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Disability Research

STEM PhDs with disabilities are underpaid and underrepresented in U.S. academia

New research from the Disability Health Research Center reveals significant pay disparities among STEM PhD holders across all employment sectors

Sydnee Logan
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New research from the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center at the School of Nursing suggests that PhD graduates in science, technology, engineering, and medicine in the U.S. who were born with disabilities or became disabled before age 25 earn $14,360 less per year in academia than those without disabilities. They are also underrepresented at higher faculty levels—such as deans and presidents—and in tenured positions, according to the study published Nov. 27 in Nature Human Behaviour.

"We're identifying the barriers to inclusion so we can dismantle them," says Bonnielin Swenor, an author of the study. Swenor is also a faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing and founder and director of the center. "Combating the disparities will take structural transformation."

"We're identifying the barriers to inclusion so we can dismantle them."
Bonnielin Swenor
Director, Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center

Previous research has revealed pay disparities and unequal representation in STEM for women and underrepresented racial minorities in the U.S.; research has also identified that scientists and engineers with disabilities, regardless of the age of disability onset, are more likely to be unemployed than the overall U.S. labor force. However, data on disparities for STEM doctoral recipients with disabilities have been lacking.

Swenor and colleagues examined evidence for differences in salary and representation of STEM PhD grads with disabilities before 25 years of age and those with disabilities at 25 years of age or later, compared to doctorate recipients without disabilities. The authors used national data on nearly 1.15 million U.S. research doctorate recipients who received degrees between 1973 and 2017. Of their sample, 704,013 individuals were still working in STEM, including 36,807 individuals who reported disabilities experienced in later life and 20,544 people who reported disabilities from early in life. Within this subset, they matched individuals by socioeconomic background, job, and degree-related characteristics.

Across all employment sectors, STEM PhD graduates with disabilities earned $10,580 less per year than their counterparts without disabilities, and in academia, they earn $14,360 less. The authors also found those with disabilities were underrepresented at higher faculty levels, such as deans and presidents, and in tenured positions. The authors call for structural transformations to combat these disparities.

"The Disability Health Research Center aims to shift the paradigm from 'living with a disability' to 'thriving with a disability' and uses data-driven approaches to drive change in many sectors, including in STEM," Swenor says.

Today more than 27% of American adults have disabilities, and yet people with disabilities still face many barriers to health, equity, and inclusion.

The study authors include Franz Castro, a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Research Center; Elizabeth Stuart, chair of the Department of Biostatistics at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; Jennifer Deal, an associate professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Varshini Varadaraj, a research associate at the Johns Hopkins Disability Health Center.