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The Glass Obstacle Course: Informal and Formal Barriers For Women Ph.D. Students in STEM Fields

Kris De Welde, Sandra Laursen


A new metaphor is proposed for understanding the experiences of women pursuing Ph.D.s in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, based on a study of women in a U.S. Ph.D. program.  The notion of the “glass obstacle course” captures the unequal gendered processes at work in women’s graduate careers, including exclusion from the “Old Boys’ Club,” outright sexism, a lack of women role models, and difficult work-life choices. In-depth interviews elucidate the gendered, invisible (glass), and influential aspects of these barriers and the agentic strategies our respondents utilized to navigate them.  In this way, career pathways for women scientists and engineers are shaped by ideological and structural constraints, informal and formal biases, and active resistance or accommodation to them.  Such accumulated disadvantages can impact women’s attrition from and satisfaction with their chosen STEM fields.


women in STEM; gender; graduate education; STEM careers

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