Supporting female Chinese STEM PhD students to present at academic conferences: A comparative study between students in China and New Zealand

Year: 2021

Author: Yang, Liuning, Smith, Jo, Meyer, Frauke

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Attending and presenting at academic conferences is an important aspect of the doctoral journey. It offers opportunities for PhD students to present their own research, network with others, and learn about the newest developments in their field of research. Prior studies suggest that Chinese female PhD students in STEM fields face gender-bias and challenges of family responsibilities during their studies. However, although there were several studies of female PhD students’ conference experiences worldwide, there was limited prior research in Chinese settings. Prior research pointed out that cultural differences between China and the West may lead to different conference participation.  This small-scale, qualitative study is a part of a wider study from the University of Auckland. It aims to explore the conference experiences of female Chinese PhD students. 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. Data were analyzed using a thematic approach.  The following themes emerged about students’ conference experience. Domestic Chinese students faced more obstacles and gender-bias than their counterparts studying in New Zealand. Lack of faculty support and supervisor-student relationships were reported as influencing conference experiences. Students in New Zealand received more language support and research skills than domestic Chinese students, making them more confident presenters.  Students in China reported worse supervisor-student relationships than students in New Zealand. Two of them reported that they were asked to work for their supervisors without payment, limiting their available time to prepare for attending conferences.  In addition, both students in China and New Zealand reported they faced “pressures of age.” Their relatives urged them to get married as soon as possible before losing their “age advantage,” making them choose not to continue academic careers, focus more on finding a stable job in related industries or government departments, and prepare to take on family responsibilities after their marriage. Consequently, attending academic conferences did not fit their career goals.  Facilitating female PhD students’ academic conference attendance would help promote gender balance in STEM fields and help break the stereotype that family responsibilities are the most important thing for females. This study suggests that structural change is needed in the postgraduate student assessment system in Chinese universities to restrict supervisors’ power. It is also suggested that Chinese universities ought to provide more support for PhD students in STEM fields to attend conferences.