STEM Major Choice and the Gender Pay Gap
Andresse St. Rose
By Andresse St. Rose, research associate, AAUW
A college education remains the most reliable path to economic mobility and security for millions of Americans. As women’s college enrollment continues to grow, so does the public’s perception that women are now on equal footing with men. Over the past fifty years, women’s increasing educational achievements have indeed helped to raise women’s earnings and narrow the overall gender pay gap from 59 cents for every dollar earned by men in 1960 to 77 cents in 2008 (Institute for Women’s Policy Research 2010). But although additional education has improved women’s earnings, it has not created a level playing field. Ironically, the pay gap among some college-educated workers is larger than it is for the population as a whole. While college-educated women working full time earn 80 percent as much as their male peers one year after graduation, after ten years, they earn only about 69 percent as much as their male counterparts (Dey and Hill 2007). In part, these gaps reflect different choices made by women and men, such as the critical choice of college major.
Women are especially underrepresented in most science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors (or STEM, as these fields are commonly called). For example, in 2007, women earned 17 percent of bachelor’s degrees in engineering, compared to 79 percent of bachelor’s degrees in education (Planty et al. 2009). Within STEM fields, women’s underrepresentation is particularly severe in majors like computer science, physics, and engineering—fields that include better-paying jobs after graduation, even compared to other mathematically demanding fields. In 2009, the average starting salary for bachelor’s degree recipients in mechanical engineering was $59,000, compared to $50,000 for bachelor’s degree recipients in economics (National Association of Colleges and Employers 2009). Therefore, reducing gender segregation in college major—specifically, increasing women’s participation across key STEM fields, particularly those where they are most underrepresented—could be critical to reducing the gender pay gap between college-educated men and women.
Gender Segregation in College Majors and the Workplace
Gender differences in the choice of college major are quite dramatic. First-year female college students are far less likely than their male peers to plan to major in a STEM field, a pattern that is consistent across race and ethnicity. In their survey of American freshman, researchers at the Higher Education Research Institute found that 29 percent of male first-year college students planned to declare a STEM major, compared to 15 percent of female first-year college students (Higher Education Research Institute 2007). In 2006, women earned almost 60 percent of bachelor’s degrees in biology and half of the degrees in chemistry, but earned only about 20 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in physics, computer science, and engineering (National Science Foundation 2008).
After graduation, gender segregation in college major choice is reflected in gender segregation in the workforce, with significant economic consequences for women. Both male and female college graduates with STEM degrees tend to have higher salaries than their peers with degrees in other disciplines. For example, one year after graduation, an education major working full time earned, on average, about 60 percent as much as an engineering major working full time ($525 versus $851 per week) (Dey and Hill 2007). However, women are less likely than men to earn degrees and work in STEM fields (see Graph 1), and therefore are less likely to enjoy the higher earnings associated with these fields. In engineering and computer science, women still represent less than a fifth of the workforce.
Graph 1. Women in Selected STEM Occupations, 2008
Source: Hill, C., C. Corbett, and A. St. Rose. 2010. Why so few? Women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Washington, DC: AAUW, 14.
The economic advantages of majoring in STEM fields appear immediately after graduation. In Behind the Pay Gap, AAUW researchers found that one year out of college, female engineers and architects (16 percent of the field) earned slightly more on average (105 percent) than their male peers. Yet although women working full time in engineering and architecture initially earned more than their male colleagues, their advantage reversed and widened over time. Ten years after graduation, women working full time in engineering and architecture earned only about 93 percent of what their male colleagues earned. (See table 1 for details regarding the overall gender wage gap in selected STEM occupations.) Nevertheless, even ten years after graduation, women in male-dominated fields such as engineering continued to earn more than their female peers working in female-dominated majors such as education, humanities, or psychology.
These differences suggest that a key strategy for shrinking the persistent gender pay gap is to reduce gender segregation in choice of college major and occupation. One way to do this is by adopting practices to promote women’s recruitment and retention in STEM majors, a topic addressed later in this article.
Table 1. Wage Gap in Selected STEM Occupations, 2008
(Full-time, Year-round Civilian Population, Ages 16 and Older)
Source: AAUW. N.d. www.aauw.org/learn/research/statedata/upload/stem_data.pdf
Why Women Don’t Major in STEM
Some commentators mistakenly attribute the gender gap in STEM to differences in mathematical ability. Historically, men outperformed women in math, but the gender gap in math performance has closed over time and no longer exists in the general student population (Hyde et al. 2008). Today, on average, high school girls take more math and science credits and earn higher grades in these subjects than boys (Shettle et al. 2007). Female and male first-year STEM majors are equally likely to have taken the prerequisite math and science classes in high school, to have earned high grades in those classes, and to have confidence in their math and science abilities (Brainard and Carlin 1998; Huang, Taddese, and Walter 2000). In addition, women graduates have higher GPAs than men in every major, including science and math (Dey and Hill 2007). Thus ability does not explain women’s underrepresentation in STEM majors.
Another common but somewhat misguided explanation for female underrepresentation in STEM is that while girls and young women may be just as able as young men, they are not as interested in science and engineering. From early adolescence, girls report less interest in math and science careers than boys do (Turner et al. 2008), and among children identified as mathematically precocious, girls were less likely than boys to pursue STEM careers as adults (Lubinski and Benbow 2006). Girls’ lower reported interest in STEM may be partially explained by social attitudes and beliefs about whether it is appropriate for girls to pursue these subjects and careers. Research shows that girls often assess their abilities lower than boys assess their own abilities in fields like math that are characterized as male domains. Correll found that among girls and boys with similar math achievement (indicated by test scores and grades), girls are more likely to assess their math abilities lower than boys while at the same time holding themselves to a higher standard (2004). Girls often believe that they have to be exceptional to pursue so-called “male fields.” A change in social attitudes and beliefs about what careers are suitable for women may have a positive effect on whether and how girls and young women pursue their interest in science and engineering.
