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Few US women choosing careers in science and technology

16 comments

Summary of story from Delaware Online, August 17, 2011

The number of women employed in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) sector was unchanged from 2000 to 2009, says a US government study.

Women make up 24 per cent of employees in the STEM industries, a figure that remained stagnant over the nine year period looked at by the Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Bureau.

This is in spite of the fact that the gender pay gap in STEM careers is one of the lowest. Women in STEM careers earn on average 14 per cent less than their male colleagues, compared with 21 per cent in other fields.

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank stressed the importance of recruiting more women to these areas in driving America’s economic recovery.

“Our ability to increase the number of STEM workers will increase our ability to foster economic growth,” she said.

“We haven’t done as well as we could to prepare young people, and particularly women, to prepare for STEM jobs.”

Part of the reason for the low percentage of women in the STEM sector is the low numbers of women pursuing degrees in technical fields.

Women make up half of the university-educated workforce, but there were 2.5 million women with a degree in a STEM-related subject, compared to 6.7 million men.

Linda Rosen, chief executive officer of technology advocacy group Change the Equation, believes that the decision by women not to move into STEM fields takes place as early as primary school.

“As early as second grade, girls are more likely than boys to say that math isn’t for them,” Rosen said.

WVoN comment: It is disappointing to read that there has been so little progress in recruiting women to careers in technology and science.

However, the existence of a smaller gender pay gap alone is not enough to persuade women to join an industry that is famed for sexism and failing to offer adequate support to parents with families (see Jezebel story).

Perhaps, then, it’s not that women are irrationally failing to be enticed by these careers, but that they would prefer not to suffer the additional problems that come with working in the industry.

As an arts and humanities PhD student in a country that has just slashed humanities funding because of its presumed lack of economic value, I also feel frustrated every time I read an article extolling the benefits of science and technology for the national bank balance, and bemoaning women’s decision not to go into these fields.

I have every confidence that this report came out of good intentions, but the constant privileging of STEM careers smacks of an attitude that attributes value to fields of study based on men’s choices.

We should be encouraging girls to follow their interests – whether these are perceived as ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ – and working to make STEM a less hostile environment for women. The way to go about doing this isn’t by devaluing women’s legitimate desire to study the arts.

Perhaps, it would be helpful to read a guide to better education for the success of your career.

  1. Hannah, do Humanities bring in a large amount of money for the University or the Country (and further how well are Humanities graduates paid in comparison to STEM graduates since that feeds back into taxes)? In an uncertain climate while a degree course with little economic feedback is potentially enriching and useful is it really something the government should be investing in?

    I agree though that we shouldn’t be pushing women into STEM simply because there is a disparity in the numbers there when there are equivalent disparities elsewhere. People should be allowed to go into the fields they want to and they feel they can add to.

    What worries me though is again this idea that STEM is hostile to women for two primary reasons. Firstly there is a lot of recruitment and effort put into getting women into these types of careers, and secondly the idea of hostile seems to encompass any majority male environment. Behaviour between men and men, or women and women, that would be tolerated seems to become intolerable when in mixed company. Again this seems like a major issue if people or groups are socialised differently to consider one side hostile.

    • Hi 2ndnin, thanks for your comment.

      I think the economic value of arts & humanities is often underestimated because there isn’t an obvious way to make money built into the subject itself, in contrast to more vocational courses such as STEM. There aren’t many jobs that directly require an arts/humanities degree, but the skills you learn from them are useful in a lot of fields. So, for instance, I don’t see many STEM grads in the current Cabinet.

      Anecdotally, friends from my undergrad degree in English and Philosophy – graduating in 2009 – have since gone into such diverse fields as marketing, business, law, computing, and of course the creative industries. Just because it’s not such a direct input-output financial equation, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the humanities make money. I should add that there are other reasons for funding the humanities other than financial ones, to do with citizenship, self-understanding and the good society, but you asked about economics so that’s the way I answered.

