Are Women Reaching Parity with Men in STEM?

By ·April 15, 2022
Carleton College

Graph of bachelor's degrees earned by women and men in 1998, 2008 and 2018. Despite the increase in women entering college in recent decades, their share in core STEM fields has hardly increased

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The Issue:

Women have made tremendous gains in education and now make up 44% of college-educated workers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupations. However, a closer look at the underlying data reveals divergent patterns of gender (in)equality within STEM. Men continue to make up the vast majority of degree recipients in STEM fields that are spatially and mathematically intensive — geoscience, engineering, economics, mathematics, computer science, and physical science — while women are overrepresented in life sciences, psychology, and social sciences. If anything, these gender disparities appear to be widening slightly over time at the undergraduate level, with potential implications for gender differences in employment, pay, academia, and beyond.

While women earn close to half of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, there is wide variation in women’s representation across fields.

The Facts:

  • Women have made dramatic inroads in education since the 1990s. From making up less than a third of the college-educated workforce in the early 1990s, women have come to surpass men — making up 52% of the workforce with at least a college degree in 2019. The representation of college-educated women in STEM occupations has also been trending upwards since the early 1990s. 
  • While women earn close to half of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, there is wide variation in women’s representation across fields. In 2017, 49% of all bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering were awarded to women. This number masks substantial gender disparities across fields, however. Women earned two-thirds of bachelor’s degrees in life sciences, psychology and social science fields — 62% in biology, 78% in psychology, and 61% in social science. In contrast, women were only slightly over one quarter of degree recipients in the combined math-intensive fields of geoscience (39%), engineering (22%), economics (32%), mathematics (42%), computer science (19%), and the physical sciences (40%).
  • Gender disparities within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics bachelor’s degrees have become more pronounced since 2000. The number of women earning bachelor’s degrees in life sciences, psychology and social sciences grew faster than the number of men since 2000. These fields, which started out with high female shares at the turn of the century, became even more disproportionately represented by women at the undergraduate level. Similarly, even as the numbers of women in many of the STEM fields that started out with a disproportionate representation of men have been increasing, the number of men earning bachelor’s degrees in several of these fields grew faster than the number of women — this trend was most pronounced in computer science and mathematics, while engineering was an exception (see chart). 
  • Female attrition along the STEM educational hierarchy is driven by the very disciplines that, paradoxically, seem to attract large numbers of women at the entry level. In general, women earned a smaller share of doctoral degrees than bachelor’s degrees in 2017, reflecting the well-known leaky pipeline in women’s progress up the career hierarchy. In STEM fields, the pipeline is leakiest in life science, psychology and social science fields, which are female-dominated at the undergraduate level — the female share of degree recipients in these fields was 58% at the doctoral level compared with 66% at the bachelor’s level in 2017. In contrast, the four fields with the lowest female shares among bachelor’s degrees recipients — geoscience, engineering, economics, and computer science — have higher female representation among PhD recipients (see here). 
  • Gender differences carry over from education to the STEM workforce. While the college-educated STEM workforce had almost reached gender parity in 2019, with a female share of 44%, large gender gaps remain between types of STEM jobs. Although only 29% of the science and engineering (S&E) workforce in 2019 was female, women were 57% of S&E-related workers (e.g. nurse, dental hygienist). The representation of women coincides with the patterns of gender balance in STEM degrees. Women scientists and engineers comprise 48% of biological, agricultural and environmental life scientists, 81% of psychologists, and 64% of social scientists; and much smaller shares of geoscientists (30%), engineers (16%), economists (24%), mathematical scientists (42%), computer scientists (24%), and physical scientists (35%). Even within the S&E-related workforce, women comprise 70% of health-related occupations — such as nurses, pharmacists, and physician assistants — but only 21% of computer and information systems managers. 
  • The STEM fields in which women are underrepresented typically pay higher salaries than fields with high shares of women. For example, the median salary in 2019 for full-time workers holding the highest degree in their field was $105,000 for computer scientists and $100,000 for engineers, both male-dominated occupations. Among female-heavy occupations, median salary was $74,000 for psychologists and $64,000 for biological, agricultural and environmental scientists.
  • The share of women holding academic positions has increased substantially but also varies greatly by field. In 2019, women comprised 39% of all academic positions held by science, engineering and health doctorate holders at 2- and 4-year colleges or universities. This reflects a substantial increase from just 9% in 1973 and 22% in 1993. Gender gaps vary noticeably by fields. Women held only 19% of academic positions in engineering, 26% in physical and geosciences, 26% in mathematics and statistics, and 23% in computer science. This is in contrast to 60% of positions in psychology, 47% in life sciences, and 42% in social sciences including economics. Among academic position types, women are more likely than men to hold “other” full-time positions (instructor, adjunct, lecturer, research associate, administrator) as well as post-doc and part-time positions. 
  • A leaky pipeline reduces the share of women rising up the ranks of career hierarchy in academia. Women were 45% of junior full-time faculty but only 33% of senior full-time faculty in 2019. However, the pipeline leaks more in fields where women are overrepresented in the lower ranks. In psychology, for instance, the share of women was 68% among junior full-time faculty and 53% among senior faculty, a 15 percentage-point difference. With a 6 percentage-point difference, pipeline leakage is smallest in computer science: the share of women was 25% among junior full-time computer science faculty and 19% among senior faculty. What explains the differences in pipeline leakage by field? It is possible that the smaller number of women who choose to enter the male-dominated fields may be highly positively selected — especially motivated — compared to those who enter the more female-friendly fields. This is consistent with research showing that a large number of female entrants into STEM fields has a negative impact on gender equality in that field in terms of career outcomes. In psychology and the social sciences, it may be that the higher degree of female representation in the lower ranks indicates a shift in the preferences of men: the number of junior male faculty has declined since 1981. This may be due to occupational “tipping”, whereby men start to exit an occupation when the fraction of women in that occupation rises above a certain threshold.

What this Means:

As a smaller proportion of women enter geoscience, engineering, economics, mathematics, computer science, and physical science at the undergraduate level, the career pipeline in these fields will become even smaller. Less gender diversity could be detrimental to the quality and relevance of knowledge generated in these fields, by narrowing the range of ideas generated and reducing success in problem solving. We should then expect the same outcome in life sciences, psychology and social sciences if women continue to saturate them while men exit. A widening of the uneven gender distribution between STEM fields helps perpetuate the gender pay gap. This, in turn, can have negative consequences for gender equality outside the labor market if, for example, lower female-male wage ratios erode women’s decision-making power in the family and reduce women’s well-being.


Education Policy / Employment
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