The Gender Gap in Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math Occupations

Aug 04 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

The U.S. Department of Commerce just released a report on the continuing gender gap in STEM jobs - that is, science, technology, engineering, and math. While women make up roughly half of the total paid workforce, they still held only a quarter of STEM jobs as of 2009:

In fact, we saw no change in the gender make-up of STEM fields between 2000 and 2009.

There is significant variation in the gender composition within the STEM category, however. At the high end, women hold 40% of jobs in the physical and life sciences; the low point is engineering, where only 14% of employees are women. And the proportion of women in computer science and math jobs actually fell between 2000 and 2009, from 30% to 27% of workers.

This isn't simply because of differences in education, either. Here we see the proportion of both men and women in STEM jobs at various educational levels; while increased education correlates with a higher likelihood of having a STEM job for both groups, women are significantly less likely than men at every educational level to have a STEM job:


The gender disparity in STEM jobs is especially noteworthy because, on average, STEM occupations pay significantly more than other private-sector jobs, and the gender gap in pay is actually lower than in non-STEM sectors:

If we look only at women with bachelor's degrees, women who earn STEM degrees and work in STEM jobs earn, on average, 29% more than other women.

So the underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs means that women are missing out on some of the best-paying occupations in the U.S.; in fact, this type of gender-segregation of jobs is one of the leading causes of gender gap in yearly and lifetime earnings.

The authors of the report don't go into detail about potential causes of the gender gap in STEM careers, though they note that among those earning STEM degrees in college, women are significantly less likely than men to hold jobs in related STEM fields. They suggest this might be because STEM jobs are relatively unaccommodating to those who take time off for family obligations (disproportionately women), because of a lack of female role models in STEM fields (including as college professors), or because of gender stereotyping about math or science aptitude (like this, or this if you prefer a t-shirt) that pushes women away from STEM degrees and careers.

The complex interplay of factors that lead to a gender gap in who holds STEM-sector jobs provides significant challenges to increasing the proportion of women in these occupations --- as indicated by the lack of change over the past decade. But particularly as we see increasing economic divergence between well-paid tech and information sector and low-paid service sector jobs, addressing the underrepresentation of women in STEM jobs will be essential as part of any effort to improve women's lifetime earnings potential and overall economic outlook.

20 responses so far

  • Dan Gaston says:

    Wouldn't it be more fair to look at hiring trends when talking about the gender gap, and not share of the total workforce? I think that would give a better overall impression of the situation as it exists now and not carry so much baggage from previous decades.

    • Mr. Mike says:

      I agree...statistics taken "in aggregate are often misleading". I would specualte that woman more often than men leave the workforce for short periods and then return...and this can influence salary comparison. I for one have no problem with equal pay for equal work. What I have issue with is the "concept of perceived discrimination" whether the facts are there or not. And the eventual consequences due to these perceptions on male employment and working conditions. I also am not for mixed gender eduacation until after age 16 (K-9) or possibly until graduation. Men and woman evolve and mature differently in additionaly act different in social groups. Consequently educational systems need to evolve and adapt to these individual gendeer differences. A one size fits both genders does not bode well with my experiences and age/experiences.

  • Zuska says:

    Hahaha! And the first comment goes to...Mainsplainer Dan! Who is unmoved by data and analysis, and just has a feeling his idea would be "more fair"!!!! To who? For what? "More fair" than, you know, reality and all it's troublesome implications.

  • Karen says:

    I'm in my third adult decade of hearing that the "the situation is better now, let's not carry so much baggage from previous decades". No, it isn't that much better.

    I left computer engineering, after 25 years, in part because I got tired of the 50-60 hour weeks expected of me, to work on projects that often as not never saw the light of day. Children? What children? I didn't have any. There are women engineers who have children, but they live a life pared down to the basics of get kids to school, work, feed and get kids to bed, work, sneak in a little sleep, work. There are exceptions -- I know a couple -- but to stay mainstream in the field, you must work, study, and WORK.

    My other reason for leaving was that I had to make a decision to abandon elderly parents to paid caregivers, or take time away from work. And taking time away from work in computer engineering is a guarantee against ever working again.

    I'm nearly trained for another STEM field now -- geology -- that pays much less than engineering, but it appears to have actual employed people who go home at least some time before midnight, and whose work generally has some intrinsic value. But my women professors are poor examples for those women who want to follow in their footsteps; all but one is childless.

    • Mr. Mike says:

      It is not better for you Karen. But you are not the center of the universe. In addition you are failing to realize that all workers in this economy have been thwarted in most attempts at upward social mobility...even males. So I would speculate that what you are exepriencing is what all segments of the work force have experienced.

  • Zuska says:

    You know, I bet most women in STEM would be thrilled not to have to "carry so much baggage from previous decades". Like, the effects of decades of discrimination, harassment, institutional barriers, subtle bias in hiring, evaluations, and promotions...

    • thehermitage says:

      Zuska, it is not these poor young males' fault that their pappas and grandpappas were possibly a little bit conservative and refused to hire women and maybe slapped their asses sometimes. They have worked hard all their lives and there's no reason why they should have to bear the burden of discrimination (their age - 10) years ago. Because they don't see gender or race, so no one else should either.

