Women in STEM: An Opportunity to Improve U.S. Competitiveness

The U.S. Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA) today issued the second in a series of reports on science, technology, engineering and mathematics – or STEM – jobs and higher education.

As expected, the report, Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation, finds there are fewer women than men in STEM jobs and attaining degrees in STEM fields. While women make up 48 percent of the U.S. workforce, they hold only 24 percent of STEM jobs.

Yet more women attend college than men.  More women graduate from college than men.  And more women attend post-college programs than men.  As women have steadily caught up and surpassed men in several measures of educational attainment over the past several decades, their underrepresentation in STEM fields has nevertheless remained fairly constant.

Interestingly enough, this is all despite the fact that there’s greater income parity between genders in STEM fields than there is in the employment market as a whole. In non-STEM jobs, men earn 21 percent more hourly than women, on average; but in STEM jobs, the hourly difference drops to 14 percent. Women with STEM jobs also earn 33 percent more than women in non-STEM jobs – $31.11 per hour versus $19.26 per hour – which exceeds the 25 percent earnings premium for men in STEM.

Engineering is the most male-dominated STEM occupational group, but it is also the one with the smallest gender wage gap; female engineers earn just 7 percent less per hour than their male counterparts.

But even when women choose STEM degrees, their typical career paths diverge substantially from their male counterparts. About 40 percent of men with STEM college degrees work in STEM jobs, whereas only 26 percent of women with STEM degrees work in STEM jobs. Women with STEM degrees are more likely to work in fields like education or healthcare and are particularly underrepresented in fields like engineering.

The results in our report do not allow us to clearly identify why women are so underrepresented in STEM, but we can speculate. STEM jobs may not be as family-friendly and career paths may not be as accommodating to people cycling in and out of the workforce to raise families; there are relatively few female STEM role models; and gender stereotypes may discourage women from pursuing STEM education and STEM jobs. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and we look forward to the discussion that our report generates. 

Why is this important? STEM jobs pay well. STEM skills are also important for innovation. For America to become more competitive in today’s global economy, we need workers with skill sets that help to propel our nation forward. Increasing the number of workers trained in STEM fields will help strengthen some of the most innovative and fastest-growing sectors of our economy. Increasing the number of women who enter and stay in STEM professions is an obvious way to deepen this pool of important labor in our economy. 

By encouraging and supporting women to take part in STEM – in the research and innovation that’s so vital for our economic well-being – we all stand to benefit.

Rebecca Blank is the Acting Secretary at the United States Department of Commerce

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