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Graduate Matters

Unpacking inequalities at the doctoral level: Part 1

Despite strong interests in having diversified, highly qualified professionals, doctoral candidates generally remain a homogeneous group while minorities still face challenges in their doctoral path.

Headshots courtesy of Alexandre Bran, Eric Bonetto, Jeanne Boisselier and Jeanne Perrier

Is doctoral education a “safe place” for minorities? Through this two-part series, we will be highlighting some of the proven inequalities in doctoral education and the potential strategies to address them.

In June 2023, The Conversation France posed a straightforward question: Why are there so few women in scientific careers? This question could also easily be modified to ask why there are so few racial minorities or disabled people in the field of science as well. A look at campuses across the globe reveals an apparent lack of diversity. For instance, in Canada, racialized women represent only 2.2 per cent of all senior university leaders despite making up 11.2 per cent of the population. This lack of diversity can be traced back to the doctoral level, which is the perfect place to initiate change. A PhD is the highest academic degree conferred, and its recipients form a talented pool of professionals who advance scientific research with new ideas, driving innovation and progress across sectors. It would be beneficial for doctoral programs to train researchers from diverse backgrounds and experiences, adding different perspectives to address complex societal challenges. However, inequalities within academic environments hinder access and impede the progress of specific social groups, resulting in a homogeneity among doctoral graduates.

The landscape of inequalities

Canada, like other North American and European countries, reflects an underrepresentation of disadvantaged social groups in doctoral programs. Although there has been a positive increase in the number of PhDs awarded to women over the years, they are still underrepresented when compared to the master’s level, and gender parity is observed in less than one-third of OECD countries. In Canada, doctoral candidates from visible minorities also report experiencing specific challenges, such as facing greater difficulties in accessing resources and encountering more conflicts. Aside from gender or visible minority, there is little data available regarding doctoral candidates with disabilities. In France, they represent 0.7 per cent of the total student population and less than two per cent of the STEM doctorate holders in the U.S.

A multifactorial phenomenon

Inequalities stem from a combination of factors including beliefs, behaviours, work environment, and available support systems and resources. Stereotypical beliefs that portray disabled people as less capable, or women as less capable in STEM fields contribute to these systemic inequalities. These stereotypes can be internalized by the targeted individuals, impacting their perceived legitimacy and influencing their choices regarding professional trajectories. One can also examine the lack of available resources for doctoral candidates from racial or ethnic minorities including the lack of social role models and material or financial support. According to a 2019 Nature doctoral students survey, 21 per cent of respondents also experienced discrimination or harassment during their program, with gender and racial discrimination being the most prevalent forms.

Some impacts of inequalities on the doctoral journey

Inequalities impact the daily work life of doctoral students and their career aspirations. They endure worsened work conditions and increased stress, which can lead to lower scientific achievements. Internationally, research has been published highlighting a link between racialized marginalization and impostor syndrome among Black doctoral candidates in the U.S. Meanwhile, it was also found that female doctoral candidates in Belgium experience more negative emotions and stronger intentions of leaving their doctoral program than their male counterparts.

Unfortunately, inequalities persist after graduation. A recent study undertaken by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder showed higher attrition rates for female professors, mentioning the “harsh workplace climate” as the most common reason for leaving. In a broader perspective, these issues lead to a loss of human potential and a homogenization of science, limiting perspectives in research and innovation. This outcome contrasts with the idea of inclusive graduate studies and equitable access to prestigious and strategic positions inside and outside academia.

Equality and diversity are still a work in progress in doctoral programs. To address inequalities and their repercussions, governments and research institutions have employed diverse strategies to counteract biases and foster academic diversity. These will be explored in the second part of our series.

Jeanne Boisselier has a PhD in social and work psychology and is working on doctoral supervision and inclusion in doctoral trajectories; Jeanne Perrier has a PhD in political science and is working on doctoral public policies and inclusion in doctoral trajectories; Alexandre Bran has a PhD in social psychology and is examining PhD graduates’ self-perceptions; Eric Bonetto has a PhD in social psychology and is working on PhDs’ and PhD candidates’ health and creativity. All work in the laboratory of interdisciplinary studies on the doctorate at Adoc Talent Management.
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