      You’re right to be concerned at the thought of people being trained to consider another ‘side’ as an enemy…I prefer to think of us all as just people trying to get along. Still, I do think that a lot of majority male environments are ‘hostile’ in some sense to women, in that they’re often simply not set up to deal with the ways women might want to work, in terms of flexible hours, competition to be the first & last in the office, & so on. This isn’t the same kind of hostility as your boss addressing you as ‘sugartits’, but both make life more difficult for women.

      Finally, I don’t really see anything wrong with behaviour that would be tolerated in a single gender group being intolerable in a mixed group. You moderate your behaviour according to the people around you. A group of men poring over a copy of Nuts in the office is as intolerable in mixed company as a group of women chatting about their bikini waxing techniques. It’s just polite?

      I hope I covered your points here. I think we are mostly on the same page, especially when it comes to the STEM workplace.

      • That’s the problem though Hannah – the Arts and Humanities seem to be based on individual profit for a few successful artists – those not deemed successful go into other fields making their degree itself worthless other than for self enrichment (not always a bad thing) since another degree would likely have served them better in that field. Most degrees hold skills that are useful outside of that degree and have a degree of flexibility especially in early years and master’s years (I know I ended up in Neuroscience and Art in my masters year in addition to my normal courses and in first / second year I had the option for 1/3rd of my courses being completely unrelated to my degree).

        For the cabinet and similar positions the degree seems largely irrelevant, we have had a lot of lawyers though. In that role it seems more like drive and ambition since there is no real qualification for government – we don’t have a bureaucracy degree. So not really a lot I can comment on there.

        I wouldn’t say that funding something that is purely personal is really something the government should be doing. While it can be awesome for the individual there are a lot of places where we pull money out of the system without paying back in and at this point we really can’t afford to do that so unless there is some real motivation to pay (and we basically are now anyway with £9,000 tuition fees). The other option of course is sponsorships, why can’t patronage and similar work for us now or sponsorship from graphic design and ui companies? It happens in STEM so why not elsewhere?

        Why should a company really support those working aspects though is the question? A lot of men would love similar things but at the end of the day a company is paying you to work in a way which fits in with their schedule not yours. One of my friends has been sent to Korea, Japan, and a few other places in Asia recently to do work and has ended up doing an 8hr day there then a telecommute to the UK for our working day because his replacement didn’t arrive… he doesn’t like it but its what the company is paying him to do, if he wanted out he could change. Sugartits should be banned since that’s just plain wrong (well unless you want that name) however not giving you flex time shouldn’t be a game breaker generally.

        Why should nuts or bikini waxing be off topic though? As long as they are confining it to their own work areas surely that should be ok? Again if the office is decorated like a strip club that’s probably an issue but should a guy not be allowed a picture of his gf/wife in a bikini on his desk, or a woman a picture of her bf/husband (and any other combinations you can think of) topless partially drenched as the sun glistens off his muscles (since male toplessness isn’t sexualised the same way female partial nudity is)? Most cubicles I have worked in I couldn’t see other people’s desks unless I tried, if they wanted something why not let them have an area that makes them comfortable and have the communal areas relatively sterile?

  2. Jane Osmond says:

    This is a subject close to my heart and as a result I produced a conference paper which I presented in Paris in May of this year. Basically I argued that the privileging of STEM subjects over the humanities is to the detriment of this country:

    Despite the current government rhetoric which privileges the sciences over humanities, it is acknowledged everywhere (apart from the government departments which make the funding decisions, is seems) that competitive advantage is strengthened by creative input as outlined by Peattie:

    ‘Sustainable competitive advantage is very rarely generated from technological excellence alone. Today, in markets which many people might assume to be dominated by technological issues, including cars, home computers and mobile phones, it is actually ‘soft and subjective’ factors like design, branding or customer service that are ultimately crucial in delivering and sustaining competitive advantage. These factors are very strongly rooted in the arts, humanities and social sciences. (Peatte, quoted in British Academy 2010: 19)

    British Academy (2010) Past, present, and future the public value of the humanities & social sciences.
    Available: http://www.britac.ac.uk/policy/pastpresentandfuture.cfm, [Accessed 22.3.11)

    • Thanks for this Jane! Your paper sounds like exactly the sort of concrete evidence I was reaching for with my vague anecdotes. Out of interest, what was the conference you were presenting at and how did the paper go down?

