Women continue to be underrepresented in the well-paid, in-demand so-called STEM occupations — science, technology, engineering, and math — despite more of them getting college degrees in these fields. Is it their innate ability or discrimination that keeps them out? A new study points to the latter.
Researchers from Columbia Business School, the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, and the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University conducted an experiment that had both men and women complete an arithmetic task that both genders, on average, perform equally well as potential job candidates. Then test subjects had to decide who to hire. “Our results reveal a strong bias among subjects to hire male candidates,” the researchers note, which was true of both men and women. When the prospective employers were only shown a candidate’s physical appearance, making their gender clear, they were twice as likely to hire a man than a woman. This was because women were expected to perform worse on the math problems, even though it was a task they were equally like to do well.
Women were still less likely to be hired even after the candidates told prospective employers how they did on the task “because men tend to boast about their performance, whereas women generally underreport it,” the authors write. Employers don’t take this into account, particularly if they went into the experiment with a strong bias against women in math.
Things improved when those doing the hiring were given full information about how the candidates did on the task, but even then discrimination wasn’t totally eliminated. Perhaps worse, the employers’ perceptions were changed when the information about performance was given to them by an “objective” source, i.e. by the people running the experiment. But when the candidates provided it themselves, there was still a bias toward choosing men.
So much for women’s lack of ability getting in the way — even when they perform equally well, they’re less likely to be hired into a math position. The researchers also note that a third explanation for the dearth of women, that they opt out of these jobs and prefer other work, doesn’t apply to their findings either. “[W]e designed an experiment in which supply-side considerations did not apply,” they write, “and those possible differences in preference could not lead to differences in performance quality.” All signs point to heavy bias against women getting in the way.
The hurdles women face in entering these fields crop up at a young age. They are socialized to think women don’t go into science and math. Just 20 percent of the high school students taking the Advanced Placement exam in computer science last year were girls, and in two states, not a single female student took it. Women make up 53 percent of college graduates but just 41 percent of those from science and engineering programs.
The pipeline keeps leaking as they move on, as male science and engineering graduates are employed in STEM jobs at twice the rate of women. Women make up around a quarter of all STEM workers and progress has stalled since 1990. Part of the problem is clearly that they face deep-seated discrimination when trying to get hired in these fields. But another factor is that even when they do get hired, they are getting pushed out much faster than men. Women leave these jobs 45 percent more often in the early years than men. Some are leaving because the conflict between these high-demand jobs conflicts with the fact that women are still usually the primary caregivers in a family. Sixty-two percent of female STEM workers — those who stick it out — don’t have kids, compared to 57 percent of men.
To top it all off, even women who study in the field, break into these jobs, and stay with it don’t get the same rewards. Women who work full-time in a STEM job make $15,900 less each year than their male coworkers.