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How Women in Biomedical PhD Programs Manage Gender Consciousness as They Persist Toward Academic Research Careers

Remich, Robin MAT, MEd; Jones, Remi MA; Wood, Christine V. PhD; Campbell, Patricia B. PhD; McGee, Richard PhD

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000001253
Research Reports

Purpose Women remain underrepresented as biomedical faculty and are more likely than white and Asian men to lose interest in faculty careers in graduate school. However, some women maintain interest in academic research careers during PhD training and are the most likely candidates for faculty positions. This study explored how these women described and interpreted gender issues at early stages in their training.

Method Annual interviews from 2009 to 2014 with 22 female PhD students aspiring to research faculty careers were analyzed using an iterative, content analysis approach rooted in the interview data. Focusing on career intentions and experiences with gender, race, and ethnicity, authors arrived at 11 themes which describe a range of gendered experiences and strategies.

Results Of the 22 women, 19 (86%) acknowl edged systemic gender inequities in science and/or reported instances of bias, while 15 of them also said they had not yet experienced unequal treatment. All 22 described using at least one “gender-explicit strategy,” where they based decisions on gender or in response to perceived biases. “Gender-agnostic strategies” emerged for 12 (55%) who doubted that gender will affect their career.

Conclusions Findings show that women biomedical PhD students continue to face conditions that can lead to unequal treatment; gender biases continue to persist. Students displayed a range of perceptions and strategies in response to these conditions at this early training stage. Following these students over time will determine whether these or other strategies are required and sufficient to enable persistence toward academic careers.

Supplemental Digital Content is available in the text.

R. Remich is research associate, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois.

R. Jones is research associate, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois.

C.V. Wood is research associate, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois, and visiting lecturer, Department of Sociology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois.

P.B. Campbell is president, Campbell-Kibler Associates, Inc., Groton, Massachusetts.

R. McGee is associate dean for faculty recruitment and professional development and professor of medical education, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois.

Funding/Support: This research was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), R01 GM85385, R01 GM085385-02S1 (ARRA), and R01 NR011987.

Other disclosures: None reported.

Ethical approval: The study was approved by the institutional review board of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as project STU0017678.

Previous presentations: A previous version of this analysis was presented at the 7th Annual Conference on Understanding Interventions That Broaden Participation in Science Careers; San Diego, California; May 2015.

Supplemental digital content for this article is available at http://links.lww.com/ACADMED/A367.

Correspondence should be addressed to Richard McGee, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, 420 E. Superior St., Rubloff, 6th Floor, Chicago, IL 60611; telephone: (312) 503-1737; e-mail: r-mcgee@northwestern.edu.

Over the past 15 years, women have been earning a higher percentage of doctoral degrees in the life sciences than men.1 Yet, women remain underrepresented among tenure-track biomedical faculty at research institutions.2 Recent research shows that women as well as underrepresented racial and ethnic minority (URM) men are more likely to lose interest in faculty careers early in graduate school than white and Asian men.3 However, a proportion of women do maintain high interest in academic research careers during PhD training, and they are the most likely candidates for faculty positions. Understanding women’s experiences with gender issues early in graduate training may help biomedical programs increase their support for women pursuing academic careers.

This study explored how women who aspire to biomedical research faculty positions described and interpreted gender issues at early stages in their training. We use “gender-conscious experiences” to refer to instances when women recognize gender as the basis of their own or others’ perceptions, attitudes, and behavior. We also note instances where women stated that they were not treated differently on the basis of gender. Our research shows that women described a range of gender-conscious experiences and used strategies to manage these experiences in their training to become biomedical faculty.

To contextualize gender-conscious experiences, we used several concepts from social science literature. Drawing on Steele’s work, social identity threat can occur when people think they will be devalued because of a social identity. As a type of social identity threat, stereotype threat can occur when a negative stereotype exists for one’s group, such as the belief that women are less capable than men in science and math.4–6 Studies with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) undergraduates and faculty have found that situational cues in an environment can trigger identity threat,7,8 but to our knowledge no studies have explored this with biomedical graduate students. From Goffman,9 we used the concept of impression management, which explains the processes through which people monitor their self-expressions and presentation in public to control others’ perceptions of them. Steele4,10 shared an example that illustrates how situational cues can trigger identity threat and lead to impression management. He described how an African American graduate student sensed being stereotyped when people reacted by crossing the street or grouping together (situational cues). When he whistled Vivaldi (impression management), people relaxed because it diminished their negative racial stereotype.