    • The question is can’t STEM graduates provide that design, branding, and customer service? In a lot of fields the first stage in making something useful is the back end and functionality where upon the UI and design sits on top and should be fairly interchangeable.

      I read through your paper Jane an I am really not sure what it is saying or trying to present (lack of deliverables 😛 Science ftw :P). You say that STEM is being prioritised because it has a definable economic effect and that the cost is rising for Humanities courses, this is true for most subjects with the cost of STEM courses rising as well towards the £9,000 mark. How can you ask the government to value a course which has no definable output, and as your own examples show has marking which is not repeatable (how the marker felt on the day).

      Again you note that there is little research done and no research community within the arts however within the STEM fields there is a lot of research carried out in areas like user interfaces for computers and devices… ergonomics, layout, placement of inputs etc. Print layouts, web design, etc all have a large body of research behind them that guides you towards a positive result… if other subjects cannot present this again how can you really ask for funding for no measurable output. In STEM we fight hard for research money and it is all tied to deliverables and output. The model might not work for art or similar but if it can’t then justifying it other than as an outside course is hard to do.

      • Jane Osmond says:

        Hi 2ndnin: Leaving the research problems aside (this is a perennial problem for the humanities), I was trying to make the point that the Humanities have been stripped of their teaching budget in a much harsher way than the STEM subjects, and that this seems very shortsighted because defining creativity in financial terms kind of misses the point of being creative in the first place.

        My argument is that creativity is as valuable as science (indeed, I sometimes wonder why the two are seen as distinct entities, because one without the other is almost impossible to imagine), but creativity cannot be measured in financial terms. Not only this, it shouldn’t be measured in financial terms because that is not the point of creativity – the point, for me, is that creativity enhances a society’s mode of expression by providing spaces for people to engage creativity and critically with the society they live in (much as we are doing here). And, I would further argue, that a society that does not value this is in danger of becoming completely measurable and then we really are into George Orwell territory, are we not?

        However, I also acknowledge that the STEM subjects have also suffered from cuts, despite the more easily definable financial outcomes, so am inclined to think that government funding of higher education is soon to be a thing of the past – which leaves all of us, humanities and stem, fighting for any funding available.

        • That really was my point though Jane, while personal enrichment is a worthwhile goal for the individual as a society it is far less so. If creativity cannot be measured in financial terms, or any other direct way, then is it really suitable as a degree level subject?

          The fact that we are here, that so many people write fan-fictions, or that Deviant Art exists suggests that many people are willing to produce creative content for very little money and no real incentive. People are already enhancing society without actually taking a degree in it.

          The level of research is important, without a solid background theory how can you objectively measure things? Why does an Andy Warhol sell while my art of a tomato soup can sits on my shelf? With no way to measure Humanities other than by feelings we can’t really say it is worth anything (how many artists or writers ever actually become popular which should be a measure of their ability to produce viable works?).

          Sorry if I am sounding harsh, it just feels generally that there are measurable outcomes for Humanities and there is viable research to be carried out yet it is not being done or used as an assessment. If we had infinite funding then covering it would be easy, but if it comes to a choice between a degree you know will produce a graduate that makes £35,000 a year paying £12,00 in taxes and one that might produce someone earning millions or not using that degree at all why would you take the risk with tax payer money when it could be utilised elsewhere to greater benefit to society.

          • What measurable outcomes are there for STEM subjects and how much better off are we for them?

            Additionally, how do we measure ethics? Is there a standard or scale? Should people perhaps have the opportunity to train in such subjects or do we leave it to people with no qualifications and their ‘gut feelings’ about things?

            Reading the above comments, it seems to me that Jane is saying that not everything should come down to money, and you are saying that it should. Is that about right?

