For decades scholars and activists have been working to close the gender gap in STEM fields by focusing on the so-called “leaky pipeline.” The pipeline metaphor reflects the fact that along the educational pathway to pursuing scientific careers in STEM (the “pipeline”), disproportionately more girls and women end up “leaking” out at various stages.

Progress has been made in narrowing the gender gap at the college and graduate levels, and there are now some STEM fields in which the proportion of men and women doctoral students is equal, and even some where women are overrepresented relative to men. However, the same shift has not occurred at the faculty level despite demographic projections showing that, if the supply of women was really the problem, we should already see far more women represented among STEM faculty than we do.

To try to understand why the gender gap persists in academic STEM, we interviewed 48 men and women doctoral students enrolled in various STEM fields at an elite university in the Southern U.S. We asked them directly what they thought was driving the gender gap. The majority of men and women students reported that the gender gap will resolve itself over time without further intervention — that slow demographic turnover rather than lingering sexism or structural inequality explains why so few women make it into the professoriate in STEM. Yet men and women also offered insights that seem to contradict that overarching frame and instead reveal a culture in STEM that remains stubbornly hostile to women. These tensions suggest that cultural changes have lagged behind demographic shifts in STEM, making the gender gap slow to close.

Historical bias: sexism as a relic of the past

While acknowledging that sexist ideas about women historically barred them from the world of science, both men and women’s primary explanation for the faculty gender gap in the late 2000s was demographic inertia. They suggested that it was only a matter of time before women made their way through the STEM pipeline into faculty positions. Central to this frame was the idea that gender bias in STEM was a cause of the gap in the past, not the present, and that with no further intervention, the pipeline will ultimately fill up with equal numbers of men and women.

Women also chose this as their primary frame for explaining the faculty gender gap, even those that gave examples of being sexually harassed by men classmates and described being excluded from social engagements with men faculty because of their gender. Despite these present-day examples of overt and subtle sexism, women — like men —preferred to frame the gender gap as a product of historical bias rather than an issue of structural inequality.

Innate gender differences vs. institutional double standards

Some students, mostly men, also framed the faculty gender gap as a result of different interests and abilities that steered men towards — and women away from — STEM fields. These comments often included references to biological differences, with several men suggesting that men and women’s brains were simply wired differently. One student noted that in his department, it was generally understood that mathematical abilities differed by sex. Others focused more on preferences, arguing that women were just more attracted to “softer” sciences or those that involved human contact, rather than lab research. While there were women who adhered to this frame, they all also nominated the historical bias frame; however, there were men who suggested that natural gender differences were the sole cause of the gender gap.

Women were far more likely to bring up the issue of work and family balance as a source of the faculty gender gap, focusing on the tensions women face between the “body clock” and the tenure clock. This frame, with its emphasis on an institutionalised double standard, also challenges the idea that gender bias is merely a ghost from the past not a present-day concern. Many women described a pervasive view within STEM that it was impossible for women to have children and a successful scientific career. They observed that women faculty with children were seen as less serious about work, whereas men faculty did not face the same scrutiny. This double standard was also apparent when faculty members brought children into work; students reported that women faculty would be viewed as unprofessional, whereas among men faculty it would be seen as “cute.”

Women’s experiences of sexism in STEM

Women students also described graduate school experiences with sexism that seemed to contradict their preferred frame of historical bias. Many recounted facing sexist attitudes from male classmates, including students telling them they were not as good at math or making sexualising comments about their appearance. Some women described missing out on important professional socialisation opportunities with male professors who only invited male students to get drinks or go jogging together. One student filed a formal sexual harassment claim against a fellow labmate, after which point their mutual advisor continued to have daily lunches with the perpetrator, excluding the woman. Yet despite these experiences, women were reluctant to cast the gender gap as a function of structural inequality or a problematic cultural climate. Instead, they minimised these experiences and recast them as anomalies.

The myth of meritocracy

Why were men and women students drawn to an explanation of the gender gap that seemed to contradict their observations and, for some women, their personal experiences? Students drew on anecdotal evidence to support the idea of bias being a remnant of the past, namely their observation that there were far more women in STEM doctoral programs in the past, and sometimes equal numbers. But this frame was also particularly attractive for men because it absolved them from any insinuation that their success might be aided by a system biased in their favour rather than just talent or hard work. And for women, it may have also been self-protective to adhere to the notion of science as a purely meritocratic exercise not sullied by bias.

It might be difficult for women students to remain motivated in a highly competitive field if they internalised the idea that the cards were stacked against them. At the same time, hewing to the idea that meritocracy is what drives success allows women to own their accomplishments and claim them as the result of their talent and effort. If students adhere to a belief that there is now an equal playing field, and sexism and gender discrimination are relics of the past, both men and women are able to keep potential feelings of responsibility or discrimination at bay.

Yet, by eclipsing the notion of structural inequality, men’s ascendance in STEM academia is naturalised, and women’s disadvantages are obscured. This tendency is reflected in the types of interventions typically used to combat the gender gap — interventions that focus on individuals, not institutions. Rather than continue to focus primarily on recruiting girls and women into STEM fields, more emphasis is needed on how to change the culture of STEM so that it is a place where women and men can thrive.

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Cayce Hughes is a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Sociology at Rice University. He completed his PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago, where his primary research focused on how poor African American mothers negotiate privacy in the face of pervasive surveillance in the social safety net. Other research focuses on how gender and race shape educational and professional trajectories among doctoral students.