.”

She says young women may be more likely to strike up an informal mentoring relationship with female professors. This, in turn, might inspire them to pursue a professorial career path.

Female professors “may be more approachable, and it may be easier [for the female students] to develop a rapport”, Gosline says.

“When you see someone [like yourself] who’s done it, it often leads to a spark: ‘Wow, this might be something I would want to do myself.’ It’s a cycle that starts in the classroom.”

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