In some cases, however, encouraging girls’ ability and interest is not sufficient. Among students who do declare STEM majors, Brainard and Carlin found that academically capable women were more likely to leave STEM majors compared to men with similar grades (1998). In these cases, neither low ability nor lack of interest are possible culprits. Research suggests that the culture and climate of STEM departments in colleges and universities can be an important barrier to women’s recruitment and persistence in these fields. The climate of a department is important for all students, but bears more weight in women’s decisions to remain in a STEM major, where women are often outnumbered and can feel like they do not fit in (National Academy of Sciences 2007). However, small changes to improve the climate of STEM departments can yield significant gains in attracting and keeping more women in these majors.
Recommendations for Colleges and Universities
Reducing gender segregation in college majors and occupations can improve women’s economic opportunities and help shrink the overall gender pay gap. AAUW’s recent research report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, profiles social science research on gender and STEM that identifies barriers to women’s participation and persistence in these fields in schools, colleges, and the workplace. The report recommends a number of actions that science and engineering departments can take to attract and retain more female students:
Actively recruit female students. Although female first-year college students are less likely than their male peers to plan to declare a STEM major, there is a pool of talented women who might pursue these majors if encouraged to do so. Departments can increase the number of female students by actively recruiting women. Active recruitment includes, but is not limited to, performing outreach to high school students and inviting undeclared and transfer students to learn about the department through introductory courses and social events. Additionally, research by Barbara Whitten on what works for women in undergraduate physics stresses that departments need to think of their majors in terms of pathways, not pipelines. Among all the schools that Whitten and her colleagues visited for their research, HBCUs were the only ones that provided a path toward the degree for students who do not enter college on track to be physics majors. Whitten insists that if all colleges and universities provided similar pathways, diversity in STEM would increase (Whitten et al. 2007).
Broaden the scope of early coursework. Emphasizing the broader applications of STEM disciplines is an effective strategy for attracting and retaining more women in these majors. Introductory courses can offer opportunities to learn about the wide-ranging applications and social relevance of STEM fields. This strategy attracts men as well as women, but it is especially effective with women, who are more likely to report that they want their work to have a clear social purpose (Margolis and Fisher 2002; Eccles 2006). Because most people do not view STEM occupations as directly beneficial to society, STEM careers often do not appeal to women (or men) who want to make a social contribution. Yet certain STEM subdisciplines with a clear social purpose, such as biomedical engineering and environmental engineering, have succeeded in attracting relatively high percentages of women (Gibbons 2009).
Help young women more accurately assess their abilities in math and science. The more positively students assess their abilities in a subject, the more likely they are to enroll in classes in that subject or to choose it as their major. Among men and women with similar past mathematical achievement (as measured by grades and test scores), men are more likely to assess their mathematical abilities more positively than do women, perhaps contributing to men’s higher participation in mathematically demanding fields. At the same time, women often hold themselves to a higher standard in traditionally male fields like STEM and tend to believe that they have to be exceptional to succeed (Correll 2004).
Make performance standards and expectations in STEM courses clear. Extremely low average test scores are common in many college science and engineering courses. Low scores increase uncertainty in all students, but they have a particularly negative effect on women, who often hold themselves to a higher standard than men or feel like they don’t belong in STEM (Correll 2004). College instructors should set clear expectations and provide more specific or prescriptive feedback (including recommendations for future performance) to help students more accurately assess their work. The more professors can reduce ambiguity about students’ performance, the more students will look beyond stereotypes in assessing themselves.
Foster a supportive, stereotype-free learning environment. Research shows that negative stereotypes about women’s abilities in math and science persist and can have a measurable impact on women’s performance through a phenomenon known as stereotype threat. Even individuals who consciously reject gender stereotypes can hold stereotypical beliefs at an unconscious level. Both explicit and unconscious biases influence our assumptions about and behavior towards others. Creating learning environments that are free of negative stereotypes requires an understanding of how bias works at both personal and organizational levels, and taking steps to address it. One useful strategy is to set clear criteria for evaluating students and transparent processes for conferring scholarships, research opportunities, and other competitive awards. In the absence of clear criteria, people often rely on stereotypical beliefs to guide their decisions.
When it comes to reducing the gender pay gap, alleviating gender segregation in undergraduate majors and in the workplace would be a step in the right direction. But evidence suggests that bias against women in science and engineering continues to undermine women’s success in those fields. To guard against bias and thus support women’s success in all fields, colleges and universities should take multiple steps, including ensuring compliance with Title IX, which applies to all educational programs and is an important tool for creating equal opportunities for women in STEM.
The gender pay gap that exists within fields of study and occupation indicates that occupational and major choice tell only part of the story (Dey and Hill 2007). A portion of the gender pay gap is unexplained by employment, educational, and personal choices. That portion can be attributed to discrimination. This unexplained portion of the pay gap increases from five percent in the first year after graduation to twelve percent ten years after graduation (Dey and Hill 2007). The widening gap suggests either that discrimination may worsen over time or that its effects are cumulative. As important as it is to end gender segregation in college majors and the workplace, this strategy alone will not eliminate gender disparities in pay. It is equally important to end the biases and beliefs that promote discrimination against women, in earnings and in other aspects of life.
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