Forum: progression of female students

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A common experience in many universities is that the percentage of women decreases as the academic career ladder progresses (often called the “leaky pipeline”).

This is already apparent at the level of students: female undergraduate student seem to be less likely to continue to a mathematics master and later PhD degree.

  1. why are female undergraduate students dropping out?
  2. can we prevent this?
  3. Are there examples of good practices or institutional measures to prevent this?


  • We would like to discuss, share experiences and collect best practices here. Please also copy facebook posts here so that all our members can see them!

  • I’m collecting several voices here. The common theme is: the environment in maths departments is perceived as discouraging or even toxic for female students.

    This may be:
    – competition instead of collaboration
    – “jokes” (I guess you all know what I mean)
    – gender discriminatory comments or behavior from teachers

    Voice #1:
    “I am an undergraduate heading into a PhD program next year. I find that questionable behavior from male professors can be really discouraging. I’m sick of being underestimated at every turn and it contributes to burnout.”

    Voice #2:
    I dropped out of math after my bachelor (I’m now doing a PhD in Philosophy) and I seriously couldn’t wait to get out of the toxic environment at my math undergrad. It also ruined mathematics for me. I was highly interested in math per se before starting my studies, now not anymore.

    • I am a PhD student now, after doing undergrad and a masters degree. My experiences as a mathematics student have been on both ends. In school, in a small village in Germany, I was taught to be nice and pretty, and maths and sciences are for the smart people and nerds (and by definition those are neither nice nor pretty, thus me having to be nice and pretty ment that I could not be smart nor interested in science). Also, whilst my male classmates were encouraged to think about their future careers and self-development, I had to think about when the best time to marry would be, how I plan to raise my children (whether or not I want children was not considered my choice, because every girl will want children once she is grown up), which clothes to wear to highlight breasts and butt, without looking slutty. I was expected to let the boys talk when it came to “real” or “difficult” questions in class, and think of how to make others happy and how to become a good housewife. Refusing this lead to heaving bullying from classmates and teachers.

      When starting university in Schotland I experienced the exact opposite. Our lecturers did not differentiate between boys and girls, in the very few occasions that a boy talked over a girl (or any occasion that someone was interrupted) the lecturers and tutors would ask the interrupted one to finish their thought, and encourage wrong answers and courage for debate rather than staying quiet. My female classmates did dare to be pretty AND smart, or be smart and not care for their clothes, and it was obvious at every point that it was supposed to be the girl’s choice (and only hers!) what to do with her life. In four years undergrad I did not hear a single lecturer or tutor commend on a women’s looks, and when they mentioned a female colleage they would talk about her abilities, her intellect, and the high quality of her research. In addition to the supportive and professional environment provided for the undergrads there were some lecturers who would mentor me, showing me that they fail and make mistakes every single day, that I should not be discouraged when I experience a challenge, and helped me understand how to break the challenge down in smaller, managable pieces. This mentoring has proven crucial for everything afterwards.

      For my masters I went back to Germany, and experienced the exact same environment I had at school. In addition to that I had to justify to my almost exclusively male classmates (and often also to my exclusively male tutors) on a daily basis that I indeed deserve to study mathematics at this level and at this university. This ment in particular that I was not allowed to fail. Failing a homework assignment, or not understanding something at first attempt lead to classmates refusing to work together with me, making comments that pretty looks won’t get me the degree, ridiculing me in front of a group. If I did perform better than a male classmate I was heavily sexualised and sexually harassed. When considering reporting cases to the police it was clear that I could not provide any evidence, since I did not have video recordings of anything. I believe that this behavior was a mixture of not being used to a woman who breaks the stereotypes, and an attempt to show their dominance and intimidate me, so that they I wouldn’t be competition for them. I tried to raise the issue with some classmates, lecturers, tutors, andfemale PhD students, and everyone I approached either rejected my experiences as me lying and trying to hide my mathematical incompetence, or suggested that it was my fault for dressing “inapproriately” or “behaving in a sexual way”. It seemed clear to everyone, including the tutors, that (in the case I would manage to obtain my degree) I would either become a school teacher or work in the industry, aiming for an academic career as an actualy goal was not accepted. Three lecturers (two male, one female) actively tried to discourage me from aiming for a research career, since I didn’t fit in, and wouldn’t be able to do manage that level of mathematics. One female mathematician working in the library, who was not an active researcher anymore, occasionally had coffee with me, believed that I was not lying about my experiences, let me talk to her about mathematics, and told me about her daughter who, at that point, was a maths PhD student in Cambridge. She was a great support. In order to get through my degree I had to change faculties from pure to applied, and found a (male) professor in the applied faculty who also believed me. He gave me a desk in an office, so that I would have a safe space to do my work. I would have wished for moral support, but did not recieve much. He did, however, happily sent out many recommendation letters to support my PhD applications. Without the great mentoring I recieved during my undergrad I would not have completed this masters degree.

      Things that helped me to stay on track for a research career:
      -Going to conferences and summer schools. Meeting male participants who talked to me about mathematics ans an equal and treated me in a nice and respectful way was as crucial as talking to female participants about their work and their passion. I loved the meeting “Young Women in Gemetry” in Bonn, and the European Talbot workshops for the wonderful environment they provided. In one undergrad summer school a PhD student made a comment that it is nice to have me there because I am nice to look at. I mentioned that to the leader of my course, who insisted on me reporting it to the board members. The PhD student later apologised to me (usually when pointing out sexist behaviour, recieving an apology is the last thing to expect).
      -Staying in touch with the people from conferences and summer schools via facebook.
      -Subscribing to mailing lists.
      -Being taken seriously when I talk about difficulties. Being allowed and supported to say that I am insecure without my abilities or right to study mathematics being questioned.
      -Seeing men standing up against their colleages if those behaved inappropriately.
      -Recieving mentoring. I am still in touch with some of the lecturers from my undergrad. In my masters I got a few sessions of counselling from the student union. I currently have a supportive PhD supervisor who is a sucessful mathematician himself, and who seems to be interested in developing my passion and skills into a professional mathematical researcher. My current faculty provides me with a coach, with whom I can talk about the non-acadmic challenges of an academic career.

