As three million new students started college around the U.S. this fall, along with their book bags, sweatshirts and posters, they brought with them a critical gender gap. While 1 in 3 men starting a four-year degree plans to study science, technology, engineering or mathematics, only 1 in 5 women plans to do so.
Concerns about the gender gap in STEM range from its role in personal income inequality to national economic competitiveness. And much has been said and done to address this. Indeed, the gender gap in STEM employment is no longer driven primarily by gender differences in high school math-science preparation or in related standardized test scores. Those gaps have largely closed.
But a lesser known factor plays a key role in women’s continuing under-representation in the STEM workforce: the different majors chosen by those men and women who study STEM in college. In looking at these students when they reached mid-career 20 to 30 years later, we found that women were less than half as likely as men to have studied engineering and more than twice as likely to have studied the life sciences.
This matters because engineering is the surest path to long-term STEM employment and its well-paying jobs. Approximately half of women who majored in engineering held a STEM job when at mid-career. Women who studied computing and math had the second highest odds of STEM employment, followed by women in the physical sciences. Women in the life sciences came last, with just 10 to 20 percent in STEM at mid-career.
How does major foster the mid-career STEM gap? Other research offers some clues. First, engineering, computing and math are the largest fields in STEM, together accounting for 80 percent of the eight million STEM jobs in the U.S. today. This means fewer employment opportunities in STEM for college graduates who made the choice most common among women, studying the life sciences. Second, many life science majors pursue careers in health professions outside the four broad STEM fields. This would be fine if opportunities for women in health matched those in STEM. But the economic returns in health vary widely. For example, women account for only 37 percent of doctors and surgeons – the highest paid health professionals – but 92 percent of dieticians and nutritionists, who earn a mere one fourth as much as physicians.
How can we attract more women to STEM careers, especially in engineering and computer science? Recent studies suggest we need to start earlier.
Some of the most innovative efforts focus on the youngest students, those just forming opinions about their own interests and talents. Some school districts, including the Central New York district where one of our families lives, are adopting STEM programs like the Boston Museum of Science’s “Engineering is Elementary.” The goal is to put all students on equal footing by engaging them in hands-on problem solving activities in STEM as early as kindergarten and first grade – before children sort themselves into math-science enthusiasts and math-science phobes. Key to this approach are the explicit connections teachers draw between activities in the STEM lab and the work “real-life” scientists do. The hope is that such programs will inspire more girls to carry skills and confidence built in elementary STEM laboratories with them as they move through high school and will ultimately increase the number of women studying engineering, computing and the physical sciences.
STEM is not a single field with a single career trajectory. Men and women in STEM choose different college majors, and those choices have different implications for their careers and for society. If we engage children in science before they conclude that boys become astronauts and girls become nurses, we will have a better shot at narrowing the gender gap in STEM employment before the current generation of kindergarteners sends their own children off to college.