Kanter’s Theory of Proportions: Organizational Demography and PhD Completion in Science and Engineering Departments

  • Joyce B. Main


Increasing the size and diversity of the scientific and technological workforce is a national priority. Investments in policy and programmatic efforts toward increasing the representation of women in science and engineering fields have resulted in significant advances; however, a gender gap remains among PhDs and faculty in these fields. This study tests whether Kanter’s (Men and women of the corporation, Basic Books, New York, 1977) theory of proportions, which suggests that numerical representation of groups influence group dynamics and cultural context, applies to the proportion of female faculty and the probability that female doctoral students will complete their degrees in science and engineering. Using data from two research-intensive academic institutions, results show that female doctoral students are more likely to complete the degree in departments with higher proportions of female faculty. Further, female PhD students working with female faculty dissertation advisors are also more likely to complete the degree than female PhD students working with male faculty dissertation advisors. Departmental faculty sex ratios and whether their faculty advisor is male or female, however, have no effect on the completion probabilities of male PhD students. Consistent with Kanter’s theory, research findings illustrate the importance of organizational demography on the academic outcomes of PhD students, and provide support for initiatives and programs aimed at increasing the representation of female faculty in science and engineering.


PhD completion Organizational demography Doctoral students Faculty Gender Science and engineering 



This material is based upon work supported by the Cornell University Center for the Study of Inequality (CSI). Initial support of this research also came from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through a grant to the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation or the Cornell University Center for the Study of Inequality. The author deeply appreciate the funding support from Cornell CSI and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The author thanks Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Pamela S. Tolbert, Stephen L. Morgan, Russell P. Main, and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback.


