March 1, 2019

Positive Workforce Trends for Women with U.S. Doctorates in the Science, Engineering, and Health Sciences

Posted by AGU Career Center

The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) within the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently published an InfoBrief comparing findings from the 1997 and 2017 Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR). The InfoBrief “highlights the increased prevalence of women with U.S.-earned Science, Engineering, or Health (SEH) doctorate degrees in the U.S. workforce” (Foley et al.). Some of the most interesting results from the InfoBrief are summarized below.

The study found that the number of women with U.S. SEH doctorates living and working in the U.S. “has more than doubled during this period, from 119,350 in 1997 to 287,250 in 2017” (Foley et al.). Additionally, the study found that the percent of U.S.-trained SEH doctorates who are living and working in the U.S. who are women has increased by 12% in the past 20 years from 23% in 1997 to 35% in 2017.

Historically, men have outnumbered women within the sciences and engineering workforce. However, the 2017 survey findings show women have surpassed men in the field of psychology, as women “are now making up almost 60% of all psychologists” (Foley et al.). As of the 2017 survey, women were also well represented in the life sciences and social sciences with 41% of employed life scientists and 44% of social scientists being women.

Within the computer science, mathematical science, physical science, and engineering workforces, women with SEH doctorate degrees have historically been underrepresented as opposed to their male counterparts. However, this study found a significant improvement in women’s employment in three of these areas: mathematical, physical, and engineering sciences. Representation of women with SEH doctorates within computer science has continued to be low, although there has been a small growth of 5% from 13% in 1997 to 17% in 2017 (Foley et al.). Regarding the physical sciences, in 1997, 87.4% of the physical and related sciences workforce were male while only 12.6% of the workforce were female. In contrast, as of 2017, 76.7% of the physical and related sciences workforce were male while 23.3% of the workforce were female. These numbers indicate a 10% growth in female employment in the physical and related sciences within the past 20 years.

Additionally, the InfoBrief breaks down the data across seven different employment sectors. Within these seven employment sectors the study found that the federal government was the sector that has seen the largest growth of employment for women SEH doctorates over the past 20 years. The study also found that women SEH doctorates saw significant growth of employment in the 4-year higher educational institution sector with the number of women more than doubling from 57,250 in 1997 to 120,650 in 2017. Another interesting finding is that the business or industry for-profit sector has had a tripling of women employed within the past 20 years with an increase from 25,500 in 1997 to 80,700 in 2017.

The study also reported on the primary work activities of survey takers. The survey results showed that from 1997 to 2017 there was an increase in the percentage of women reporting in all the primary work activity categories: research & development, managing & supervising people and projects, professional services, teaching, and others. This is not surprising, as the total number of women employed in all of these areas has increased, nevertheless this shows a positive trend for women in the SEH workforce and indicates that women are having a greater impact and prevalence in the workforce.

The full InfoBrief which includes more detailed data along with graphics and tables can be accessed at:


Annika Leiby, Talent Pool Intern, American Geophysical Union