We adapted the concept of gender strategy from Hochschild,11 who found that women employ tactics to resolve conflicts over sharing household tasks and roles with husbands. Hochschild described gender strategy as the “plan of action through which a person tries to solve problems at hand, given the cultural notions of gender at play.” We modified this concept to understand women’s interactions in research training environments.

Using these concepts, we addressed two questions: How do women who intend to pursue biomedical faculty careers describe and interpret gender experiences in their research training, and how do women react to these experiences?

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Method

Our population comes from our larger study, the National Longitudinal Study of Young Life Scientists (NLSYLS),12 housed at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and begun in 2008. This National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research study uses a longitudinal design with annual one-on-one interviews and has enrolled a racially and ethnically diverse group of 533 undergraduate, postbaccalaureate participants. Of the full study population, 269 (171 women) began a biomedical PhD program at 75 different institutions. The aims of the NLSYLS are to understand the complexity of career decision making; success in contemporary life science; and challenges and supports for aspiring scientists from historically underrepresented groups.

For this study, we derived a purposeful sample of women from the NLSYLS who aspired to research academic careers by their third year of graduate school. We chose this population because of ongoing concerns about underrepresentation of women among biomedical research faculty.2 To identify this sample, three authors (R.R., R.J., C.W.) developed a rubric to assess career intentions at each interview for 202 students (125 women) from the parent study who completed at least two years of the PhD. From this assessment, we found 22 women whose first choice was to pursue an academic research career; for 13 this was consistent in all three years, and 9 showed an increased intention for this career over three interviews. By using multiple interviews for each student, we could examine whether students reported gender-related issues at multiple time points and/or consistently over time.

Of the 22 women, 17 (77%) were from racial groups well represented in the sciences (14 white, 2 Asian, 1 white/Asian), and 5 were from underrepresented groups (2 Hispanic/Asian, 2 Hispanic, 1 black). Students were enrolled in 16 graduate institutions in the United States and were between 22 and 31 when they started the PhD (average 24 years old). Our data come from annual interviews during 2009–2014.

To recruit participants, study liaisons from each institution forwarded our standardized e-mail to prospective participants, which explained the research, expectations for students’ time, and that participation was voluntary. The first two interviews took place at each student’s institution with subsequent interviews done by phone. Participants gave informed consent before the first interview and received a $25 gift card after each interview. The interview questions (see Supplemental Digital Appendix 1 at http://links.lww.com/ACADMED/A367) were initially developed from two authors’ (R.M., P.C.) previous research13,14 and experience advising PhD students, postdocs, and young faculty. We did not conduct pilot interviews; however, we used data from each interview year to develop our next interview guide. Questions were designed to obtain information about graduate school experiences; choice of labs and mentors; career intentions and knowledge; future plans concerning family; and experiences with gender, race, and ethnicity in science. Four authors (R.R., C.W., P.C., R.M.) conducted the interviews, which averaged approximately one hour, and were recorded, professionally transcribed, and checked for accuracy.

Three authors (R.R., R.J., C.W.) led coding and analysis. Our analysis followed an iterative, content analysis approach rooted in the interview data.15,16 We focused on the students’ career intentions and their experiences with gender, race, and ethnicity. From a thorough reading of all interviews for 10 participants, two authors (R.R., C.W.) developed thematic codes related to gender using constant comparison between students and between interviews for each student. We then coded all the transcripts, revising the code descriptions as needed and eliminating less robust codes. Figure 1 shows the coding themes and frequencies. We derived four categories displayed in Figure 1 (no unequal treatment, gender-conscious experiences, gender-explicit strategies, gender-agnostic strategies) from examining the themes and applying the theoretical concepts.17 For all the coding, at least two of the three authors agreed, and all three reached consensus on the results. The study was approved by the institutional review board of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine as project STU0017678.

