Framing the Faculty Gender Gap: A Summary

August 17, 2017

Written by: Vanessa Reich-Shackelford

Among STEM outreach groups and programs, it is common to hear that women are underrepresented in academia on various levels. Much writing and some research has been done on the subject, but a team of one PhD candidate and three professors from the University of Chicago and Rice University decided to collaborate on a comprehensive study of a private postsecondary school (which they called “Southern U” in order to hide its real identity). This study, called Framing the Faculty Gender Gap: A View from STEM Doctoral Students, focuses on the faculty gender gap at this university, and asked postdoctoral students in STEM to explain this effect. What they found is that there are specific frames in which the respondents of the study operate, which help frame their perception of this phenomenon. Spoiler alert, straight from the study’s conclusion: “Underlying these frames is the notion that systemic gender bias and discrimination no longer play a role in sustaining the faculty gender gap” (p. 413). The team interviewed both men and women postdoctoral students in STEM, and the responses to their questions culminate in a fascinating gap between perceptions of men versus perceptions of women.

Frame analysis was pioneered by Erving Goffman, a Canadian-American sociologist and writer. He theorized that frames explain “what is going on” and “what is salient” in an event or experience and includes filtering information, discarding the noise, and building frames to guide us in our perception of reality. These frames are not consciously created by humans, but they are unconsciously adopted and adapted, depending on the situation. Humans organize their understanding of something and guide future action by using frames. (More information here.) According to Hughes et al, frames “help people collectively make complex social events and phenomena meaningful.” (p. 400). Applied to social problems, frames contain an “attributional component,” whereby individuals attribute blame or responsibility for the problem (Benford and Snow, 2000, qtd. in Hughes et al).

The researchers argue that “the frames that students use to explain the gender gap shed light on the cultural context of STEM, which is characterized by a tension between the belief in a meritocratic system and the acknowledgement of structural inequality” (p. 398). There are two types of perspectives that they found: demand-side perspectives, which focus on the larger institutional context in which STEM students are educated, “such as the constellation of organizational features in academic departments that can create a ‘chilly climate’ for women” (p. 399); and supply-side perspectives, or, “the disparate career trajectories of men and women in STEM as a result of gender differences in motivation, self-confidence, and perceptions of competence” (p. 399).

Source: Wikimedia, user Cdbrice00

For example, the demand-side perspective locates the environment as the source of the problem – the culture, organization structure, and institutional practices, and changing the culture of STEM may be an option. On the other hand, supply-side perspectives frame the gender gap as a result of women’s disinterest in mathematics, which actually blames women themselves as the problem (p. 399).

Out of the Framing the Faculty Gender Gap study came the following four identifiable frames:

Historical bias

Both men and women were found to think that it was only a matter of time before women “made their way through the ‘pipeline’ to faculty positions” (p. 404). There was a pervasive idea that gender bias in STEM was the cause of the gap in the past, and that the pipeline will ultimately fill with equal numbers of men and women without any intervention. Men who were interviewed are quoted in the study as saying things like, “I don’t feel [STEM] is unfriendly to women,” and “I can’t think off the top of my head any factors that would encourage or discourage either gender” (p. 404). Students interviewed also drew on anecdotal evidence to support their claims, such as the proportion of women graduate students was more even with the proportion of men students than the proportion of women to men on the faculty, meaning the pipeline would naturally soon be filling up with more women as time goes on. (p. 404) The study contends, “absent from these comments are references to challenges currently facing women students and faculty in STEM; instead, the emphasis is on how the changing demographics reflect a newly leveled playing field. Such an emphasis minimizes the possibility of persistent inequality and instead projects the image of a problem already, or about to be, solved.” (p. 405)

Innate gender differences

Some respondents to the study framed the faculty gender gap as a result of different interests and abilities that steered men towards – and women away from – STEM fields. These differences were attributed to biological characteristics, such as brain structures or genetics, rather than social or cultural factors. (p. 405) Interestingly, no women in the study suggested that natural differences were the cause of the gender gap.

Socially constructed gender differences

More women than men believed that social factors such as the education system were the primary source of the gender gap in STEM. Respondents are quoted as saying that women aren’t encouraged to go into math and science at all in school, and that science is “not a cool thing” (p. 406). Girls are exposed to science and mathematics less than boys or not as early.

Body clock versus tenure clock

For this frame, the study finds, “Just over half of women students perceived that women in academia faced gender-specific challenges related to family formation that led some women away from academic careers” (p. 406). Women attributed these challenges to social organizations of gender, where raising a family is thought to be the domain of women only. Men expressed less interest in knowing how faculty organize their family lives, but in their responses it was evident that they are aware of how these issues related to family planning affect women.


A key issue that this study brings up is the fact that women students, many of whom have experienced sexism, sexual harassment, and social exclusion in graduate school, must reconcile the tension between the "rheotric of meritocracy" and their very real experiences of gender bias. This reconciliation may be taxing over time. (p. 413)

In addition, some of the respondents to this study, as they become the next generation of academic faculty members in STEM, will assume positions of power in universities and ultimately may approach gender gap policies with their biases, causing a probable slow close to the gender gap among faculty in STEM.

Check out WWEST Chair Dr. Lesley Shannon's article "Want to Encourage Gender Diversity? Choose your words WISEly" for ideas about avoiding gendered language, an important first step in creating diversity in many organizations. WWEST also has created an easy-to-read guide to Gender Diversity in STEM, which you can view here.

Source: Hughes, C. C., Schilt, K., Gorman, B. K., and Bratter, J. L. (2017) Framing the Faculty Gender Gap: A View from STEM Doctoral Students. Gender, Work & Organization, 24: 398–416. doi: 10.1111/gwao.12174.