Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Making Sense of the Atmospheric Science Gender Gap: Do Female and Male Graduate Students Have Different Career Motives, Goals, and Challenges?

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

Making Sense of the Atmospheric Science Gender Gap: Do Female and Male Graduate Students Have Different Career Motives, Goals, and Challenges?

Article excerpt


There is a persisting gap in the participation of women in atmospheric science (ATS), particularly at the higher levels of ATS education and occupations. This gap raises questions about ATS women's career motives, plans, and challenges relative to men's. To explore these questions, in-depth interviews were conducted with 10 female and male ATS graduate students. Both women and men described their ATS choice as the result of random events-though both also mentioned memories of childhood severe weather experiences, as well as interest and confidence in math and science, as critical milestones in their path to ATS. Both women and men also commented on the impact of hands-on, ATS-related research, including field experiences as well as the positive influence of models and mentors on their ATS educational choice and persistence. However, for women, experiences with mentors included instances of neglectful and undermining behavior. Women and men also differed with regard to career goals, with women emphasizing service and social impact, and men emphasizing employability. Finally, women and men anticipated different career obstacles, with women focusing on family, and men focusing on financial responsibilities. The findings of this study suggest that ATS women and men may have similar early motives for ATS career choice but different experiences once they enter ATS. ATS women and men may also differ in terms of career goals and perceived obstacles. Many themes surrounding ATS women's experiences in this study are similar to themes that have emerged in studies of women in other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. At the same time, this study also generated information and questions specific to the ATS experience, affirming the importance of examining STEM women's issues by discipline.

© 2022 National Association of Geoscience Teachers. [DOI: 10.5408/12-296.1]

Key words: women, men, atmospheric science, education, career, motives, goals, challenges


In the United States (U.S.) in the 1960s and 1970s, the field of atmospheric science (ATS) was male dominated. At the time, there were very few (median = 5%) women earning ATS undergraduate degrees, and even fewer (median = 3%) women among ATS doctorate earners (National Science Foundation [NSF], 2008).

Since then, there has been major growth in women's participation in ATS education. Starting in 1998, the percentage of women earning ATS undergraduate degrees has been at least 23%, with a peak of 36% in 2008 ONSF, 2012a). Women started earning at least 25% of ATS doctorates in 2002, with a peak representation of 38% in 2007, but a decline to 20% in 2008 (NSF, 2012b) (see Fig. 1).

At the same time, women's participation in ATS remains limited in many important ways. For example, ATS has the widest gap in the geosciences with regard to undergraduatedegree (Charlevoix, 2010; NSF, 2012a) and doctoral-degree (NSF, 2012b) completion by women, relative to men. Of the women with ATS doctorates, only a small proportion enters academia, and even fewer women progress to senior academic ranks (Winkler et al., 1996; Tucker et al., 2009). In addition, the percentage of women in ATS occupations lags behind the percentage of women completing degrees in the discipline (Gonzales, 2010). Data from the NSF Scientists and Engineers Statistical Data System (SESTAT) indicate that in 2006, women represented only 15% of ATS/space scientists, with oceanographers recording the highest percentage (28%) of women in geosciences occupations (see Fig. 2).

These data raise questions about what may motivate women, as compared to men, to choose ATS as a field of study, and also what the career plans of ATS-educated women may be relative to ATS-educated men. It may be that women enter ATS studies for different reasons and with different career expectations than men, with possible consequences for recruitment and retention in the field. …

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