Women and Engineering

By Matt Zeitlin

Thanks to our current National Economic Council’s director, any new research or analysis on women in science and engineering is bound to garner some interest. So, in that spirit, here’s a Vox EU column from Jennifer Hunt where she compares women’s presence in science and engineering with other fields that are similarly intensive and demand long hours. The reason this type of comparison is important is because a common explanation for the skewed gender participation in those fields is the long hours , which, presumably, cause women who want to have and raise kids to not advance.

Larry Summers Treasury Portrait

Larry Summers Treasury Portrait

So what does Hunt find? First that “the exit rate for women compared to men is indeed higher from science and engineering than from other fields ” (emphasis added). We also have to find an explanation beyond just the hours and problems with starting a family, “Family-related constraints are not a factor – while many more women than men cite family issues as the reason for leaving engineering, the gender gap is as large in non-science and engineering fields.”

So what does Hunt think is driving the higher exit rates for women?

I find that the gap between the female and male exit rates from a field is strongly positively related to the share of men who studied the field. Figure 1 shows that the relationship is fairly linear, and that if engineering fields have the highest female excess exits, it is because they have the highest share of men. The share of men is also sufficient to explain the excess female exits for pay and promotion reasons

Basically, fields with lots of men in them are those that women are most likely to exit. This isn’t an earth-shaking result, but it seems like in a lot of casual conversation about topics like this, even smart people are very prone to putting forward explanations that rely on speculative generalizations about the specific nature of a field they don’t know a ton about*. It could just be that there is a positive feedback loop for the amount of women in a field. And since it’s unlikely that there’s a deep, good reason for engineering and the sciences to be male dominated, there should be an explicit effort to just get women into science and engineering and for them to stay.

*Of course, I don’t know a lot about the fields, but I’m just following the work of someone who does.