How promoting STEM fields to women can backfire

Rose Jacobs | Nov 01, 2017

Sections Economics

Among the causes of the persistent gender pay gap in the United States, choice of college majors stands tall. Graduates in fields that tend to attract more women than men, such as art history, French, and psychology, earn 20 percent less per year on average than those who studied subjects such as economics and physics, which attract more men than women.

Educators, governments, and nonprofits have put considerable energy recently into pushing women toward the traditionally male, and higher-paying, fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). From T-shirts reading “Future Biologist” and “STEM girls rock” to federal lawmakers whose Inspire Act requires NASA to encourage women in aerospace-related careers, the message is clear: the US wants its daughters in STEM.

But this very message may be driving young women away, according to Georgetown’s Adriana D. Kugler, Catherine H. Tinsley, and Olga Ukhaneva.

The researchers analyzed seven years of detailed demographic and academic data from an unidentified top-tier private US university, examining what might compel students to swap one major for another, and comparing non-STEM majors to STEM majors. The factors included preparedness (as measured by high-school performance), grades, expected future earnings, and the gender composition of classes and faculty.

Of the potential causes in non-STEM majors, the researchers find that only poor grades in relevant courses appeared to sway students significantly. However, contrary to previous research suggesting that women respond more than men do to negative feedback, female students in the sample were no more likely than males to switch out of high-earning, male-dominated majors because of poor grades.

When it comes to the university’s STEM majors, the findings are starkly different. About one-third of the STEM majors were male dominated, one-third female dominated, and one-third evenly divided. The analysis demonstrates that in male-dominated STEM majors, women who underperformed academically were more likely to switch than men with similarly poor grades.

“It takes three concurrent signals for women to be dissuaded from majors more than men,” the researchers write. They argue that in many STEM fields, along with grades and lopsided classrooms, the composition and reputation of STEM as typically masculine sends a signal to women that they don’t belong. Public campaigns that emphasize how few women there are in STEM, plus the actual behaviors of men in these fields, may contribute to this reputation.

“While men may not have a natural ability advantage in STEM fields, the numerous government and other policy initiatives designed to get women interested in STEM fields may have the unintended effect of signaling to women an inherent lack of fit,” the researchers write.

Women, it seems, may feel that policy makers protest too much. The perverse result of good intentions could further delay the correction of a wasteful but tenacious labor-market imbalance.