Figure 1

Figure 1

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Results

We present our findings in three parts. First, we describe a range of participants’ gender-conscious experiences along with the finding that of the 19 (86%) women who reported these experiences, 15 stated that they were not treated differently because of gender. Then, we present two categories of strategies used in response to these experiences: gender-explicit and gender-agnostic strategies. The experiences and strategies reveal a range of gender issues occurring at different times up to the third year of the PhD. With the multiple interviews over time, no patterns emerged that showed that gender experiences occurred more often at any specific time point. Similarly, strategies arose at different times for each participant, which suggests that women used strategies in response to a variety of situations and not at particular phases of the PhD. There was variation among the five URM students’ experiences and strategies; the small number of URMs precluded finding patterns based on race or ethnicity. In reporting passages from our interviews, we use pseudonyms to refer to participants.

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Gender-conscious experiences

Of the 22 women, 19 (86%) acknowledged experiencing or observing systemic gender inequities in science and/or reported instances of bias (Table 1). Twelve (55%) reported gender bias directed at themselves or others. Half of these 12 reported multiple incidents over time. Direct encounters occurred when the students experienced incidents intended for them and based on stereotypes that women are less capable or intelligent than men and/or related to appearance or sexuality. Three women encountered surprise from men when they introduced themselves or presented themselves in a specific role, such as a statistician, epidemiologist, or aspiring scientist. Getting a reaction of surprise signaled that others questioned whether women should be in such roles or be competent in them. Students noted, “Maybe I don’t look like a scientist” and “[He assumed] only boys do math.” All but one of the gendered comments came from men.

Table 1

Table 1

The women also reported instances of gender bias that were not directed toward them but that they noticed and observed in various settings. Virginia shared that a professor used only male pronouns when describing NIH investigators and called this an example where “little biases can really build up a lot.” Four women overheard male colleagues joking in labs, and one said, “[The] jokes were never explained to me because I am a girl.” At a conference, Lisa observed an established PI using air quotes to describe a female presenter as a scientist. She interpreted a sexual component, saying, “It boiled down to the fact that he found her attractive, and it was very apparent that he didn’t really trust her credentials.” These experiences suggest that many women are keenly aware of gender bias in their field. Whether direct or observed, these experiences may act as cues in a setting, which make one’s stereotyped group more conspicuous. This could lead to stereotype threat with potential implications for absorbing attention and/or affecting performance.10,18

Figure 1 shows that 9 of the 12 who reported an experience of gender bias also stated at some point that they had not experienced unequal treatment or bias. Also, 8 of these 12 women stated elsewhere that gender bias is a generational problem or that science is primarily merit based. Inconsistencies between experience and overall assessment of unequal treatment were most striking when seemingly contradictory statements occurred in the same interview, revealing difficulty in naming experiences as gender bias.

Sixteen of the women (73%) noticed systemic inequities, but 13 of these 16 also stated that they had not been treated differently because of their gender. We found two explanations for this incongruity. Four explained that although they have not experienced unequal treatment in the present, they anticipate it in the future when they have a family or advance in their careers. Five explained feeling safe and welcome in their current environments (e.g., their lab or program), though they have experienced bias or differential treatment outside of their group (e.g., during conferences, seminars, or classes).

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Gender-explicit strategies

We use the term “gender-explicit strategies” to describe instances when women demonstrated heightened awareness of gender and made decisions based on gender or in response to perceived biases. These women devised strategies that incorporate aspects of their gender identities into their work or professional presentation of self (Table 2). All women described at least one gender-explicit strategy, with 18 (82%) describing more than one, which suggests that for many women, gender identity is an important source of meaning and action.

Table 2

Table 2

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Women’s and sexual health research.

Four of 22 women (18%) selected research topics on women’s and sexual health. Two of them based this interest on feminist values or a strong belief in women’s rights. A third participant described an initial interest in women’s health conditions without explicitly linking this to political convictions about gender equality. She later moved on to study HIV and sexually transmitted infections and linked this to her broader research interest in health inequalities. Another student conducts research on prenatal medicine and described wanting to usher women’s reproductive health research into the mainstream of biomedical research.

Among the four women who do research on women’s or sexual health topics, three were aware they must defend their research because it has been judged as “fluffy” or “less methodologically rigorous.” These women maintained a commitment to women’s rights or the social determinants of health despite their awareness of the risk to their academic career of conducting research on women’s or sexual health. Three of them were actively aware of and committed to working around potential biases from the research community.

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Gender identity as a source of pride or strength.

