STEM Equity | News

Science and Engineering Doctorates for Women 'Increasing Rapidly'

Over the last 10 years, the number of doctorates in physical sciences and engineering awarded to women by American universities has grown by nearly two-thirds. However, according to the latest data available, women still account for only 30 percent of doctorates in physical sciences and engineering.

Women in STEM
According the latest report released by the National Science Foundation, in 2012, American women (citizens and permanent residents) earned a majority of doctorates awarded in life sciences, social sciences, education and humanities in the United States and nearly half of the doctorates awarded in disciplines other than physical sciences or engineering.

"Women are becoming increasingly prevalent with each new cohort of doctorate recipients, earning a majority of all doctorates awarded to U.S. citizens and permanent residents each year since 2002 and earning one-third of all doctorates awarded to temporary visa holders over that period," according to the report. "In 2012, women earned 46 percent of all doctorates."

Taking into account all sciences (beyond physical sciences), women earned 43 percent of all science and engineering doctorates awarded in 2012 — a 13-point increase from 1992.

But physical sciences and engineering, while still far behind other disciplines, are nevertheless the fastest-growing sub-fields for women, and NSF characterized the growth in doctorates awarded to women in those disciplines as "increasing rapidly." Since 2002, the number of doctorates in physical sciences awarded to women has grown 60 percent, and the number of doctorates in engineering has grown even more — 66 percent.

Ethnicity and Doctorates
Over the last 20 year, the number of doctorates awarded to black students has grown 87 percent, and in 2012 6.3 percent of doctorates were awarded to black students. (According to the U.S. Census, in 2012, blacks made up 13.1 percent of the U.S. population.)

Doctorates awarded to Hispanic students more than doubled during that period, and the percentage of doctorates that were earned by Hispanics in 2012 hit 6.5 percent. (Hispanics made up 16.9 percent of the U.S. population in 2012.)

However, according to the report, "The number of American Indian or Alaska Native doctorate recipients fell to its lowest point of the past 20 years."

Among all minority groups (American citizens and permanent residents), Asians dominated life sciences, physical sciences and engineering, according to the report. Hispanics led in the humanities. And blacks dominated education.

The report indicated that the parents of recent doctorate recipients were better educated than than the parents of past study groups.

"The share of doctorate recipients from families in which neither parent has earned more than a high school degree is declining, and the proportion of families in which at least one parent has earned a bachelor's degree or higher continues to climb," according to the report.

Nevertheless, underrepresented groups continue to lag.

"As of 2012, roughly half of American Indian or Alaska Native, black or African American, and Hispanic or Latino doctorate recipients belonged to families in which neither parent had been awarded a college degree," according to the report. "In comparison, nearly three-fourths of Asian and white doctorate recipients came from families with at least one college-educated parent, and nearly half of Asian and white doctorate recipients had at least one parent who had earned an advanced degree."

O, the Humanities
Overall, the number of doctorates awarded by institutions in the United States in 2012 grew 4.3 percent from 2011, the largest single-year percentage increase since 2007, beating the average annual growth rate (3.4 percent) by nearly a point.

The number of doctorates in science and engineering has nearly doubled since the mid-1970s, and in the latest year made up nearly three-quarters of all research doctorates awarded.

But the number of doctorates in humanities and education declined. The share of doctorates awarded in education and humanities combined fell to 20 percent — a nine point drop since 2002.

The complete report, Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2012, is freely available in PDF form from NSF's site.

About the Author

David Nagel is editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Technology Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal and STEAM Universe. A 25-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art and business publications.

He can be reached at You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at or follow him on Twitter at @THEJournalDave (K-12) or @CampusTechDave (higher education).

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