Researchers analyze gender gaps in STEM employment

Freya Preimesberger

Less than 25 percent of science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — jobs are held by women, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Researchers at UT, Cornell University and Syracuse University set out to analyze this gender gap. 

Their study, which was published Sept. 28 in Social Science Research, found that while many women study STEM fields, they disproportionately study fields such as life sciences, which provide fewer jobs than fields such as computer science and engineering. The study also reported that, unlike men, women are not seen as more valuable if they delay marriage and children.

Researchers looked at data from a survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics which included men and women born between 1957 and 1964. This cohort includes women who came of age during the second-wave feminism of the 1980s. During this period, women graduated from college at a rate higher than men for the first time. This study showed that 53 percent of men who received a bachelor’s degree in STEM found a job in a STEM field within two years of graduation, compared to 41 percent of women.

The researchers found that the bulk of the gap was due to the underrepresentation of women in fields that most often lead to jobs in STEM, such as engineering and computer science. Women were more likely to find employment in fields outside of STEM, including healthcare and education.

“It’s really a puzzle because … [the survey] had a larger representation of women in computer science than there is today,” said Katherine Michelmore, assistant professor of public administration and international affairs at Syracuse University and co-author of the study. “There’s all sorts of things as to why that could be the case — there’s talk of tipping points where, once women make up a certain threshold, it signals to other women that it’s a major they can also succeed in. For computer science, it could be something about the climate of the major.”

The study defined several “ideal worker attributes” such as disinterest in getting married and having children in the near future. Men who expressed these attributes were more likely to find a job in STEM, but women with the same attributes did not receive the same benefits. Career-oriented women were not any more likely to enter a STEM job than women who intended on marrying and having children early on.

“We call this ‘statistical discrimination,’ which is the belief that all women will act as the average woman does,” said Jennifer Glass, UT sociology professor and co-author of the study. “In this case, that means leaving the labor force to stay home and raise children at some point in their career, after a business has invested time and money in training that professional.”

The male participants in the survey tended to have much more traditional views regarding gender ideology and women in the workforce than female participants. According to the study, this may discourage women from pursuing certain fields.

Unlike women in the survey, men who intended to hold a STEM job expected support from their spouse and few familial responsibilities.

“No men are asked to forswear marriage or children in order to show their devotion to work,” Glass said. “It shows that women have to display extraordinary commitment to their scientific or technical career in order to get considered for jobs in their field.”