How Gender Equal are the Science and Engineering Fields in the US?

5 mins read

By Aishwarya Sivaramakrishnan

Gender inequality has become a hot topic in recent years. Questions about the pay gap and the reason for the greater number of men at the managerial level have been points of contention and controversy. Similarly, questions have arisen about the percentage of men and women in the fields of Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). Is there a difference in the number of men and women in STEM?  And if there is, what is the cause of this inequality and what can be done to alleviate it?

In the US, women outnumber men in earning a bachelor’s degree in STEM, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES). At first look, this seems promising but further statistical data reveals that though more earn their bachelor’s in STEM, the percentage of women working as researchers is much smaller. When looking at other factors such as promotion rates, level of higher education and salary, equalizing for education level, years of service etc, the number of men still heavily outweighs women.

The statistics reported by the National Girls Collaborative Project, a leading  project tracking women in science in the US, reveals that in 2015, women made up 50% of STEM bachelor’s graduates. Overall, they seemed to be doing well. A closer look however reveals that the disparity is in the details. Half the graduates in the biological sciences were women but only 43% of women entered mathematics. Only 18% studied computer science, and only 39% studied the physical sciences. It seems that some STEM fields have a greater gender difference than others. Though about half the graduates of STEM were women, only 28% of the STEM field consists of female researchers. This is on par with the global average where, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, less than 30% of researchers employed in STEM are women.   

A study in 2018 conducted by the University of Missouri in the US sought to understand the reason for this inequality globally. It revealed that in countries exhibiting high gender equality, men tended to dominate STEM. On the other hand, countries with low gender equality, STEM is dominated by women. The study used the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) to rank how gender-equal a country was and compared this with UNESCO’s yearly data on the number of STEM graduates. GGGI considers factors such as salaries, seats in legislation and life expectancy.

They found that though girls had a propensity to do better on science literacy tests, the number of women graduating with STEM majors globally was not proportionate to that. What happens in this gap? Why aren’t women pursuing STEM despite their ability to compete at the same level as men? Is it because of interests or societal factors? The paradox has never been clearer than in the situation between a GGGI leader like Finland. The country is ranked 2nd in the GGGI and dominates in gender-equality. Surprisingly, it has one of the highest gender gaps in terms of the percentage of women employed in STEM. On the other hand, countries much lower on the scale such as the UAE United Arab Emirates (124th), Tunisia (126th) and Turkey (130th), have some of the highest percentages.

The researchers reasoned that this remarkable paradox is because STEM jobs tend to pay better and provide a greater chance for economic independence than other fields. This seems to be more valuable to women in countries which don’t empower them. On the other hand, countries with high gender equality, like Scandinavian countries, which also tend to be welfare states, encourage their students to pursue fields of their interest. There is a lesser risk in not choosing a high-paying field like STEM in countries ranked higher on the GGGI.

The Missouri study also showed that on average, girls have higher reading levels and interest in reading than boys. They believe that this is why in gender-equal societies, with an absence of economic pressure, girls tend to enter the social sciences rather than STEM. The USA ranks 45th on the GGGI so while it is not the most gender equal country, it is certainly not at the bottom of the barrel either. Is this the reason for the disparity in STEM in the US? Is it because women are not interested in entering certain fields when they don’t have financial pressure to do so? Or are there other factors to consider such as a hostile work environment?

A collaboration between Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and University of California Irvine sought to answer this question. Women make up 13% of the engineering work force. The study surveyed 700 students through their college career at four different universities including a girls-only institution. They found that the male-dominated classroom climate influenced the success of female graduates in the class. According to the study, the issue centered around the “orientation to engineering at college entry, initiation rituals in coursework and team projects”. They explained that “informal interactions with peers and everyday sexism in teams and internships” also influenced the women’s decision to enter the field.

Though these studies are not conclusive, they do shed light on the possible causes of this disproportionality in STEM. One reason is that women are just not as interested in STEM fields as they are in the social sciences and in the absence of an economic pressure, they don’t feel inclined to pursue it. Another potential reason is that the academic and work environments do not foster a safe and professional climate for women to thrive in in the same way their male counterparts do. Yet another reason often cited but not explored in this article is the fact that women are overwhelmingly the primary care takers of children and juggle the work/life balance in a way men do not. Understanding the reasons behind this phenomenon will help us identify any issues and resolve them.

One solution frequently proposed is a quota system that ensures that half of all STEM positions are filled by women. This is a short-sighted way to treat the symptoms of a larger problem. Enforcing a quota based on gender rather than merit hurts long-term equality as women will be undermined as female leaders in STEM. Additionally, if less women graduate from science, a quota would result in qualified men being rejected for positions they would otherwise have filled. In computer science fields where rates of female graduates are very low, employers would be hard pressed to find women to fill their position. This would only lead to resentment and not resolve the reason women drop out of the workforce.

The MIT study explained that the culture in academia and in the workplace influence the dropout rate of female engineers. Cultivating a better work environment and building a women’s network within institutions to help mentor and encourage other women in their shared struggle would be effective. 

Another method is to tackle problems that disproportionately affect women. One such challenge women face is balancing child rearing with work which has been cited repeatedly as a big issue that has been widening the gender-divide. One solution to accommodate female researchers with young families is to provide nursery and childcare facilities near work. Many companies are working to implement this though academia has been slow on the uptake.

One organization that is working hard to resolve this issue is the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in the UK. The ICR noticed that while 50% of their post-doctorates were women, only 30% managed to become team leaders. To tackle this, they paused the clock for positions with time limits like post-doctorate positions and for those on the tenure track. When women went on maternity leave, their ‘clock’ was paused, thereby allowing them to resume their position on their return. In the US, maternity leave is 12 weeks which is another difficult factor to consider. Many researchers may choose to take a break from science, and this ultimately leads to them leaving the workforce. The ICR is also working to provide organizational support for women on maternity leave so that they don’t lose their positions if they chose to extend their maternity leave.

Ultimately, the diversity divide becomes most prominent when women enter the workforce. It is important to understand the unique challenges faced by women and to accommodate them without resorting to simplistic cop-outs like filling quotas.

Illustration: Matilda Zeitz

Aishwarya Siva is currently working on her master’s in biology. When she is not languishing in the depths of BMC, she’s catching a beer with friends, trying to salvage pictures from her century old phone or making references to New Girl that no one knows. She wants to use her opinionated disposition and penchant for writing to work at the intersection of science and policy.

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