The American Association of University Women (AAUW) 2010 report on women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) concluded:
While men typically earn more than women in STEM fields, as in other fields, the pay gap tends to be smaller in science and engineering. For example, women computer and information systems managers typically earn 87% of what their male colleagues earn compared to the overall gender pay gap of 77% for all occupations.
In Washington State women earn only 74 cents for each dollar a man earns. With more and more families relying on women as the primary breadwinner the need to begin addressing the reasons why women do not choose to enter STEM fields becomes increasingly important for all working families. According to a 2010 Center for American Progress study, in Washington State 37.4% of working moms were identified as breadwinners or “…single mothers who work and married mothers who earn as much or more than their husbands.”
So why are there so few women represented in STEM fields in the U.S? More importantly, what can be done to turn the tide to get female high school and college students interested in earning STEM degrees?
The Washington STEM program is a good first step. The Seattle Times recently reported that the nonprofit and privately funded Washington STEM program will be providing $2.4 million in grants for K-12 programs in Washington. The nonprofit hopes to raise $100 million in ten years with “[t]he goal: to better prepare today's students for today's — and tomorrow's — jobs, and to foster a spirit of innovation essential to advancements in science and technology.”
Washington STEM vice-chair Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel and senior vice president, explained that Washington State has “…one of widest gaps in the country between technology jobs being created and students being equipped with the skills needed to fill those jobs." In fact, in Washington the unemployment rate is “…4.6 percent for workers with a four-year college degree but more than 10 percent for those with only a high-school education….Washington schools are expected to graduate only enough credentialed students to fill 67 percent of the state's anticipated job openings in engineering and 56 percent in computer science.”
At the federal level Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D-Texas), the ranking member of the House Science and Technology Committee, reintroduced H.R. 889, the Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act hoping to promote gender parity in STEM fields.
The legislation seeks to ameliorate gender bias in STEM fields where:
…women receive only 20 percent of all bachelor's degrees in engineering and physics. Women make up a small percentage of science and engineering faculty members at major research universities and tend to receive fewer institutional resources for their research than their male colleagues. A significant portion of those institutional resources are paid for with taxpayer money--the federal government provides over 60 percent of research funding at institutions of higher education.
The Fulfilling the Potential of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Act would, among other things, require the National Science Foundation to gather demographic data to examine some of the barriers women face in STEM careers and look for ways to resolve those barriers.
So why don’t more women pursue college degrees in science and engineering?
The 2010 AAUW report, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, revealed some of the reasons why women do not pursue STEM college degrees. The report looks at some of the educational and cultural issues women encounter that deter their interest in science, despite the fact that interest in science is nearly equal between boys and girls throughout elementary, middle, and high school. The science interest gap really starts within the very first year of college.
The March 2011 report, Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, prepared by the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Office of Management and Budget for the White House Council on Women and Girls, revealed:
Women earn less than half of all bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and physical sciences, as well as in engineering and computer sciences. In engineering and computer sciences at the college level, women’s share of degrees conferred in these fields is small (less than 20 percent) and has declined slightly over the last decade.
The decline gets even greater at the graduate level which then translates into a lack of representation in the workplace. The 2010 AAUW report focuses on numerous studies demonstrating that “…social and environmental factors contribute to the underrepresentation of women in science and engineering.” Some of the cultural evidence includes the following data:
Thirty years ago there were 13 boys for every girl who scored above 700 on the SAT math exam at age 13; today that ratio has shrunk to about 3:1. This increase in the number of girls identified as “mathematically gifted” suggests that education can and does make a difference at the highest levels of mathematical achievement.
This data supports the need for the Washington STEM initiatives and the need to address the STEM education issue overall. And despite the theories that biological differences play a major role in the STEM disparity, this data suggests that early educational intervention can make a significant difference in whether women pursue college and advanced degrees in STEM fields.
Combining private, nonprofit initiatives like the Washington STEM program with federal initiatives that examine the educational and cultural obstacles women face in STEM fields is one way that a private-public partnership can begin to redress some of the root causes of gender pay equity issues in the U.S.