The Deep Roots of the STEM Gender Gap

The Deep Roots of the STEM Gender Gap
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Careers in science, technology, engineering and math — more commonly referred to as STEM — are widely believed to provide greater job security and career opportunities. While federal investment in STEM research and development has declined in recent years, tens of billions of dollars have been poured into education and training programs aimed at bolstering the STEM workforce and the nation’s competitive standing in the world.

Historically, however, STEM industries have had a gender representation problem — with women and minorities significantly underrepresented. In response, federal and state governments have invested in diversifying the workforce, attempting to open doors for women and minority groups. According to the National Science Foundation’s 2020 State of US Science and Engineering Report, some progress has been made in this area. From 2003 to 2017, the number of women working in science and engineering (S&E) nearly doubled, growing from 1.3 to two million with increases noted across all S&E occupational categories. Despite these improvements, the share of women as a percentage of all S&E employment increased by just three percent, rising from 26 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2017. Recent research attributes the continuing gap to both explicit and implicit factors that discourage female participation in the sector.

Imbalances in STEM workforces are problematic for a number of reasons. These are meta-industries that exert broad influence over a technology-driven economy and society. The lack of diversity in the information technology sector, in particular, has translated into algorithms and programs that have difficulty identifying and responding to non-White users, reducing utility and increasing social and racial tensions. Economic opportunity is also at stake since these jobs are among the best-paid in the U.S. economy.

It may also be the case that a lack of inclusion in STEM, especially of women, is actually depriving the field of some of its most promising talent, a phenomenon that starts early in the education and training process. According to NYU professor Joseph Cimpian, and his colleagues Taek Kim and Zachary McDermott, males who were low performing in physics, engineering, and computer science (PECS) in high school were ten-times more likely than low performing women to choose a PECS major in college. While the gender ratio of the highest performing men and women is just below 2:1, these academic programs are being flooded with people, primarily males, who are not highly skilled for this type of academic work. As a consequence, many students — regardless of gender — start in STEM related majors but end up switching majors or dropping out, wasting time and money they could have spent learning something better suited to their interests and abilities. STEM degrees have one of the highest attrition rates of any college major degree programs. Even when degrees are completed, many find themselves ill-prepared for work in competitive career tracks and never end up in a job in the field their degree supposedly prepared them for.

Cimpian and his team looked for factors that might explain these profoundly different levels of interest in PECS majors. They examined gender differences in levels of confidence, preference for careers with direct social impact, and career aspirations, among others and found these factors explain the gender imbalance for the top performing men and women, but not for the lowest performing. In other words, “low-achieving men were unexplainably majoring in PECS at higher rates than observably similar women.” The researchers believe the true explanations are that PECS fields are more welcoming to men and that men tend to believe, somewhat irrationally, that their innate abilities will eventually lead them to success. It isn’t ability that holds females back from PECS but social, educational, and workplace cultures that tilt heavily toward males.

These findings are echoed in AEI’s recent report, STEM Perspectives: Attitudes, opportunities, and barriers in America’s STEM workforce, which shed light on how women and minorities think and feel about their work in STEM occupations. The report found that there is a profound disconnect between “in-groups” and “out-groups”: Just one-third of men tend to believe that women and minorities do not face significantly greater barriers than others while a majority of their female and minority coworkers believe they do. This perceptual disconnect among STEM workers begins to look like a potential source-problem for maintaining and increasing diversity in this sector. Our analysis of these figures found that women were twice as likely as men to leave the STEM field, with a 40 percent probability of leaving compared to 20 percent for men.

While this is a major problem for promoting diversity in STEM, it has other important implications. The overrepresentation of low-ability males in STEM education suggests that we are biasing — through cultural messages and inadequate career investigation — STEM as the educational options of choice for young men who might have the skills and interests to flourish better elsewhere. The reverse is true for young women who are not adequately encouraged to apply their gifts in what is, in the self-fulfilling nature of cultural assumptions, understood to be a male-dominated field. The result is a lose-lose situation for both genders and a misallocation of talent within our economy.

“Happiness,” Aristotle is said to have observed, “is the exercise of vital powers, along lines of excellence, in a life affording them scope.” Too often we place the “scope” (i.e., the activity) ahead of the “vital powers” (i.e., innate talents and abilities). In American work culture, we settle for pushing students to pursue professional careers that generate the most income when we should be helping them discover and connect their interests, talents, and abilities to a meaningful career, STEM or otherwise. In the end, there’s nothing less practical, less likely to foster work satisfaction, and less productive than taking on studies and work that we have no real interest in or ability for.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Matthew Leger is a research analyst at the American Enterprise Institute.

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