Why the STEM gender gap is overblown

Photo by Ron Levine /The Image Bank via Getty Images.

Photo by Ron Levine /The Image Bank via Getty Images.

Editor’s Note: Women are just as capable of performing in STEM fields as men. But that doesn’t mean women should be ashamed of pursuing careers in other fields, argues Denise Cummins, a research psychologist, author, and blogger for Psychology Today. Cummins’ most recent book is “Good Thinking.” She’s previously written for Making Sen$e about tenure and adjuncts.

Simone Pathe, Making Sen$e Editor

There are two universally accepted “truths” about women and STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). The first is that men outnumber women in in these fields, and the second is that women are socialized to avoid STEM as career choices, because society considers them “unfeminine.”

These beliefs have spawned a national effort on the part of the National Science Foundation to attract girls and young women into STEM. The preferred strategy is to attract females by “unbrainwashing them” into accepting STEM careers as appropriate for women.

On closer inspection, it turns out that these “truths” are nothing more than assumptions, and that these assumptions are inconsistent with the facts. Here are the facts:

1. Men do not outnumber women in all STEM fields

Gender equity in STEM means that females account for 50 percent of the individuals involved in STEM fields. When we look at the percentage of STEM bachelor’s degrees awarded to female students for the last two decades, based on NSF statistics, we find that there is no gender difference in the biosciences, the social sciences, or mathematics, and not much of a difference in the physical sciences. The only STEM fields in which men genuinely outnumber women are computer science and engineering.

I created the following graphs, based on NSF data, to show women’s completion of bachelor’s degrees and PhDs in specific fields between 1991 and 2010.

Graph courtesy of the author.

Graph courtesy of the author.

At the Ph.D. level, women have clearly achieved equity in the biosciences and social sciences, are nearly there (40 percent) in mathematics and the physical sciences, and are “over-represented” in psychology (78 percent). Again, the only fields in which men greatly outnumber women are computer science and engineering.

Graph courtesy of the author.

Graph courtesy of the author.

When we look at the actual workforce, we see the same pattern. Women are as likely as men to be biological scientists, medical scientists and chemists. They are much less likely than men to be computer scientists, but have achieved equity in three out of five areas, with computer science and geoscience being exceptions.

Cummins.Labor force

2. Women and men are equally capable of doing STEM work

One explanation for sex difference in STEM fields is that women just don’t have what it takes to succeed in the “hard” sciences, computer science, or engineering. Some have even argued that women are not smart enough for these fields.

The fact is that men and women score equivalently on tests of raw IQ, with some studies showing women scoring slightly higher. When it comes to mathematics—a core requirement for science and engineering—women score on average only 32 points lower than men on the SAT— a mere 3 percent difference. While men outnumber women in the “genius” SAT math score range (700-800), the ratio is not that large (1.6 to 1). Men show only an insignificant five-point advantage over women on the quantitative section of the Graduate Record Examination, and they score one point lower than women on the analytic section.

It is also not the case that more undergraduate men than women are selected by top engineering programs. Of the top STEM programs in the country, most have male-to-female undergraduate student ratios close to 1:1.

3. Sex-linked interest preferences are not mere artifacts of socialization

One interpretation of the sex difference in STEM careers (and the workforce in general) is that females are pressured into areas that are more “gender appropriate,” not that they are choosing to study what is intrinsically more interesting to them.

For example, former American Association of University Women senior researcher Andresse St. Rose, one of the authors of ”Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” puts it this way:

Another common but somewhat misguided explanation for female underrepresentation in STEM is that while girls and young women may be just as able as young men, they are not as interested in science and engineering. From early adolescence, girls report less interest in math and science careers than boys do (Turner et al. 2008), and among children identified as mathematically precocious, girls were less likely than boys to pursue STEM careers as adults (Lubinski and Benbow 2006). Girls’ lower reported interest in STEM may be partially explained by social attitudes and beliefs about whether it is appropriate for girls to pursue these subjects and careers.

