When Catherine Hill’s mother became pregnant while a student at Harvard’s sister school, Radcliffe College, she was discreetly but strongly urged to drop out. “She had good grades, but the college said that because she was visibly pregnant, they would have to take her scholarship away, and she couldn’t afford to continue without it,” says Hill, director of research with the American Association of University Women. “The implication was that it was embarrassing for students to see someone who was pregnant.” Their parting advice to her: “Pregnant women normally wear lipstick.”
Around the same time, advice books pushed the idea that women with advanced degrees had much less chance of getting married, and instead told them that “one of the most thrilling achievements of their life would be earning a ‘PhT'—i.e. 'putting husband through' graduate school," says Evergreen State College's Stephanie Coontz, author of the upcoming A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s. Women smart enough to become college professors often changed their aspiration to marrying one instead, she says.
Things have changed since then. This week a new enrollment study by the Council of Graduate Schools confirmed that American women are now earning more doctoral degrees than men. Based on the most recent graduation data, 28,962 women earned Ph.D.s during the 2008–09 academic year, compared with 28,469 men. The report notes that men continue to dominate in engineering, mathematics, and the physical and computer sciences.
These new numbers continue a trend that began in the late 1960s and early '70s, when more women started attending college with an eye toward a career rather than marriage immediately after graduation. As their numbers increased, more women also showed more interest in majors beyond teaching, nursing, and social work. In 1970–71, for example, only 9 percent of business majors were women; by 1984–85, their proportion was 45 percent. Recent data indicate that women now represent about 58 percent of all undergraduates.
Between 1970 and 2000, the number of women in graduate and professional schools was also rapidly expanding. By the '90s, women were earning the majority of master's degrees, and over the last 10 years, became the majority in both medical and law schools. “This is part of a trend that we’re seeing across education,” says Hill. “More and more women are investing in education, in part because more and more women need to bring income into their households.”
One place where women continue to be underrepresented, however, is among the nation’s tenured professors. Part of the problem, Hill says, is that “universities and colleges are replacing more of their primarily male full-time faculty with adjunct and temporary positions” to save money. The result is that the few tenured positions that open up are more competitive than ever. “Tenure is now set at a very high standard," she says. "You can’t just be good, you have to be exceptional.”
At the same time, the traditional road to tenure has not changed much since the days when almost all Ph.D.s were men with stay-at-home wives. Hill says a recent survey of women competing for tenure-track positions found that many described their workplaces as far from family-friendly.
“The main years when they are being evaluated for tenure—the first five to six years of their academic careers—tend to coincide with their early 30s, when many women want to start a family. They find themselves in a very tough time-squeeze,” she says. “Some of the best scholars are excluded from the tenured ranks, not because they aren’t the most talented or productive, but because these years are not representative of their entire career.”
Now that women dominate the Ph.D. ranks, and more women are taking jobs as university presidents, maybe they can exert more influence over how tenure decisions are made in coming years, Hill adds. Even among the universities that are starting to offer some family flexibility to both male and female candidates, she says, many women are still waiting for proof that administrators “will honor those policies and won’t penalize people who take time to raise a family.”