Four of 22 students (18%) described their female identity as a source of pride, strength, or motivation to work hard and succeed in academic science. All four reported incidents or experiences of gender bias in conversations or interactions with their peers and other scientists but, nonetheless, stated that being a woman in science was a source of inspiration. They noted that their status as a woman or minority motivated them to “work harder” or made them positively stand out in male-dominated settings.

These four women derived strength or motivation from their awareness of women’s underrepresentation in academic science and the potential that others will doubt their abilities or commitment, even while maintaining the belief that they have the talent, ability, and drive to succeed. This strategy demonstrates that pride in gender identity is often grounded in awareness of gender bias and working in a traditionally male-dominated field.

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Managing gender presentation.

Seven of 22 women (31%) described situations that caused them to manage their gender presentation so that others will be more apt to see them as serious researchers. Broadly, these actions aligned with Goffman’s9 concept of “impression management,” where people attempt to control or influence others’ perceptions of themselves through their expression and behavior. Five changed makeup, clothing, or hairstyles to downplay their femininity; two managed their demeanor to appear serious or composed. They felt as though excessive displays of femininity or beauty in science settings elicited commentary or surprise from some men, who may hold stereotypes that female scientists do not—or should not—display feminine traits.

All seven women who managed their gender presentation displayed one other gender-explicit strategy, with two conducting research on women’s or sexual health and two claiming a female identity as a source of inspiration. Notably, six of them also stated elsewhere that they had not experienced unequal treatment based on gender. Managing gender presentation may not be a response to explicit bias, but it did reflect heightened awareness of others’ perceptions of women.

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Family-based strategies.

All but one woman raised concerns about the potential for motherhood to impact their career, which is consistent with previous research.19–23 Seventeen (77%) were thinking about or were already planning for how they will balance children with an academic career. One had a child early in her PhD, and four (18%) reported that they don’t plan to have children.

Two common themes among the 17 (77%) women who discussed the prospect of motherhood included the importance of finding a faculty mentor (usually, but not always, female) who is currently a parent, and timing the birth of children to align with certain career milestones (e.g., receiving tenure). Specifically, 10 of 16 who stressed the importance of knowing female scientists linked this to parenting; seeing PIs with young children and feeling an “inherent understanding” and openness to discuss both career and personal plans was especially beneficial. In anticipation of managing multiple roles of family and career,24 students discussed plans to hire nannies, join a parenting community, or opt for adoption. Notably, eight women who discussed future family arrangements wanted to find, or had at the time of interviews, a partner willing and able to devote substantial time to child care.

Gender-explicit strategies were frequent in the sample and fell into four areas: The first dealt with women who deliberately elected to conduct research on women or sexual health; the second dealt with children and family; the third reflected women who modified their appearance and/or presentation to align with the current academic culture and to be seen as serious professionals; and the fourth reflected how women wielded their female identity as a source of pride. Although the latter two strategies may appear incongruous, three students drew on both kinds of strategies without discussing any conflict in using them.

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Gender-agnostic strategies

Two strategies emerged that we have labeled “gender agnostic,” where women expressed doubt that gender imbalance and bias will affect their careers (Table 3). We argue these strategies act like counternarratives, beliefs that challenge negative assumptions and foster a sense of belonging and hope.10,25,26 Twelve (54%) viewed the low representation of women in academic science as a generational problem that was changing for the better and/or held the belief that merit and hard work would be rewarded regardless of gender. Despite their optimism about gender equality in their future, 9 who used gender-agnostic strategies commented on gender inequities, and 11 employed at least one gender-explicit strategy. Eight of these 12 women also witnessed gender-biased language or joking.

Table 3

Table 3

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Gender bias as a generational problem.

Ten women (45%) described gender bias in science as a generational issue and were hopeful that the representation and climate for their generation would be more equitable. Iris referenced historical change, saying that “my generation is overpowering the men.” Others observed that women make up the majority of their graduate cohort and expected or hoped that this would continue in their future. Virginia expressed this vision: “My [peers] are a bunch of women … so I’m hoping there will be a sea change, and in 15 years we will have more diversity.” For these 10 women, increased female representation in PhD cohorts and perceived differences between generations of scientists signaled progress toward gender equity in science. This prospect for change supported their intention to pursue an academic career.

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Science as a meritocracy.