      *rolls around on the ground, laughing hysterically*

  • Dan Gaston says:

    Yeah, thanks for automatically assuming I'm a "Manspaliner" and wanting to dismiss the argument outright. I think a more robust picture would form if we also look at recent hiring trends, and not just bulk averages. At least here in Canada the recession and removal of mandatory retirement ages in many provinces mean that more of the older men who make up the bulk of many STEM fields are remaining active and employeed much longer than they did even 5-10 years ago. That has an effect on the bulk averages that needs to be considered.

    Nowhere did I claim there is no problem, entrenched inertia of gender ratios in a workforce are obviously going to have an impact. But if we are going to have a discussion about these issues shouldn't we also include other relevant data? What percentage of new faculty hires in STEM fields are women versus men? What percentage of graduates from PhD programs? Entrance into and graduates from these fields at the Undergraduate level.

    It can inform us on where we are doing better, by how much, and where we still have work to do. I have no idea what that data is other than my own anecdotal experience in the life sciences where the majority of graduate students seem to be women, but I honestly don't know how those numbers may be changing in terms of new faculty hires and how that relates to "the post-doc problem."

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK23781/ seems to have some interesting data, although it is now 4 years out of date. It is troubling to me that marital status and children has such a huge negative impact on women versus a positive impact on men.

    Maybe I should have said include instead of merely "look at."

    • thehermitage says:

      Maybe she slapped you with the 'mansplainer' label because if you'd paid any attention to these sorts of things you would have noticed that historically men make the EXACT SAME argument every decade or so. There has not been some magical uptick in women's hiring in STEM fields recently, or in the last 20-30 years. Probably even further than that, but I haven't checked.

      • Dan Gaston says:

        Note I'm not saying "look at this data instead and everything will be all better!" It just seems to me, from a purely statistical perspective, to be better to look at trends in hiring practices (and promotion, tenure-track, etc) over time than just to look at shares of the bulk total. Wouldn't this potentially show impact from programs like ADVANCE? I thought that program was relatively recent.

        NSF data from 2006 (http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf08308/) seemed interesting to me in terms of time since PhD was awarded and shares of new hires, new hires in tenure-track positions, etc.

        What I still find troubling is that marital status and presence of children in the home has such a negative impact on women versus men. It seems to me that that is a major contributor to the remaining subtle biases, especially when it comes to promotion.

        I agree there are problems. And maybe this data tells us the exact same thing, I'm just not sure it is the best way to look at the data.

        • Zuska says:

          "It just seems to me, from a purely statistical perspective, to be better to look at trends in hiring practices (and promotion, tenure-track, etc) over time than just to look at shares of the bulk total. "

          This is what makes you a class-A #1 Mansplainer. Because it just seems to you to better. It seems to you to be better to completely dismiss out of hand the statistics and analysis presented in the post and not attend at all to the point being made, and ask for a COMPLETELY DIFFERENT bit of statistics and analysis which, if presented, you would dismiss out of hand and ask for a completely different bit of statistics and analysis that you believe would give a more complete view of the issue which, in your infinitely manly wisdom, you are well positioned to tell us about. Because those of us who have been studying and thinking and writing about this for, oh, YEARS cannot possibly know what is important to attend to and point out for people to look at and think about, without some drive by d00d saying what seems better to him.

        • Zuska says:

          "I agree there are problems. And maybe this data tells us the exact same thing, I'm just not sure it is the best way to look at the data."

          More mansplaining. D00d, there are 18 gazillion million ways to look at the problem, which is really like cancer, a lot of different problems with a lot of different but interacting causes. There is no one and only one best way to look at the data. There are scads of ways to parse all kinds of data and they give you all kinds of glimpses into the sheer hell that is patriarchy. This post is one of those ways, one glimpse into the muck. Stop telling us how to do it better and just read and think a little, and comment on the actual substance of the post. Then you will have begun the journey from mansplainer to ally.

          • Dan Gaston says:

            My apologies for my lack of deliberation in commenting. I'm not trying to dismiss the issue or argument presented. I'm really not. And you're absolutely right, the data as presented is one way of studying the problem and it does provides useful (and important) information.

  • Dan, I don't understand your objection, nor your suggestion to look at more recent hiring trends. Those trends are in line with what I have broadly (but informally) observed across the industry. The above text clearly states: "And the proportion of women in computer science and math jobs actually fell between 2000 and 2009, from 30% to 27% of workers." That seems to settle the argument. Do you have counterindicative data?

    • Dan Gaston says:

      I'm not objecting to the data. And despite accusations in this thread I didn't dismiss the data or the argument presented in the post. The data is clearly troubling, it highlights a significant problem within STEM employment relative to trends in employment data as a whole.

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  • SARAH says:

    I"m completely with Dan on this. When I was reading this, I hoped for some stats broken down by age. I see proportionally more women among younger scientists and students, without a doubt, though I also see my friends and colleagues dropping out or losing ground professionally, especially when they have family. I personally felt that having kids was a huge derailment to my career, and I'm no longer competitive at the top levels. But nor am I working as hard or as much, which is a nicer way to live, for me. Science minded girls knows what it takes to be accomplished in STEM careers, and I wonder if many decided that non- STEM careers are in a sense more stable because they are more accommodating to changing life plans. What good does it do me to have a Harvard PhD if I've been home with my kids for three years and can't get another job?