          • Jane Osmond says:

            Yes, that is exactly what I am saying – I dislike ‘the price of everything, the value of nothing’ ethos of our society and feel that some things cannot be measured by money alone. It all depends what kind of society we want to live in – I believe that tax payer money should be put into the humanities because this shows that we are a society that values other things apart from money.

            Also, Humanities subjects are not all arts (see below), and students can go on to earn good salaries from various subjects and thus become tax payers and feed into society. But my main point is that humanities subjects are, in the main, the study of the human condition, and if we do not study ourselves, then we really will end up living in a society where everything, and everyone, is measured by how much they earn (if we are not there already) because that will be the only measurement that matters.

            Classics
            History
            Law
            Literature
            Performing Arts
            Music
            Theatre
            Dance
            Philosophy
            Religion
            Visual arts
            Communication and Media
            Business Studies

          • Halla, typically in a STEM subject we are marked on correctness, content from the course, and content out with the course but within the research grouping of it. The criteria are generally pretty objective and markers will produce the same results consistently. For Research each project has a set of deliverables defines alongside the general research theme and direction. Funding and support are based off of the meeting of deliverable targets for further stage research.

            Economically we can look at STEM graduates who utilise their degrees and the amount they bring back into the country in terms of salary, patents, ip, copyrights etc. These are all measurable effects.

            Measuring ethics… depends on the country you live in, the date and many other things. Training in ethics and morality seems like an interesting aside but again is it really worth a degree for most people, and what is moral/ethical? Given this is a feminist site I would suggest that ethical relativism is a major point.

            In terms of funding for tertiary education, yes I pretty much believe it should come down to money because we don’t have the budget to support a different situation. The government already supports a minimum 11 years and a maximum of 13 years of primary and secondary education which gives you a solid base for living a reasonable life or taking up a trade, apprenticeship, or sponsored education. The cost of a University course is generally something like £10,000 – £16,000 per year per student. Taking Edinburgh University since it has a well broken down list and a college of art:

            http://www.docs.sasg.ed.ac.uk/fees/undergraduate_2011-2012.cfm

            http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/student-funding/tuition-fees/undergraduate/eca-fees

            The average degree will thus cost $40-60,000 with medicine, dentistry, and vet med costing roughly £80,000. The art degree will cost an nice $44,800.

            The median wage in the UK is £538 per week, with science and technology professionals averaging £702 – so paying off that £60,000 investment in 30 years of work (their taxes – median taxes).

            From the BBC: Lifetime additional earnings over a non-graduate

            Medicine: £340,315
            Engineering: £243,730
            Maths: £241,749
            Business: £184,694
            Average graduate: £160,061
            Languages: £96,281
            Humanities: £51,549
            Arts: £34,494

            So an arts graduate will not repay a £11,200 course in their working lifetime on average, a Humanities grad will pay off the lower end but not the higher end and all other graduates will… (on average). That doesn’t seem like a good place for the government to be in considering they want 50% of people to go to University.

            Comparing the achievements outside of a monetary way is more difficult. What does art add to the world, what does engineering add, can an engineer be artistic and can an artist perform engineering? In the end neither may do anything or they could do something spectacular, however I would say on average engineering and technology have led towards a better life for more people than art has.

  3. Jane Osmond says:

    Hi Hannah – this is where it was presented:

    Osmond, J. (2011) ‘A ‘Wicked’ Problem for a ‘Wicked’ Discipline’. Researching Design Education, Cumulus//DRS 2011 Paris Symposium. Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris. 18-19 May

    pdf available here:
    http://www.cumulusassociation.org/component/content/926-cumulusdrs-symposium-researching-design-education-proceedings-available-online/162

  4. 2ndnin: Not all STEM graduates go into financially productive fields, do they? What about theorists and people at the edges of science and maths? Those also take imagination and insight, not merely methodical working through of sets of numbers or experimental data. I can’t imagine that all of them are very financially productive.