  1. Abrams, D., & Hogg, M. (1990). Social identity theory: Constructive and critical advances. New York: Harvester.Google Scholar
  2. Ampaw, F., & Jaeger, A. (2012). Completing the three stages of doctoral education: An event history analysis. Research in Higher Education, 53(6), 640–660.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Arrison, T., & Olson, S. (2012). Rising above the gathering storm: Developing regional innovation environments: A workshop summary. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  4. Ashforth, B., & Mael, F. (1989). Social identity theory and the organization. Academy of Management Review, 14(1), 20–39.Google Scholar
  5. Bailyn, L. (2003). Academic careers and gender equity: Lessons learned from MIT1. Gender, Work & Organization, 10(2), 137–153.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bandura, A. (1986). Fearful expectations and avoidant actions as coeffects of perceived self-inefficacy. American Psychologist, 41(12), 1389–1391.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Bettinger, E. P., & Long, B. T. (2005). Do faculty serve as role models? The impact of instructor gender on female students. The American Economic Review, 95(2), 152–157.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Blake-Beard, S., Bayne, M., Crosby, F., & Muller, C. (2011). Matching by race and gender inmentoring relationships: Keeping our eyes on the prize. Journal of Social Issues, 67(3), 622–643.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bowen, W. G., & Rudenstine, N. L. (1992). In pursuit of the PhD. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Carpenter, S. (2012, March). Does a professional science master’s degree pay off? Retrieved from
  11. Carrell, S., Page, M., & West, J. (2009). Sex and science: How professor gender perpetuates the gender gap (Working Paper 14959). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.Google Scholar
  12. Ceci, S., Ginther, D., Kahn, S., & Williams, W. (2014). Women in academic science. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 15(3), 75–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ceci, S. J., & Williams, W. M. (2011). Understanding current causes of women’s underrepresentation in science. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(8), 3157–3162.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Council of Graduate Schools. (2008). Ph.D. completion project: Program completion and attrition data. Retrieved from
  15. Council of Graduate Schools. (2009). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Findings from exit surveys of Ph.D. completers. Retrieved from
  16. Council of Graduate Schools. (2010). Ph.D. completion and attrition: Policies and practices to promote student success. Retrieved from
  17. Council of Graduate Schools. (2015). Doctoral initiative on minority attrition and completion. Retrieved from
  18. Ehrenberg, R. G., Jakubson, G. H., Martin, M. L., Main, J. B., & Eisenberg, T. (2012). Diversifying the faculty across gender lines: Do trustees and administrators matter? Economics of Education Review, 31(1), 9–18.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Ehrenberg, R., Zuckerman, H., Groen, J., & Brucker, S. (2010). Educating scholars. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Ely, R. (1994). The effects of organizational demographics and social identity on relationships among professional women. Administrative Science Quarterly, 39(2), 203–238.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Espenshade, T., & Rodriguez, G. (1997). Completing the PhD: Comparative performances of US and foreign students. Social Science Quarterly, 78(2), 593–605.Google Scholar
  22. Executive Office of the President. (2014). Women and girls in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Retrieved from
  23. Fouad, N. A., Singh, R., Cappaert, K., Chang, W. H., & Wan, M. (2016). Comparison of women engineers who persist in or depart from engineering. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 92, 79–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gardner, S., & Mendoza, P. (2010). On becoming a scholar: Socialization and development in doctoral education. Sterling: Stylus.Google Scholar
  25. Gibson, D. E. (2004). Role models in career development: New directions for theory and research. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 65, 134–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Glass, J. L., Sassler, S., Levitte, Y., & Michelmore, K. M. (2013). What’s so special about STEM? A comparison of women’s retention in STEM and professional occupations. Social Forces, 92(2), 723–757.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Golde, C. M. (2000). Should I stay or should I go? Student descriptions of the doctoral attrition process. The Review of Higher Education, 23(2), 199–227.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Golde, C. (2015). The formation of scholars: Insights of the Carnegie Initiative on the Doctorate. GeoJournal, 80(2), 209–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Golde, C., & Dore, T. (2001). At cross purposes: What the experiences of today’s doctoral students reveal about doctoral education. Retrieved from
  30. Hill, C., Corbett, C., & St. Rose, A. (2010). Why so few? Retrieved from
  31. Hilmer, C., & Hilmer, M. (2007). Women helping women, men helping women? Same-gender mentoring, initial job placements, and early career publishing success for economics PhDs. American Economic Review, 97(2), 422–426.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hogg, M., & Terry, D. (2000). Social identity and self-categorization processes in organizational contexts. Academy of Management Review, 25(1), 121–140.Google Scholar
  33. Huffman, M., Cohen, P., & Pearlman, J. (2010). Engendering change: Organizational dynamics and workplace gender desegregation, 1975-2005. Administrative Science Quarterly, 55, 255–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hunt, J. (2016). Why do women leave science and engineering? ILR Review, 69(1), 199–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Izraeli, D. N. (1983). Sex effects or structural effects? An empirical test of Kanter’s theory of proportions. Social Forces, 62(1), 153–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Kanter, R. M. (1977). Men and women of the corporation. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  37. Lovitts, B. (2001). Leaving the ivory tower: The causes and consequences of departure from doctoral study. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.Google Scholar
