Behind the scenes: Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education

The first article to be published from my dissertation was Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education (in the Journal of Women and Gender – formerly called the NASPA Journal about Women in Higher Education). While I eventually published three manuscripts from my dissertation research, the findings I reported on in this manuscript were, if one can have favorites in things like this, my favorite conclusions to talk about from my dissertation. This was, in part, because I felt like they were the strongest contributions to the literature, and because I utilized an approach to understanding the impact of gender on women students in STEM that I hoped could be helpful in understanding how “objective” standards were, in reality, subjective to a man norm. I was also particularly excited that a figure I created to represent my approach to the Institutional Ethnographic data analysis process would be published.

Gendered Student Ideals in STEM in Higher Education reported on a portion of my dissertation research, an Institutional Ethnography, that sought to identify how the definition of an “ideal” STEM student was gendered and created challenges for women students.  This approach was informed by Acker’s (2000) theory of gendered organizations and built on Acker’s (2000, 2012) work that described how the concept of an “ideal” worker is presented as gender-neutral but is actually gendered.  For example, a job description might require that a candidate be “on call” 24/7.  This may seem like an objective requirement, but it assumes that a worker is available 24/7 and, therefore, has no other obligations outside of work. Many folx have obligations outside of work that might prevent them from being available 24/7, but it is still more likely that women take care of the majority of household or childcare duties. In this portion of the study, I sought to understand how STEM faculty and students defined the ideal student to understand if and how that ideal was gendered and if women undergraduate students encountered challenges trying to meet that ideal.

Findings are discussed in detail in the manuscript, but to summarize, analysis of the data suggested that the definition of an ideal student was gendered and created challenges for women participants as they strove to meet that ideal, most notably in taking academic risks, participating in class and asking questions, and the expectation that they put school first. Those challenges were exacerbated for women participants who feared failure and that they would confirm prevalent biases against women in STEM.


Following Smith’s (2005) approach to data collection in an Institutional Ethnography and framed through Feminist Standpoint Theory (Harding, 1987), I began by interviewing eight undergraduate women majoring in math or physics to understand their day-to-day lives. In total, I had three interviews with a majority of the student participants; each interview consisted of questions asking participants to describe the work that they did in being a student. In each interview, I asked student participants to describe a typical day, week, month, and year in their student lives.  From that first interview, I identified the places where the work of being a student was being coordinated and then collected subsequent data to identify the source of where or how that work was being coordinated. For example, a participant might tell me that they woke up at 7 am so that they could be at class at 8 am.  I would then ask how they knew they had to be at class on the first day at 8 am, and they might direct me to their class schedule or to the course syllabus.  My research task, then, was to find the syllabus or schedule and see if there were additional documents referenced or implied that informed or directed the instructions given in that document, like a classroom scheduling policy.

In the portion of research reported on in this manuscript, I was seeking to understand the discourses that were coordinating the work of undergraduate women. To do that, I asked six STEM faculty participants to describe an ideal student; I also asked women undergraduate students the same question. Data analysis followed Carspecken’s (1996) critical ethnographic approach to data analysis.  More specific details about the analysis (and the figure!) are included in the article. While it can often feel like I don’t get enough space to talk about methods given space recommendations, I did not feel like I needed more space in this manuscript.

This can’t be an all-inclusive post on publishing from a dissertation – indeed, others have done that and done it quite well.  Instead, I’ll talk about how I approached publishing from my dissertation research and some of the challenges I encountered in the process.  From the conception of my dissertation research, I knew that I planned to seek publication of the findings it in journal article format. Because of that, I initially proposed to my dissertation committee that I do a three-journal article format instead of a five-chapter traditional dissertation, but they were resistant, so I settled on a seven-chapter dissertation (to my knowledge, the seven-chapter dissertation format isn’t a thing, in case you are doing some frantic googling). Basically, I broke my findings into three chapters organized according to the institutional level I was exploring – classroom, department, and institution – instead of putting them all into one very long Findings chapter. This manuscript focused on what I called the “departmental” level, which explored the discourses that coordinated what it meant to be a STEM student across STEM in higher education, although the participants in this study were at one institution.

To move from my dissertation to the manuscript I eventually submitted for review at JWG, I began by identifying which journal I wanted to submit the manuscript by identifying journals with missions that aligned with my research: women, higher education and/or STEM education.  Second, I checked each journal’s submission guidelines. For this manuscript especially, a big part of submission guideline review involved checking the word limits in the author guidelines.  Because I was publishing from my very long dissertation, I wanted the journal mission to align with my research, but I also wanted an 8,000 word limit. JWG was a clear and easy choice.