The problem with this “blank slate” interpretation of gender differences is that it doesn’t jibe with results of developmental studies. Newborn girls prefer to look at faces while newborn boys prefer to look at mechanical stimuli (such as mobiles). When it comes to toys, a consistent finding is that boys (and juvenile male monkeys) strongly prefer to play with mechanical toys over plush toys or dolls, while girls (and female juvenile monkeys) show equivalent interest in the two. (See this for summary of this research.) These sex-linked preferences emerge in human development long before any significant socialization can have taken place. And they exist in juvenile non-human primates that are not exposed to human gender-specific socialization efforts.

It is not difficult to see how such early emerging preferences can end up shaping career choices later on: Women tend to gravitate toward fields that focus on living things and agents, men to fields that focus on objects.

4. Different preferences don’t mean women’s are less important

The hidden assumption underlying the push to eliminate gender gaps in traditionally male-dominated fields is that such fields are intrinsically more important and more valuable to society than fields that traditionally appeal to women.

The hidden assumption underlying the push to eliminate gender gaps in traditionally male-dominated fields is that such fields are intrinsically more important and more valuable to society than fields that traditionally appeal to women. So we must turn women into men so that women can achieve economic parity with men. As Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg put it in her book “Lean In,” we need to set a goal of getting more women “in the door” of male-dominated, prestigious, and high-paying fields, even if doing so requires that women act more like men.

But what happens when women follow this advice and follow the “lure” of prestige and wealth offered by male-dominated professions? Kate Bahn, an economics Ph.D. candidate at the New School, put it this way in her blog The Lady Economist:

…I sometimes wonder to what extent my desire to be taken seriously, like one of the boys, played into my decision to become an economist over, say, a sociologist.


Do other fields perceived as masculine also attract a certain type of woman, like me, who is drawn to the power and seriousness connoted with masculinity? And what does it say about me, as a staunch feminist, if I’m relying on masculinity to convey my worth

Yes, indeed, what does it say when women must adopt male values wholesale in order to command real social, political, and economic power? Or perhaps the better question is: Why are the fields that appeal to men so much better compensated than the fields that appeal to women? My answer to this question is…

5. Men earn more because they believe they are worth more—and women agree

Nursing, a traditionally female-dominated profession surely has more intrinsic value to society than trading stocks, yet nurses make a fraction of what high-frequency traders make. And nursing did not bring about a global economic crisis that the taxpayer was required to bail out. Yet when the percentage of male nurses increased from a miniscule 3 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2011, something else very interesting developed: a gender pay gap in the field of nursing. In 2011, the average female nurse earned $51,100, 16 percent less than the $60,700 earned by the average man in the same job.

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that male-dominated professions are high-status and well-paid precisely because they are male-dominated, and female-dominated professions are low-status and poorly-paid precisely because they are female-dominated. When men move into traditionally female-dominated professions, the salaries and status levels of those professions rise because men demand—and get—more for the work they do.

When men move into traditionally female-dominated professions, the salaries and status levels of those professions rise because men demand—and get—more for the work they do.

This is more than just conjecture. The fact that women undervalue themselves (and by extension, the work they do) has been amply demonstrated in carefully designed experimental economics studies. The two most frequently studied economics games are the dictator and ultimatum games. In the dictator game, one individual is given full authority to keep or share a sum of money with another player. On average, women keep less for themselves than men do. In the ultimatum game, one person is allowed to make an offer as to how the money should be divided, and the other party is given the opportunity to accept or reject the offer. If the offer is rejected, no one gets any money. Both men and women make lower offers to women than to men. Other studies have found that women negotiated harder when they were working on behalf of others rather than for themselves, which implies a reluctance to push their own interests.

Rather than rushing to traditionally male professions to shore up our status and our income levels, perhaps we need to reject the implicit belief that men and whatever men are doing must be important and valuable, and whatever women are doing must be the career dregs that men fobbed off on us simply because they found that work intrinsically less interesting.

The bottom line

Women are clearly capable of doing well in STEM fields traditionally dominated by men, and they should not be hindered, bullied, or shamed for pursuing careers in such fields. But we also should not be ashamed if our interests differ from men’s. If we find certain careers more intrinsically rewarding than men do, that does not mean we have been brainwashed by society or herded into menial fields of labor. Instead, we should demand that greater intrinsic and monetary compensation be awarded to the work we like and want to do.