  38. Main, J. B. (2012). Trends in doctoral education: Engineering students’ perspectives on faculty advising. Paper presented at the 2012 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, San Antonio, TX.Google Scholar
  39. Main, J. B. (2014). Gender homophily, Ph.D. completion, and time to degree in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The Review of Higher Education, 37(3), 349–375.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Marx, D. M., & Roman, J. S. (2002). Female role models: Protecting women’s math test performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(9), 1183–1193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Mendoza, P., Villarreal, P., & Gunderson, A. (2014). Within-year retention among Ph.D. students: The effect of debt, assistantships, and fellowships. Research in Higher Education, 55(7), 650–685.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Millett, C. M., & Nettles, M. T. (2009). Three ways of winning doctoral education. In R. Ehrenberg, C. Kuh, & Cornell Higher Education Research Institute (Eds.). Doctoral education and the faculty of the future (pp. 65–79). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Murphy, M. C., Steele, C. M., & Gross, J. J. (2007). Signaling threat: How situational cues affect women in math, science, and engineering settings. Psychological Science, 18(10), 879–885.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. National Science Foundation. (2015). Completions survey, 2002–2012. Retrieved from
  45. Nerad, M., & Miller, D. S. (1996). Increasing student retention in graduate and professional programs. New Directions for Institutional Research, 1996(92), 61–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Nettles, M., & Millett, C. (2006). Three magic letters: Getting to Ph.D. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Neumark, D., & Gardecki, R. (1998). Women helping women? Role model and mentoring effects of female Ph.D. students in economics. The Journal of Human Resources, 33(1), 220–246.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Preston, A. E. (2004). Leaving science: Occupational exit from scientific careers. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar
  49. Quimby, J. L., & DeSantis, A. M. (2006). The influence of role models on women’s career choices. The Career Development Quarterly, 54(4), 297–306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Rask, K. N., & Bailey, E. M. (2002). Are faculty role models? Evidence from major choice in an undergraduate institution. The Journal of Economic Education, 33(2), 99–124.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Rothstein, D. S. (1995). Do female faculty influence students’ educational and labor market attainments? Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 48(3), 515–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Sallee, M. W. (2010). The individual and the institution: Socialization and gender. In S. K. Gardner & P. Mendoza (Eds.), On becoming a scholar: Doctoral student socialization and development (pp. 137–156). Sterling: Stylus.Google Scholar
  53. Sallee, M. W. (2011). Performing masculinity: Considering gender in doctoral student socialization. The Journal of Higher Education, 82(2), 187–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Schroeder, D., & Mynatt, C. (1993). Female graduate students' perceptions of their interactions with male and female major professors. The Journal of Higher Education, 64(5), 555–573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Schroeder, D., & Mynatt, S. (1999). Graduate students’ relationships with their male and female major professors. Sex Roles, 40(5), 393–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Sonnert, G., Fox, M. F., & Adkins, K. (2007). Undergraduate women in science and engineering: Effects of faculty, fields, and institutions over time. Social Sciences Quarterly, 88(5), 1333–1356.Google Scholar
  57. Stout, J., Dasgupta, N., Hunsinger, M., McManus, M., & Simpson, J. (2011). STEMing the tide: Using ingroup experts to inoculate women’s self-concept in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100(2), 255–270.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. (1984). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Worchel & W. G. Austin (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7–24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.Google Scholar
  59. Theodosiou, M., Rennard, J.-P., & Amir-Aslani, A. (2012). The rise of the professional master’s degree: The answer to the postdoc/PhD bubble. Nature Biotechnology, 30(4), 367–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Tolbert, P., & Oberfield, A. (1991). Sources of organizational demography: Faculty sex ratios in colleges and universities. Sociology of Education, 64(4), 305–315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Tolbert, P. S., Simons, T., Andrews, A., & Rhee, J. (1995). The effects of gender composition in academic departments on faculty turnover. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 48(3), 562–579.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Turner, C., González, J., Wong, K., & Stevenson, M. R. (2011). Faculty women of color: The critical nexus of race and gender. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 4(4), 199–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Walker, G., & Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. (2008). The formation of scholars: Rethinking doctoral education for the twenty-first century. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  64. Walton, G., Cohen, G., & Dovidio, J. F. (2007). A question of belonging: Race, social fit, and achievement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 82–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wendler, C., Bridgeman, B., Cline, F., Millett, C., Rock, J., Bell, N., et al. (2010). The path forward: The future of graduate education in the United States. Princeton: Educational Testing Service.Google Scholar
  66. Wharton, A. (1992). The social construction of gender and race in organizations: A social identity and group mobilization perspective. In P. Tolbert & S. Bacharach (Eds.), Research in the sociology of organizations (Vol. 10, pp. 55–84). Greenwich: JAI Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Engineering EducationPurdue UniversityWest LafayetteUSA

Personalised recommendations