Women and STEM Careers: Nobody’s Business but Their Own

While doing research for an upcoming article on the positive impact that honors programs can have on the performance of women majoring in STEM subjects, we made some discoveries that were surprising (at least to us) about why young women who are fully capable of successful careers in engineering, computer science, etc., have chosen other demanding careers instead.

Experts point to a troublesome shortage in the STEM fields that, in addition to engineering and computer science, also include biological and physical sciences and mathematics.  The problem is expected to worsen.  Those who are most concerned about the shortage focus on its impact on the economy and on the nation’s competitive position in the world.

Now that about 57 percent of college students are women (more like 65 percent in honors), many observers argue that the nation needs increased numbers of them meet the need for STEM grads.  Yet at the same time,  women are not enrolling or persisting in most STEM majors in numbers thought to be sufficiently high, and scholars, advocates, and pundits have sounded multiple alarms, most of them having to do with the very real gender bias in the sciences, classroom climate, lack of role models, and, occasionally, the alleged deficiencies in math that have for decades been associated with women.

Those in the business and political world who are most concerned about competition and economics are often the very people who champion the role of individual freedom and choice, especially when money and careers are involved.  While we believe that gender bias, stereotypes, and role expectations, along with a paucity of mentors, are in fact some of the reasons that many young women do not major in STEM subjects, we also credit young women for exercising thoughtful, market-related choices about the best way to combine their interests and values to best effect, not only for themselves but for the larger society.  

But first let’s consider the alleged shortcomings of women in mastering the skills necessary for STEM work, beginning with the math issue.  Women now make up 44 percent of math majors and they earn 43.3 percent of math degrees.  It is true that 44 percent shows that they are under-represented in the field based on their total percentage of college enrollment, but the sizable percentage they do have in the math discipline and their persistence in obtaining math degrees argue that the perceived lack of math skills is at least questionable and that many women do in fact have the math skills to become engineers or computer professionals–if they choose to do so.

(Note: the numbers are from the National Center for Education Statistics .)

In the biological sciences, women earn 58.5 percent of the degrees; in the physical sciences, 40.7 percent.  It is true that in engineering they earn only 18.3 percent of the degrees and in computer science only 18.1 percent.  But wait, here is where the (very) rational choice comes in.

One reason that many women study the sciences and math is that, even though they may not pursue careers in those specific fields, they do make up a majority–or even super-majority–of health care professionals who need math and science preparation to meet their goals.  They frequently have the quantitative skills to become engineers and computer scientists, but their values and a keen job market assessment lead them elsewhere.

According to the NCES, the health professions include not only physicians and nurses (and their many specialty fields) but also audiology, speech therapy, physical therapy, and related sub-fields.

The nursing shortage hit the U.S. in 1998, before the STEM shortage.  In 2000, there were 72,986 nursing graduates; in 2010, that number had grown to 161,540.   Some 85.1 percent of health professions graduates are women, including just over 90 percent of registered nurses and 48.3 percent of physicians.

Even though STEM grads in a few fields make more money than most health professions graduates straight out of college, after ten years people working in health care often earn more, sometimes much more, especially when graduate and professional degrees are considered.  And the health-related careers are likely less vulnerable to sudden technological changes or market disruptions.

One may say that women have been acting according to their role expectations or their values by becoming nurses.  Recent research also shows that women, with higher verbal ability to go along with quantitative skills, simply have a broader range of choices  as a result.  But however significant these factors may be, it is a fact that women in nursing and allied health professions are also (1) meeting an urgent national priority and (2) making good salaries for themselves.   Sounds a lot like the argument for pursing STEM studies.

Even granting STEM a priority position, we must still ask, what would happen if, say, half the women who are going into health professions reversed course now and decided to become engineers?  Would the nation be better off, at a time when almost all health professions are understaffed?  And would far more pressure be placed on men to take up nursing and other health-related careers instead of business?

If we speak of stereotypes, many people would say that men are, or at least have been, more competitive in their natures than women because of the almost complete male dominance of sports in the last century, and long before.  Another stereotype often follows: this competitive nature is better suited to the business world, and that world is, after all, the one that really counts.

This makes us wonder if the current pressure on women to study STEM subjects, particularly the ones most related to the business world, is largely a product of what the still predominantly masculine realms of business and politics want to see.  True, many of the demands for more women in STEM come from women, especially in academe, and if women really want the typically more austere and less engaged corporate jobs  in engineering and computer science, or want to be professors in those fields, then they should certainly be able pursue those goals free from bias or stereotypical expectations.

But it may well be that most young women are already making choices that have less to do with being “winners” than with being true to themselves.