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Closing the Pay Gap in STEM Fields Starts With Education

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One year after graduation, female engineering majors earn 88 percent of what men earn on average, according to a new study.

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You can also read this article at Science Progress, CAP’s online science and technology policy journal, here.

The pay gap between men and women is nothing new, but the science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields have long been touted as having a lower-than-average wage gap. A new study, however, has found that’s not always the case.

The report, published by the American Association of University Women, found that one year after graduation female college graduates earn about 82 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn. It also found that women who major in key STEM fields aren’t exempt from this gap. Among computer and information technology majors, women earned 77 percent of their male counterparts’ salaries one year after graduation. Men with these majors earned on average $51,296, while women earned $39,618. Female engineering majors earned 88 percent of what men earned on average, with men earning $55,152 to women’s $48,493.

The study attributed some of this gap to the fact that after graduating women often take different jobs than men even when they majored in the same field:

Among engineering and engineering technology majors, 57 percent of men were working as engineers compared with 39 percent of women .… In contrast, 20 percent of women who graduated with an engineering or engineering technology degree were working in a white-collar occupation other than engineering, science, or business, compared with 4 percent of men.

These results, which focus on graduates’ majors instead of their fields of work, are consistent with a 2010 Department of Commerce report, which found women in STEM jobs experienced a 14 percent gap in wages, earning 86 cents for every dollar men in the same fields earned—a disparity which, though lower than the average 21 percent pay gap in non-STEM jobs, is still significant.

On top of not going into the same jobs as men after graduating with a STEM major—and experiencing a pay gap when they do—far fewer women choose a STEM major than men. The American Association of University Women study found that among 2007–08 graduates, only 18 percent of engineering and technology majors and 19 percent of computer and information-science majors were women. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 2009 there were 2.5 million college-educated working women with STEM degrees, compared with 6.7 million men.

The Department of Commerce speculates that the reasons for this gender gap could stem from outdated gender stereotypes, from a lack of female role models in STEM fields, and from the possibility that STEM careers are less accommodating to people “cycling in and out of the work-force to raise a family.”

An Association for Women in Science survey of workers in STEM fields adds proof to the last speculation, finding that lack of workplace flexibility, dissatisfaction with career development opportunities, and low salaries were key complaints among both men and women respondents, and that 40 percent of women respondents said they put off having a child because of their careers, compared to 27 percent of men respondents.

A 2012 Yale study adds another potential explanation for a gender and pay gap in STEM fields: a science faculty biased toward male students. In the study, science faculty participants rated a hypothetical applicant assigned a male name as “significantly more competent and hirable” than the identical applicant assigned a female name. These participants also were willing to pay the male $4,000 more than the female applicant and were more willing to provide mentoring to the male than the female applicant.

In a 2010 study, the American Association of University Women recommended that to address the skewed male to female ratio in STEM fields, universities should actively recruit high school girls to STEM majors and encourage girls’ interest in science early on in life. Some universities have begun doing just that—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology sends female students to secondary schools to persuade girls to consider STEM fields at MIT, while the University of Central Arkansas is using a $10,000 grant to recruit first-year females to computer science and provide them with mentoring throughout their time at the university. Texas A&M uses on-campus workshops such as “Expanding Your Horizons” to encourage middle-school girls’ interest in science, and Kettering University in Michigan hosts a two-week engineering camp for 11th-grade girls.

The federal government has also gotten involved in closing the STEM gender gap. University of Cincinnati researchers are using a $3.7 million National Science Foundation grant to study how to recruit and keep women in STEM fields. President Barack Obama has called for increased involvement of women in the STEM fields, and in April 2011 the White House announced four new commitments to increase women’s and girls’ interest and involvement in STEM.

These initiatives are steps in the right direction toward getting girls and young women interested in pursuing STEM careers, but more could be done to make working conditions better for women once they do enter a career—whether in STEM or in other fields.

The United States is one of only three countries in the developed world that do not mandate paid maternity leave for new mothers. When taken, average maternity leave for mothers in the United States is 10.3 weeks, compared to the 39 weeks paid maternity leave entitled to women in the United Kingdom. Incorporating paid maternity and family leave and child care assistance into U.S. policy could reduce the number of women who quit or put their jobs on hold to start a family—especially in the STEM fields, where women are more likely than men to quit in order to raise a family.

The American Association of University Women study recommends that the U.S. government enact legislation that goes beyond the Lilly Ledbetter Act in ensuring equal pay for women. In particular, it urges congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act, which updates the Equal Pay Act of 1963 by making it easier for women who experience wage discrimination to report and resolve the issue, protecting those women who do, and providing resources for women to improve their wage negotiation abilities.

It seems the wage gap and employment gap for women in STEM have three main causes: Fewer women than men choose STEM majors in college; fewer of those women who do study a STEM major then decide to enter STEM careers after graduation; and those who do enter STEM fields earn lower wages. But the American Association of University Women study suggests it doesn’t have to be that way.

If women can be inspired to join STEM majors, be supported in pursuing STEM careers after graduation, and be empowered with the legal tools they need to ensure they are compensated equally for equal work, we can start to close the STEM pay gap. And, as an additional bonus, we will add to the workforce thousands more of the high-skilled, technically able workers that our nation needs to compete in the global innovation economy of the 21st century.

Katie Valentine is a graduate of the University of Georgia and an intern at the Center for American Progress.

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