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Women Missing Out on High-Paying STEM Jobs

A New Report from the Department of Commerce Highlights Occupational Inequality

Figure 1 SOURCE: Department of Commerce The Commerce Department's new report "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation" finds that there are fewer women entering STEM fields, despite the fact that there is a larger wage premium for women in STEM occupations than for men.

A new U.S. Department of Commerce report shows that women are largely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, jobs. Even though the pay difference between women in STEM occupations and women in non-STEM jobs is greater than that between men in STEM jobs and non-STEM jobs, women are nevertheless underrepresented in these fields.

STEM jobs are disproportionately held by men at every level of educational attainment. Women only represent one-quarter of STEM jobs—the same level as 2000—though they make up approximately half of the workforce overall. Those women who do enter STEM careers, however, make on average 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs. The differential is just 25 percent for men.

The wage gap between women and men in STEM occupations is also smaller than in non-STEM fields. But despite that, women in STEM jobs still only make 86 cents to a man’s dollar, the report found. In non-STEM fields women make 79 cents to a man’s dollar.

Women tend to choose non-STEM majors in college and those that do choose STEM majors are entering non-STEM fields where the wage gap is higher, such as education and health care. Only 60,000 women with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs (26 percent), compared to about 2.7 million, or 40 percent, of men. In particular, women are much less likely to hold a degree in engineering; however, engineering, which is the most male-dominated STEM occupation with only one woman for every seven men, has the lowest wage gap (7 percent).

The report does not examine the causes of gender discrepancies in wages and occupations but it points to several factors that might lead to them, including career paths that “may be less accommodating to people cycling in and out of the workforce to raise a family,” lack of role models, and strong gender stereotypes.

These factors are consistent with the findings of a 2010 American Association of University Women report, “Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” that examined barriers limiting women’s participation in STEM fields. AAUW recommends several efforts to counter gender biases and stereotypes such as focusing on achievements, providing role models, and encouraging girls to take classes in STEM fields. In addition, policies to retain female students are necessary, including actively recruiting women, mentoring, and fostering work-life practices.

The Commerce report concludes there is “definitive evidence of a need to encourage and support women in STEM with a goal of gender parity” and that there is “a great opportunity for growth in STEM in support of American competitiveness, innovation, and jobs of the future.”

As CAP has pointed out, strengthening our STEM programs and workforce training is essential for maintaining and enhancing the innovation that drives our economic growth and competitiveness. With unemployment and a lingering recession, we need to address the societal and structural barriers that are preventing women from fully participating in the STEM fields of the present and future.

Rebecca Lefton is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress, working with the Energy Opportunity team.

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