Gendered experiences at academic conferences: A comparative study of female Chinese STEM PhD students in China and New Zealand

Research highlighted

Yang, L., Smith, J., & Meyer, F. (2022). Gendered experiences at academic conferences: A comparative study of female Chinese STEM PhD students in China and New ZealandInternational Journal of Multidisciplinary Perspectives in Higher Education7(1), 71–97.

It is a well-known phenomenon that women are underrepresented in academia, especially in STEM fields. Although it is reported that the number of female doctoral students engaging in academia has increased in recent years worldwide, women still make up only about one-third of academic researchers in STEM fields in China and New Zealand. They were reported facing implicit biases, gender-based discrimination, and have low psychological well-being in different settings in academia, in labs or at conferences. Academic conferences offer opportunities for PhD students to present their own research, network with others, and pursue opportunities for post-doctoral positions. However, conferences are inevitably gendered spaces. Although there have been prior studies of female PhD students’ conference experiences worldwide, limited prior research has been conducted in Chinese settings.

This small-scale, qualitative study compares the experiences of Chinese students studying in New Zealand and study in China. We draw on Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model of science identity development which stresses that identity development requires interactions with others and includes three interrelated and overlapping dimensions: competence, performance, and recognition. The formation of science identity is influenced by students’ gender identity and the locations they are studying in. As China and New Zealand are both significant higher education providers in the Asia-Pacific region, but vary in social system, cultural context, and mode of doctoral education, the comparison of Chinese female students’ experience can help isolate gender identity from contextual factors. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gather data from four domestic female Chinese PhD students in a Chinese university and five international female Chinese PhD students studying in New Zealand.

For female Chinese PhD students both in China and New Zealand, their decisions to pursue a PhD were mostly driven by their aspirations for a career in academia or related industries. They felt a ‘pressure of age’, from both from the job market and their family. ‘Involution’ (内卷 in Chinese), a term that describes the phenomenon in which higher education degree holders compete for entry-level positions in industries and universities, was highlighted by study participants. Our study participants reported pressure to earn their degrees before a certain age (35) to compete for these industry jobs. Also, participants noted that Chinese parents generally see marriage, rather than a career, as a pathway for social mobility for their daughters, putting more emphasis on their daughter’s marriage than academic success. This pressure likely negatively influenced their development of a strong science identity as they felt that their families and society valued a different identity more strongly – that of a wife and mother.

Our sample of PhD students in both China and New Zealand reported that in their experiences, especially in bioscience fields, the gender gap at least in the number of  PhD students seemed to be reducing. However, participants reported that even with a more equal gender distribution, they were acutely aware of a ‘glass ceiling’ that restricts female students from success in STEM research fields. For example, they noted that supervisors had lower expectations of their work, seemed to prefer to take on male PhD students, or did not believe female researchers needed a PhD. In addition, in the sampled Chinese university, participants reported that the resources distributed to female PhD students, including supervision time as well as conference and networking opportunities, were relatively limited compared to those provided to male students. Further, although they faced these inequities, our participants noted ‘a culture of silence’ in which they felt their experiences of gender bias would be viewed as a ‘little drama in their head’ if reported. In contrast, Chinese female doctoral students studying in New Zealand reported better experiences compared to their counterparts in China. They described a gender-balanced, positive, and supportive community of researchers in their STEM fields. However, gender was still acutely felt; one participant in this study drew a blueprint of a post-gendered world:

It would be better if we do not over-focus on the word ‘female’. If a woman has high achievement, like Chinese researcher Tu, Youyou, the media or the public always report her as a ‘female’ scientist. If an actual gender balance is achieved, we would not emphasise her female identity.

In terms of the comparison of their conference participation, study participants reported a noticeable gap in opportunities to attend conferences between those in China and in New Zealand. While the latter had attended both national and international academic conferences in their research field, the former rarely went to conferences regardless of the stage in their PhD. Participants’ attitudes towards conference attendance also varied by the location of their PhD study. Female Chinese PhD students in New Zealand tended to see themselves as ‘presenters’, whereas female Chinese PhD students studying in China tended to define themselves as ‘listeners’ or ‘learners’. Participants in China reported more obstacles to attending conferences, where they reported a lack of faculty support and fraught supervisor-student relationships. In addition, Chinese domestic students felt that they could not dedicate time to attend and present at conferences without falling behind on lab work and writing journal articles.

To conclude, this study found that gender identity perceptions continue to have a strong influence on the development of scientific identities among female Chinese PhD students, regardless of where they opted to complete their PhD studies. The interaction of personal (i.e., the pressure of age) and organizational factors (i.e., the perception of a glass ceiling) compounded the difficulty our study participants studying in China faced in their doctoral education, leading to more psychological and emotional pressure compared to  participants studying in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the absence of psychological support from Chinese universities made our study participants feel more isolated in seeking emotional support during their study than their counterparts studying in New Zealand.

Attending conferences is one key mechanism for the development of a science identity and is often a stepping stone into a career. Understanding the experiences of female PhD students in attending conferences is a first step in making a positive change toward a non-biased and inclusive academic environment that provides equitable opportunities for women in STEM fields. To support women in succeeding in academia, academic institutions and the wider society needs to combat persistent gender biases in order to support female PhD students’ science identity development.

Note: the larger study of New Zealand female PhD students’ conference experience in STEM fields named Small Fish in Big Ponds: Female Doctoral STEM Students’ Conference Experiences and Science Identity Development will be presented in AERA 2022 annual meeting on 25th April in San Diego, United States.

中文研究简介:

参加学术会议并在学术会议上演讲是博士学习期间必要的体验之一。学术会议为博士生提供了展示他们的研究、与其他研究人员建立联系以及了解其领域的最新发展的机会。这项小规模的定性研究探讨了在中国或新西兰求学的九名中国女博士生的会议经历,比较了他们在会议和博士课程中的经验,以此管窥学术界女性所面临的持续性别偏见。半结构化访谈的结果表明,与在新西兰学习的同龄人相比,中国国内学生面临更多学术领域的“玻璃天花板”障碍、性别偏见行为以及更有限的来自导师和学校的帮助。在新西兰学习的中国学生在家庭责任方面仍然面临和中国本地学生相似的“年龄压力”,但他们描述了来自导师和学校的更强大、更系统化的帮助。随着两国大学努力减轻理工科(STEM)领域的性别不平等,该领域的性别偏见值得学术研究的持续关注。

Authors’ Bio

Liuning Yang, the University of Auckland

Liuning Yang is a PhD candidate in the School of Learning, Development and Professional Practice, Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Auckland. Liuning’s research include the cultural capital theory of Pierre Bourdieu, educational policy, education equity of rural-urban migrants in China. Email: liuning.yang@auckland.ac.nz

Dr Jo Smith, the University of Auckland

Dr Jo Smith is a Senior Lecturer in education policy and leadership in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. Her research is situated at the intersection of policy and practice and examines the systems that both hinder and help schools and school systems enact reforms aimed at improving outcomes. Email: smith.joanna@auckland.ac.nz

Dr Frauke Meyer, the University of Auckland

Dr Frauke Meyer is a Senior Lecturer in the Master of Educational Leadership program in the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Education and Social Work. Her research is concerned with school improvement for equity, school leadership, and interpersonal practices to improve equity in outcomes for marginalized learners. She has published and presented her research nationally and internationally in high-ranking journals and at conferences. Email: f.meyer@auckland.ac.nz

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