A common explanation for underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering and math fields is that women are too consumed with getting married and having children to pursue STEM job opportunities—even when they have the credentials. But a new study published in Social Science Research found that women who decided to marry late and delay having children to focus on their careers were no more likely to land jobs in STEM fields than women who didn't.
Today, more women are graduating with degrees in STEM than ever before. In 2010, about half of bachelor's degrees in science and engineering were earned by women, the study reports. Yet education isn't translating to the workforce, creating a gap some call "the leaking pipeline."
To understand why, researchers analyzed existing explanations for gendered patterns using data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth, which includes the interviews of young people between the ages of 14 and 22 in 1979, who were later re-interviewed as adults and through to the present. The study's authors focused on men and women who completed STEM degrees in the 1970s through the early 1990s and looked at a range of variables, including whether respondents' bachelor's degrees translated into a STEM-related job, their expectations for work and family, and what their beliefs were regarding responsibilities at home and on the job.
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Unsurprisingly, researchers discovered that in their sample, more men than women had obtained a degree and found a job in a STEM field. "Of those graduating with a STEM degree, 41.4% of women and 53.3% of men were employed in a STEM job within two years of college completion; this difference is statistically significant," the study's authors write.
One explanation for the disparity is that "occupational preferences, combined with family formation intentions, may be the primary drivers of entrance into demanding STEM occupations following graduation," the authors write. Researchers hypothesized that women who expected to delay having family obligations would be more likely to get a job in STEM.
They turned out to be wrong: Delaying or forgoing "normative family roles" does not help a woman's chances of getting a job in STEM. Instead, the study found, "those who anticipated limiting their fertility to one or no children were significantly less likely than men with identical expectations to enter into STEM occupations."
What did help a woman get a STEM job, though, was being encouraged to explore those fields at an early age. If women expected as adolescents to work in STEM, research showed they were 2.5 times more likely to enter into those fields, suggesting that initiatives to get girls interested in science and technology early on may help close the gender gap in those industries later on.
Majoring in engineering also helped. "Women who completed a degree in engineering had odds of entering into a STEM job that were 5.6 times larger than the odds for women who had majored in the hard sciences, while women who had majored in computer science had odds of working in a STEM occupation that were 3.8 times greater than their counterparts who had majored in hard sciences," the authors write.
Yael Levitte is the associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity at Cornell University and co-author on the study. In order to increase the proportion of women working in STEM, more need to be recruited into majoring in engineering and physical science.
Levitte says her team discovered some of the transition numbers were driven by the sub STEM discipline. "The transition into jobs in engineering was historically high for women who majored in this field. Our data shows that their transition was even higher than men's. We also saw that fewer women, at least in the cohort we were studying (women who went to college in the late 80s), majored in engineering than other STEM disciplines."
"The more women we recruit into these majors," Levitte continues, "the more likely we are, eventually, to see real change in the STEM workforce."