    We absolutely need ethics and training in same, don’t scientists and medical personnel still have to pass various things through an ethics board? Unless you’re suggesting this is turned over entirely to the people concerned, which seems a little risky to me. There would be no value in everyone getting a degree in ethics, of course, but then there’d be no value in everyone getting a physics or maths degree either. Not least because not everyone has the same strengths in learning and that’s only the people who are inclined to be academic at all.

    In my arts degree the exams and papers had outcomes set. These were not as specific as being one number or the like but if we deviated from them too much we would still fail. Outcomes can be measured, certainly at an undergraduate level, so I think this is a bit of a red herring as far as discussion goes. So I find it hard to consider this purely from a degree perspective – degrees are meaningless if they are not placed in the context of a working life and a society.

    What we got wrong was encouraging everyone to become students. I firmly believe anyone who has the aptitude and the desire to go into further education should do so and not be financially burdened by the decision (after all, despite your numbers graduates do still earn more than non-graduates and will be taxed accordingly), but I don’t know that we need the high level of graduates we have. Which, I appreciate, is all very well for me to say as one who benefitted from further education. I wouldn’t like to see the UK end up like the US where, I’m told, everyone pretty much needs an undergraduate degree to get anywhere in the world of work.

    However, it all comes down to the same thing – you are desiring measurements of all these things and not everything can be measured in the same way. This does not detract from their value.

    • No of course they don’t all go on to productive fields but more tend to and those that do tend to be higher paid in general than the non-law/business Humanities (normally these are separate areas in the Universities I have attended but Jane ran them together). Theorists tend to get employed as well and a lot of STEM work is not just crunching numbers – its about finding a way to solve a problem that exists. Pure theory tends to be less well paid than business applicable theory but it still tends to do reasonably well and you can always moonlight :).

      Passing it through an ethics board, depends never done it myself but I assume some things have to go through that. Why would turning ethics over to the individuals though be a bad thing? Its not like governments or ethics boards have a great track record of being ethical really. My courses have all included a course on ethics and responsibility – however at the same time we can work for a government which allows us to build and deploy weapons to kill people so really it’s a messed up situation anyway. Not everyone needs a degree, the question in front of us is how much should the government subsidise education for ‘the betterment of the individual’.

      Degrees are worthless outside of a context – working life and society. So how much does a STEM degree add to those and how much does a Humanities degree add(non-law/business since those are really money orientated jobs so fall outside the remit of money vs self improvement discussion). I would say that a STEM degree adds something in a large percentage of cases (at least it adds monetarily), while a humanities degree while it improves the individual as much as a STEM degree has a higher potential to have no return to the country and so funding it is iffier.

      Sending everyone to University is a bad plan since it devalues the degree system resulting in the American system where everyone needs a degree simply because well you have to have a degree right. A lot of those graduates will barely earn enough over their lifetime to repay the investment the government made in them to cover tuition (1-2k extra tax per year), to actually make more from them and pay into the system the students have to go into a very narrow number of fields.

      I am not devaluing the Humanities degrees. For the individual they can add a lot, however to society their value is questionable because we cannot determine a value for them. Monetarily they are typically a bad investment, using those skills they are a bad investment (more people leave the field to do something else), which leaves us with the benefit to the individual and society of those that remain. You need to assign the value there and find a way to measure it to make them earn their funding since we live in a capitalist society, things that aren’t viable don’t get funded except via charity type donations.

  5. copleycat says:

    To quote Linda Rosen from the original article;

    “As early as second grade, girls are more likely than boys to say that math isn’t for them,” Rosen said.

    I can’t help but think that’s the more important issue here. Can anyone think of an incidence in history (come on humanities majors) when group A didn’t have much for tech and group B had a huge tech advantage and the result wasn’t severe oppression of group A by group B?

  6. 2ndnin – apologies for replying late. I haven’t forgotten we were discussing this, only life has got in the way a bit again! Allow me some time and I should formulate a further reply, unless of course the thread is a bit old now and we’ve all moved on? Let me know, was a good discussion.

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