  • In the ORTUS report by the LMS there are a few examples of good practise that seem to work, see Appendix F p.84.

    We want to try to have tutors actively approach female undergraduates and encourage them to do a four year degree and started last year, but I am not involved anymore so no idea where we stand now. We had a big problem of not having enough women in our 4 year degree.

    • I read the report before, but stupidly enough overlooked the appendix with the detailed practices.
      This is very interesting! Could you maybe elaborate on what exactly was the role of such a tutor? (e.g. how often did they meet, were the meetings specifically about doing a fourth year.) I was also wondering at which university this was such that I could maybe contact them about the current state?

  • Some of my top math undergrads choose medical graduate studies. One reason they tell me is that they want to help people, at which point I suggest applied math subjects like biotech lead to results that help people. But others state that they’ve read that academia is sexist to women and it can be very difficult to have a family and get tenure. I don’t understand how anyone could think it is easier for a mother to work in a medical profession with their long inflexible shifts than for a mother to be an academic with our highly flexible work schedules. But this myth just propagates with all the main stream articles coming out. Yes it is difficult being a mom with a serious job but at least in academia we are paid relatively well compared to other workers. As for the sexism, it is not worse in academia than in other professions. Watch how waitresses and nurses are treated. We need to tell our women students they are going to deal with sexism no matter where they work: now choose the job whose work is most interesting to you.

  • Another theme: Female students choose carefully.

    What do I mean by that?

    #1: “I don’t think that this research topic really worth all the suffering. I see the PhD students in their offices all weekend. That’s not the life I want to life, I want to have time for my friends and family as well.

    #2: ” I wanted to pursue a masters in maths but i wasnt able to move cities, and the maths masters at the place i did my undergraduate were not interesting to me, so I did computer science instead, and now I’m a software engineer.”

    #3: “The main reason I left math after my bachelors degree was that I couldn’t find math research jobs that interested me. I found only one research position in China that fit my interests at that point and the application said “only male”. I moved into software engineering.”

  • Hi!
    I am a student employee at Utrecht University and we are doing a research about this subject. In a nutshell, we want to know why so many women do not pursue an academic career after their bachelors or masters and how we can prevent this. At the moment we are especially interested in practices done at other universities that have been tried with this goal in mind. Having this forum to our disposal is very helpful because many of you work at different universities and might know something about their policies. Thank you for all your comments so far!

    In particular I was wondering if some of you could answer the following questions:
    1. Does your university experience a leaking pipeline and has it tried to take action against it?
    2. If so, what kind of action (or practices) have been tried and did they work?
    3. If so, what were the positive effects and what were the negative effects? (Which problems did they solve or reduce, and which did they induce?)

    Obviously, there are many reasons why there could occure a leaking pipeline and they are not all bad. (Some of the reasons why have already been mentioned on this forum.) We also try to take these good reasons into account and do not wish to force women into math who are just not interested. However, it seems to us that there are also ‘bad’ reasons which could be prevented or at least reduced by paying attention to them. These are the ones we would like to find practices against.

  • Some interesting comments are on yesterday’s Women in Maths day tweets by Sheffield Maths ED&I chair Alex Best: I outline some of it:

    As a man I am listened to in a way female colleagues are not. When women do talk about gender issues they are often subject to abuse, accused of being too direct or criticised for their tone.
    How do we counter it? Being aware is the start, but we need to find concrete ways to tackle it or we just get a false sense of security. The biggest advice is try not to make snap judgements – take your time.
    But the main thing is this: As a man, I have an important responsibility to spread and amplify messages about gender bias. This is not a problem for women to solve. It is for all of us.

  • Hi!

    Interesting question and problem. I recently finished my master degree in Applied Mathematics on a Dutch University and I continuoud as a PhD student at the same University. When I started in my Bachelor, the ratio male/female students was about 35/65 procent, but already at the end of my Bachelor I noticed that I was the only female student which finished the Bachelor in three years. During my master and now during my PhD I seldom meet female colleagues, but luckely I am still friends with the female students a met in the beginning of my students and outside of courses. Voices on this topic I frequently hear are:
    – The stereotype of a mathematician is a white man, and I don’t fit in that stereotype. I just don’t see myself working between them.
    – Male colleagues are very secure about there abilities, which reinforces my insecurity.
    – I would like to work in a more diverse environment, and would like to have large social aspect in my future job.
    – My lecturer told me that I should reconsider this math master, because it is a difficult master. (This student scored almost an 8 on average for her bachelor degree).
    – I changed my clothing style, because of my work enviroment.

    For me personally:
    – I get annoyed of all the times that someone is mentioning the fact that I am the only girl in a meeting. It makes me feel different then the rest, and just want to be treated in the same way as my male colleagues.
    – In the last months I received multiple declarations of love of some of my male colleagues. This makes me feel really uncomfortable, especially since I need to share an office with one of them.
    – One colleague started giving me hughs at the beginning of every work meeting. I said something about this, and he replied in an okay way, but I less enjoy working together with this colleague now.
    – Recently, a guy asked me : “Math, is that not something more suited for the guys?”
    – Last year, a professor introduced me as: “This is our best female student”
    etc. etc.
    The combination of the above list maybe me really doubt whether working as a mathematician would be something for me, and mainly if I would be capable doing so (since a did not fit the steroetype almost everyone seems to have).

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