Every summer, undergrads from other colleges work with my research group. This summer, I have 3 in my group and all 3 are from small liberal arts colleges. They wanted to get some experience doing research at a large university because they are thinking about applying to grad schools in the fall. So, in addition to doing some interesting work this summer, they are testing the waters to see if grad school is in fact what they really want to do, and, if it is, if this is the right field for them. And of course the research experience helps if they do apply to graduate programs.
I have been talking to them about where they might apply, how to go about applying, and things like that. A century ago when I was applying to graduate programs, my main concern was finding an advisor and program that best fit my research interests. In recent conversations with the female students, however, I have found that they are very aware of gender ratios in the departments they are considering for graduate school. I mentioned one excellent school to one of my interns, and she said "I would never want to go there. I looked at their website and it's all guys." True, though "the guys" there are excellent researchers and some of them are even nice people/advisors. I don't think she cares if she has a male or female advisor; she's just checking to make sure that the department as a whole has a good climate for women students, and is using the number of women faculty as an indicator of this. I think this is fine, and I wonder if these departments know that they are missing out on some top applicants because of their lack of women faculty.
Fortunately for my intern, these days it is unusual for a department to be so extremely male dominated, so if she's going to use that criterion, she still has lots of excellent options. Even so, what if The Best Place for her research interests was at a bastion of maleness? Unless I knew that there was a serious problem with how women were treated there, I would encourage her to apply/attend.
Even if a department has women faculty, this is of course no guarantee that faculty (male or female) are sensitive and caring individuals and good advisors. I have a few colleagues who could definitely treat their students (again, male and female) better, but the women students generally have more trouble dealing with obnoxious advisors. When women graduate students talk to me because they are in despair about how their obnoxious male advisors treat them, I always say that I understand it is difficult (and we talk about whether there is anything constructive that can be done), but the most important advice I give them is to stick with it. I say "If you quit, then academia will continue to be populated by people like your advisor. If you stay, then YOU will be a professor and you can make a difference in changing the academic culture". I know that I'm advising them to suffer in the hopes that it might eventually be worth it, but the alternative seems even more bleak.
6 months ago