From there, I set to work cutting apart my dissertation to then re-cobble it together into a cohesive manuscript.  Since I had already decided how I’d divide the findings for publication prior to writing my dissertation, my task was to identify which parts of the literature review applied to this manuscript and refine and reduce portions of the introduction and methods chapter to inform understanding of the findings I would discuss.  This process was easiest for the first manuscript.  While much of the literature review was easily divided according to the three different manuscripts, in the second and third manuscripts I had to make sure that I wasn’t self-plagiarising when I talked about the study purpose, theoretical framework, and methods.  In this manuscript, because it was the first one, I didn’t encounter this challenge, but I had to carefully read through the second and then the third manuscripts I submitted for publication from my dissertation, comparing sections against each other to make sure that I hadn’t duplicated language.  This was a challenge, and I still wake up in a panic sometimes worrying that I have inadvertently self-plagiarized. I checked and double-checked each manuscript and the final proofs.  As a result, I have reached a point where I’m not sure I know how to describe Institutional Ethnography or Standpoint Theory in a new way.

I had wonderful and comprehensive feedback from my dissertation chair, C. Casey Ozaki, and committee, and I didn’t find it too challenging to create this manuscript from my dissertation. Because of Casey’s involvement as chair, she was a coauthor, and she provided valuable feedback prior to submitting for review.

Publication Process

I submitted the manuscript early-Fall 2016 and the manuscript was accepted in December 2016. The email communicating the acceptance indicated that proofs would be coming soon. However, by summer 2017, I hadn’t heard anything from the journal, so I reached out in the hopes of figuring out what was going on.  By now, I had a tenure-track position, and 2017 was looking like it might be a year without any publications. I thought that was a poor way to start my new role and started feeling some anxiety about if and when the article would be published. I later learned that JWG was working through a backlog of accepted manuscripts (a great problem to have), but at the time, I just didn’t know what was happening.  Luckily, in September 2017, I received an email from the editors about next steps.  While reviewers hadn’t suggested any revisions, the editors did, so I worked with them to make the edits using track changes in word.  The process was smooth and quick, and the suggestions were made thoughtfully and greatly improved the manuscript.  Overall, my experience working with the JWG editors through edits and proofs toward publication was the best publication experience I have had in my career. Full disclosure, I’m now a member of the JWG review board, although I wasn’t at the time this manuscript was published.

One of the key things that the editors pointed out in the proofing process was my use of female/male when referring to gender and gendered concepts. Since this manuscript (and, indeed, all of my research) explored gender as a construct, it was inappropriate to use female, which refers to biological sex when I was referring to gender.  Making the shift to using woman was an easy switch from an editing standpoint, but this transition represented a huge evolution in my understanding of the gendered constructs I explore in my work and clarified the importance of understanding the difference between gender and sex.  Aside from being more accurate (and in accordance with APA guidelines), using woman when referring to the way that power, knowledge, processes, and discourses are gendered allows for a broader discussion of who these gendered constructs impact (and how).  It felt, at first, awkward to use woman as an adjective, but a shift happened naturally as I used it every time I talked about gender (which, as a feminist scholar, is a lot!). Now, I cringe every time I hear female when referring to gender.  I can’t fix my dissertation and prior published work that used “female” throughout when I was referring to gender.  I can’t unpublish them, but it is important to me to acknowledge them here.

After Publication

Like the CDA of STEM syllabi, this manuscript was also featured on the same alt-right website that started the previous furor. This time, however, the same persistent vitriol didn’t occur, I think because this article was not published open-access. The syllabus CDA was published in TQR, an open-access journal, so anyone, with or without a journal subscription, could read it. In contrast, JWG wasn’t open-access, so it was harder for someone without institutional access or NASPA membership to read. As a result, while there were a few follow-up alt-right posts and impassioned emails deriding my career pursuits, those responses were nothing like the syllabus article.  This was a relief, but by this point, I’d also stopped viewing the emails as valid attacks, and I only really worried about ones that threatened or implied violence.

I’ve also continued to explore how “ideals” in STEM are gendered, collecting data from multiple institution types, undergraduate and graduate students, and international institutions.  A manuscript reporting on those findings is in progress now, and we hope to submit it for review by the end of the month.

Because this manuscript is not open-access, if you do not have institutional access to the manuscript and would like to review it, please contact me, and I will help you gain access.


Acker, J. (1990). Hierarchies, jobs, bodies: A theory of gendered organizations. Gender & Society, 4(2), 139158. doi:10.1177/089124390004002002

Acker, J. (2000). Gendered contradictions in organizational equity projects. Organization, 7(4), 625632. doi:10.1177/135050840074007

Acker, J. (2012). Gendered organizations and intersectionality: Problems and possibilities. Equality, Diversity and Inclusion: An International Journal, 31(3), 214224. doi:10.1108/02610151211209072

Britton, D. M. (2000). The epistemology of the gendered organization. Gender & Society, 14(3), 418434. doi:10.1177/089124300014003004

Britton, D. M., & Logan, L. (2008). Gendered organizations: Progress and prospects. Sociology Compass, 2(1), 107121. doi:10.1111/j1751-9020.2007.00071.x

Carspecken, F. P. (1996). Critical ethnography in educational research: A theoretical and practical guide [Kindle reader version]. New York, NY: Routledge. Retrieved from

Hartsock, N. (1987). The feminist standpoint: Developing the ground for a specifically feminist historical materialism. In S. Harding (Ed), Feminism and methodology (pp. 157–180). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Smith, D. E. (2005). Institutional ethnography: A sociology for people. Lanham, MD: Altamira Press.

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