2022/03/12 03:30:33

Buy Flowers Myself?

‘Buy Flowers Myself?’: Chinese female STEM students’ Gendered Experience at Academic Conferences  为自己买花?中国理工科女性学生在学术会议上的性别体验

‘Buy Flowers Myself?’: Chinese female STEM students’ Gendered Experience at Academic Conferences


Brief will be published on NRCEM


Yang, L., Smith, J., & Meyer, F. (2022). Gendered experiences at academic conferences: A comparative study of female Chinese STEM PhD students in China and New Zealand. International Journal of Multidisciplinary Perspectives in Higher Education7(1), 71–97. https://ojed.org/index.php/jimphe/article/view/4298

Yang, L.、Smith, J. 和 Meyer, F. (2022)。学术会议上的性别体验:中国和新西兰女性 STEM 博士生的比较研究。国际高等教育多学科视角杂志7(1),71-97。

In the novel Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf concretely expresses women’s pursuit of self-realization as “buying flowers for themselves”. In real life, women often face numerous inequalities, such as income gap, discrimination or cultural prejudice. Gender inequality also exists in higher education sector, especially in STEM fields. Women were underrepresented, and facing implicit biases, gender-based discrimination, and low psychological well-being. Academic conferences, as places that offers opportunities for PhD students to present their own research, network with others, and learn about the newest developments in their field of research, are inevitably affected by gender issues. Surprisingly, although there were several studies of female PhD students’ conference experiences worldwide, there was limited prior research in Chinese settings.


This small-scale, qualitative study is part of a larger study of conference experiences of female PhD students in STEM fields in New Zealand. We draw on Carlone and Johnson’s (2007) model of science identity development which stresses that identity development requires interactions with others and includes three interrelated and overlapping dimensions: competence, performance, and recognition. The formation of science identity is influenced by their gender identity of female PhD students and the locations they are studying in. As China and New Zealand are both significant higher education providers in the Asia-Pacific region, but vary in social system, cultural background and mode of doctoral education, the comparison of Chinese female students’ experience shows its rationality. Semi-structured interviews were conducted to gather data from four domestic female Chinese PhD students in a Chinese university and five international female Chinese PhD students studying in New Zealand.


For female Chinese PhD students both in China and New Zealand, their decisions to pursue a PhD were mostly driven by their aspirations for a career in academia or related industries. ‘Involution’ (内卷 in Chinese), a terminology that describes the phenomenon that higher education degree holders compete for entry-level positions in industries and universities was highlighted by study participants. They thus felt a ‘pressures of age’, both from the job market and their family. Our study participants reported pressure to earn their degrees before a certain age (35). Also, participants noted that Chinese parents generally see marriage, rather than a career, as a pathway for social mobility for their daughters, putting more emphasis on their daughter’s marriage than academic success. This pressure likely impacted on their development of a strong science identity as they felt that their families and society valued a different identity more strongly - that of a wife and mother.


Our sample of PhD students in both China and New Zealand reported that in their experiences, especially in bioscience fields, the gender gap between PhD students seemed to be reducing. However, participants reported that even with a more equal gender distribution, they were acutely aware of a ‘glass ceiling’ that restricts female students from success in STEM research fields. For example, they noted that supervisors had lower expectations of their work, seemed to prefer to take on male PhD students, or did not believe female researchers needed a PhD. In addition, it is noted that, in the sampled Chinese university, the resources distributed to female PhD students, including supervision time as well as conference and networking opportunities, are relatively limited compared to those of male students.


Although they were facing these inequities, they noted ‘a culture of silence’ in which their experiences of gender bias are a ‘little drama in their head’ that goes unspoken. In contrast,Chinese female doctoral students studying in New Zealand reported better experiences compared to their counterparts in China. They described a gender-balanced, positive, and supportive community of researchers in their STEM fields. Not content with that, one participant in this study drew a blueprint of a post-gendered world:

It would be better if we do not over-focus on the word ‘female’. If a woman has high achievement, like Chinese researcher Tu, Youyou, the media or the public always report her as a ‘female’ scientist. If an actual gender balance is achieved, we would not emphasize her female identity.



In terms of the comparison of their conference participation, a noticeable gap exists in the opportunity to attend conferences between study participants in China and in New Zealand. While female Chinese PhD students in New Zealand had attended both national and international academic conferences in their research field, local female Chinese PhD students rarely went to conferences regardless of the stage in their PhD. Participants’ attitudes towards conference attendance also varied by the location of their PhD study. Female Chinese PhD students in New Zealand tended to see themselves as ‘presenters’, whereas female Chinese PhD students studying in China tended to define themselves as ‘listeners’ or ‘learners’. Participants in China reported more obstacles on attending conferences. Lack of faculty support and supervisor-student relationships were reported as influencing conference experiences. In addition, Chinese domestic students felt that they could not dedicate time to attend and present at conferences without falling behind on lab work and writing journal articles.


To conclude, this study found that gender identity perceptions continue to have a strong influence on the development of scientific identities among female Chinese PhD students, regardless of where they opted to complete their PhD studies. The interaction of personal (i.e., the pressure of age) and organizational factors (i.e., the perception of a glass ceiling) compounded the difficulty our study participants studying in China faced in their doctoral education, leading to more psychological and emotional pressure compared to  participants studying in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the absence of psychological support from Chinese universities made our study participants feel more isolated in seeking emotional support during their study than their counterparts studying in New Zealand.


Attending conferences is one key mechanism for the development of a science identity and the extent to which women feel included in the science community. It is important to understand the experience of female PhD students in attending conferences as a first step in making positive change toward a non-biased and inclusive academic environment that provides equitable opportunities for women in STEM fields. Coming back to Virginia Woolf’s metaphor of female’s success in self-realization, women are not limited to being ‘angels at home’, but can chase their personal and professional goals, breaking free from societal expectations. To support women in succeeding in academia, academic institutions and the wider society needs to combat persistent gender biases that support female PhD students’ science identity development.


Note: the larger study of New Zealand female PhD students’ conference experience in STEM fields named Small Fish in Big Ponds: Female Doctoral STEM Students' Conference Experiences and Science Identity Development will be presented in AERA 2022 annual meeting on 25th Apr.

注:关于新西兰STEM领域女博士生会议经历的更大研究名为“大池塘里的小鱼:STEM领域女博士生的会议经历和科学身份发展”将在4月25日的AERA 2022年年会上发表。

荡涤心灵 Mindfulness

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