Three women (14%) expressed the belief that scientific rewards and achievements are based on merit, and that the gender or social identity of a scientist is irrelevant for assessing performance or credentials. All three also acknowledged that gender inequities exist, but they countered this awareness by describing science as a meritocracy. For instance, Janelle expressed a strong view throughout all her interviews that she will not face obstacles getting an academic job because “all that matters” is effort and hard work. This belief seemed to sustain her even as she discussed the competitive job market and the realities that women are underpaid and can be the minority of faculty in some departments. While these three women recognized gender inequities, particularly at the higher levels of academic science, their belief in science as a meritocracy was a source of optimism as they pursue academic research careers.

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Discussion

The goal of the NLSYLS is to understand how young scientists navigate the long and complicated path toward a career in the biomedical sciences. Specifically, we aim to understand the factors that can differentially impact subsets of individuals as they decide whether to pursue an academic career. Our substudy of 22 women PhD students provides insights at a relatively early stage of training within the biomedical research community, which continues to be male-dominated beyond the graduate student and postdoctoral levels.2 The experiences of the women in this sample are certainly not uniform, as students reported different kinds of encounters with and interpretations of gender issues. However, we did observe recurring themes that we have categorized as “gender-conscious experiences” and “strategies” that students used to manage these experiences.

Drawing on Steele’s work on social identity threat (a subset of which is stereotype threat) and Goffman’s classic writing on impression management, we found that a high fraction described one or more gender-conscious experiences and described at least one strategy to manage these experiences. Situational cues that conveyed messages to women—comments or impressions such as “maybe I don’t look like a scientist” and “only boys do math”—parallel conditions used in experimental studies which generated stereotype threat.4,5,7 Those and other studies showed that consistent experiences with stereotype threat may negatively impact students’ performance and affect their identification with their field.4,27 Managing stereotype threat may also use cognitive resources,10,18 exemplified by Meredith’s statement: “… you have to be mindful of what you’re wearing and how people are gonna perceive who you are by what you’re wearing. It’s definitely an annoyance to think about every morning.” Thus, the experiences and strategies the women in our study reported may pose risks to their continued identification with and persistence towards academic science.

The study revealed some thematic incongruities that shed light on the complexity of students’ experiences with gender. We noticed them in two ways: among students who reported observing or experiencing systemic inequities and also stated elsewhere in their interviews that they had never been treated differently on the basis of gender, and among students who demonstrated gender-agnostic strategies but who also stated that they expected to be treated differently in the future on the basis of gender. These incongruities reveal that although women felt that the climate of academic science is improving, they still observed problems with gender bias, which required them to be proactive or to enact strategies to manage their experiences. Although students may have stated that they have not experienced differential treatment due to gender, their descriptions indicated that gender-conscious experiences do exist and that students expect to experience them at another time.

We acknowledge that the sample in this analysis is relatively small and may not be representative of a national population, so generalizability may be limited. However, the 22 women came from 16 different graduate institutions from across the United States. As we follow these students and others in the NLSYLS parent study, we will continue to assess how female graduate students interpret gender issues in their research environments and whether they continue to apply similar gender strategies and/or adopt others to manage their experiences. Preliminary observations from the NLSYLS have indicated that the career pathway for PhD students is fluid and changing. We will pay close attention to the relationship between student interpretations of gender issues and strategies to better understand how these experiences might shape their interest in academic research careers.

The implications of our findings for the academic community are both systemic and individual. Many women in the biomedical sciences continue to experience gender-biased treatment and expectations. Although many women feel and want to believe the climate is improving, most also expect to encounter problems as they progress. This anticipation of problems may impact some as they consider the costs and benefits of persisting toward an academic career. For individuals, the strategies are evidence of their resiliency, and they should not be discounted or minimized. Of particular importance is that although students may not always name gender bias, they may be actively using strategies to confront gender issues during their training. Mentors and advisors should be aware that although students may not be explicit about these experiences, gender biases continue to persist and affect biomedical graduate students.

Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank their colleagues with the Scientific Careers Research and Development Group for feedback, discussion, and research support: Adriana Brodyn, MA; J. Lynn Gazley, PhD; Sandra LaBlance, PhD; Anne Caliendo, MA; Simon Williams, PhD; Bhoomi Thakore, PhD; Veronica Womack, PhD; Toni Gutierrez, PhD; Letitia Onyango, MA; and Nicole Langford, BA.

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