General Education

My Experience With Sexism In Grad School

My Experience With Sexism In Grad School
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD October 29, 2014

Since the 1800s, American universities have accepted female students, but have these campuses become more accepting of women in academia? Find out from a personal testimony about what women can expect while attending graduate school.

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Women now outnumber men in graduate school. There are 137 women enrolled for every 100 men. And yet, women still get hired less and make less money after graduation.

Male enrollment in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) exceeds female enrollment at a rate of 9 to 1. If you're a woman in one of these disciplines, you may be a minority in your program. However, in education and health disciplines, women make up about 70 percent of students.

How will being a woman affect you in graduate school?

Will you still have to deal with institutionalized sexism? After all, it was in the college environment that feminism (among other social movements) gained significant political traction in the 1970s and 1980s. That's when departments like women's studies, African studies, queer theory, and critical race theory formed in universities across the nation. When an interdisciplinary focus emerged in the 1990s, departments and professors became increasingly aware of the various "isms" affecting society and, at minimum, paid lip service to "political correctness." Professors and faculty pushed scholarly awareness around race, class, and gender nexus, and its effects on the student body.

Universities have become more socially enlightened, but they are still mired in traditional thinking. While students from increasingly diverse backgrounds make it to graduate school, many programs and departments still participate in discriminatory practices. Most sexism will not be overt, but emerge in the subtle ways that women's experiences are different from the more "conventional" (read: white male) student.

Many women attend graduate school during the years when they might have previously been expected to do things like start a family. Since graduate school programs often average longer than expected (4 to 5 years for an MA and 8 to 10 years for a Ph.D.,) it doesn't always make sense for women to wait until after graduate school to have kids. Especially since women will be embarking on their career by then — a time that can be way more challenging than grad school.

I started working on my master's degree when I was pregnant with my first child, and I was at the dissertation stage of my doctorate when I became pregnant with my second. Even though almost everyone I was working with was versed in at least the basics of feminist theory, talking about motherhood (or any kind of personal life) was taboo. In both of my departments, it was considered unprofessional to mention your private life, let alone your babies. It was as if we all existed in a vacuum of research, writing, and teaching — nothing else.

Nine months into my pregnancy, I gave a department talk. I ran into a colleague on my dissertation committee who I hadn't seen since before I was showing. He looked at me, raised an eyebrow, and said, "You've been busy."

It's probably not the kind of thing anyone would say to a man.

Another important issue for women in graduate school relates to confidence. Even though female students are usually higher achievers than their male counterparts, they still exhibit less confidence as a whole.

"My first year, I was a wreck," says Beth, a graduate student in a sociology program. "Looking back, I was successful. I got great grades and solid teaching evaluations, but I was consumed with doubt. I just didn't believe I was good enough to be there." Many female grad students feel the same way. They often behave or speak with subtle indicators that betray a lack of confidence.

Beth didn't experience much overt sexism. "It's definitely competitive, but my female professors have been really supportive. So are the other women in my cohort. I did notice sexism, but that was mainly from older male professors, guys who don't really get that times have changed. The chair of my department is an older man. He came up to me and complimented my eyes after I had just given a presentation. I definitely didn't feel respected."

If you're planning on going to graduate school, much of your experience as a woman will depend on the social climate of your individual department. There are some key factors that you should keep in mind to ensure a positive and productive mindset while conducting your research.

Be confident

Graduate school is much harder than undergrad, and it can be overwhelming. Don't doubt your place there. You got accepted. You're good enough. Try not to waste your energy on self-doubt. It's an inefficient use of time, and its effect is only negative.

Read our article about how to deal with impostor syndrome in grad school.

Support other women and their choices

Graduate school is notoriously competitive. Your fellow students are your competition for fellowships, teaching assignments, and your professor's favor. It’s a cutthroat environment, but you'll have a much more collegial time if you allow yourself to create real connections. Don't be afraid to develop trusted friendships. Chances are, you'll find someone who feels similarly to you if you're willing to reach out to others.

Find supportive faculty

Many professors, including male professors, are sensitive to and supportive of issues particular to female students. Don't be afraid to advocate for yourself. Seek out faculty who are well-known and respected (because they can do a lot for your career). When it comes down to it, there's nothing more valuable than a mentor who is compassionate and kind.


Kitroeff, N., & Rodkin, J. (2014, August 28). Women Graduating in Business Get Fewer Job Offers Than Men. Retrieved October 27, 2014 from Bloomberg Business Week.

Perry, M. (2014, October 1). Women earned majority of doctoral degrees in 2013 for 5th straight year, and outnumber men in grad school 137.5 to 100. Retrieved October 22, 2014 from AEIdeas.

Zillman, C. (2014, September 23). What's wrong with American grad schools, in 3 charts. Retrieved October 27, 2014 from Fortune.


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