Open All   |   Close All

Learning Objectives

  • Learn to build relationships and a career network.


“There’s always a sense, especially in a group that does not include women, that you’re not one of the guys, and that works against you. It's impossible to fight, of course.”

“My advisor invited a different advisee onto his new research team. He told me that he figured I would be too busy with wedding plans to add anything new to my schedule. I was infuriated.”

“The culture in my department is completely cutthroat. I can’t even talk to the other women in my program. It’s like we’re all just watching each other, waiting for someone to fail.”

“I was completely humiliated after the one person who seemed genuinely interested in my poster presentation asked me to continue the conversation in his hotel room.”

The Stats: Women's Experiences in Male-dominated Depts.

Do any of these women’s experiences sound at all familiar to you?

Research indicates that the culture of the male-dominated academic environment can be particularly discouraging to women. A few complaints include:

  • Isolation
  • Competition/hostility
  • Negative stereotyping
  • Discrimination
  • Sexual harassment (for more on the precise definition of sexual harassment, and how to end it, see the Sexual Harassment module)
  • Women in male-dominated graduate programs often report being less socially or academically integrated.1For example, women are often left out of certain social events, like happy hours and luncheons.2Consequences can include fewer academic and professional opportunities, a lack of social support, and an overall sense of isolation.
  • The competitive, aggressive nature of academia and science can intensify a student's sense of isolation.1 In fact, in some cases, competition and hostility are so intense that female students are isolated even from each other.1
    • However, according to some indicators, women tend to be less likely to value competition and prestige,2,3,4 values associated with what it means to be a “true scientist.2
  • Double standards for women continue to abide in academia. Women often feel the need to de-emphasize their femininity,2but if they behave too aggressively or do not fit certain stereotypes, they might also be ostracized.
  • You may harbor unconscious gender biases that influence your behaviors toward others and how you evaluate other’s behaviors.5 This differential treatment has harmful consequences for women pursuing a career in male-dominated science and engineering fields.6
    • In graduate school and over the course of their careers, the majority of women in science face some type of sexual discrimination.2 This can take the form of being passed up for an academic or career opportunity or facing a gender stereotype.
      • For example, female students often face a stereotype that they are less committed to a career in science because they will eventually give up their career goals for their families.7
      • Despite the fact that women often have to work twice as hard as men for the same recognition (see Delays), women also continue to face the stereotype that they are less capable as scientists, and their input and contributions are often devalued.1
  • Many women also experience outright sexual harassment in graduate school.2 Sexual harassment can range from sexist joke-telling to a sexual advance from someone of higher status. Even in its most subtle forms, sexual harassment contributes to the experience of hostility and alienation in graduate school.
    • Female faculty in the natural sciences and engineering departments report more experiences with sexual harassment than do female faculty in the social sciences.8
    • Again, see the Sexual Harassment module to learn more about how to identify and end sexual harassment.


Jasmine is one of only a few women in her program. She just finished her first year, and while she has made some significant strides towards her goals, she still feels as though she is isolated, or the “odd woman out.” Further, recently she found out that there was big social function that occurred, but she was not invited. She isn’t sure what to feel about that.

What should she do?

Best answer: D. While it is common for female students in male-dominated programs to feel isolated, it doesn’t have to be that way permanently, and doing nothing about it (answer A) won’t help. It’s never helpful to assume that you are the problem (answer B), especially when research shows that this is a common occurrence for women. Withdrawal from department members (answer C) may help Jasmine gain some social support from her partner, but it doesn’t directly address the problem. It also may cause more distance and resentment. Answer D, while it may be difficult, is the best option. Research shows that finding support within one’s program and establishing connections helps to increase resilience and productivity.

Why Does it Matter?

  • No matter how productive you are on your own, it is important to make strong social connections in graduate school. Interacting with faculty and gaining social support is associated with doctoral student success.9 These relationships will help you gain important, informal knowledge of your department 2 and build the career network you will need for career advancement.
  • Adjusting to and finding satisfaction in your environment is also related to your persistence.10,1Unfortunately, women are more likely than men to report dissatisfaction with the graduate school climate1 and are more likely than women in the humanities to leave doctoral programs due to climate-related dissatisfaction.12 Overall, women are more likely than men to quit a STEM-related doctoral program.13

As these statements explain, women, on average, have a different experience than men in science and engineering graduate programs. But no two people have exactly the same experience. Your perception of a “chilly” graduate school climate is a result of the interaction between several different types of supports and barriers, including the uniqueness of your department culture, as well as what you personally bring to the table. The CareerWISE resilience training materials are designed to help you learn how to make the most of your particular graduate school environment.


  1. Etzkowitz, H., Kemelgor, C., & Uzzi, B. (2000). Athena unbound: The advancement of women in science and technology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Sonnert, G., & Holton, G. J. (1995). Who succeeds in science? The gender dimension. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  3. Harding, S. G. (1991). Whose science? Whose knowledge? Thinking from women's lives. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  4. Preston, A. E. (2004). Leaving science: Occupational exit from scientific careers. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
  5. Valian, V. (1999). The cognitive bases of gender bias. Brooklyn Law Review, 65, 1037-1061.
  6. Valian, V. (1998). Why so slow: Advancement of women. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
  7. Widnall, S.E. (1988). AAAS presidential lecture: Voices from the pipeline. Science, 241, 1740-1745. doi:10.1126/science.241.4874.1740
  8. Settles, I. H., Cortina, L. M., Malley, J., & Stewart, A. J. (2006). The climate for women in academic science: The good, the bad, and the changeable. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 30, 47-58. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6402.2006.00261.x
  9. Lovitts, B. E. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  10. Dawis, R. V. & Lofquist, L. H. (1976). A psychological theory of work adjustment: An individual model and its application. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  11. Dawis, R. V. (1996). The theory of work adjustment and person-environment correspondence counseling. In D. Brown & L. Brooks (Eds.), Career choice and development (3rd ed., pp. 75-120). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  12. Golde, C. M. (1998). Beginning graduate school: Explaining first-year doctoral attrition. New Directions for Higher Education, 26, 55–64. doi:10.1002/he.10105
  13. Council of Graduate Schools. (2008, September). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Analysis of baseline demographic data from the Ph.D. completion project. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from

Asserting Yourself in the Face of Authority
The importance of standing up for yourself.

Incidents of Prejudice Due to Married and Pregnant Status
Gender stereotypes faced in getting into graduate school and conducting research.

Working with Intelligent People Across Cultures Makes It All Worth While
Satisfaction comes from interacting with intelligent people across cultures.

Time in the Classroom is at the Heart of Motivation
Teaching as the impetus for work.

Dealing with Inappropriate Events
Suggestions for how to deal with sexist comments.

Seeking Support Outside the Department
How to refute sexist comments and challenge gendered assumptions.

Every Day is Different
Captures the versatility of an academic position.

The Importance of Having Positive Working Relationships: A Case Study
The importance of good working relationships and when it's worth putting forth effort

Other Students Helping in the Transition
How colleagues can assist in making the transition into graduate life easier by sharing information an advisor may not.

The Role of the Dean in Fostering Progress at the Institutional Level
The importance of a good leader in setting standards for diversity, climate, an


We want to hear from you. Did this page remind you of any experiences you’ve had? Did you realize something new? Please take a moment to tell us about it—and we'll keep it confidential.

Your comments have been recorded.