Being more like men does not help women in STEM careers

Employer bias is one potential reason for the gap in STEM, research concludes.
By Bernie Monegain
08:26 AM
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Cornell University Professor Sharon Sassler recently published a study on the gap between men and women in STEM fields. Chris Kitchen/University Photography

Even when women were more like men 20 to 40 years ago, it didn’t help them get a job in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, according to Cornell University professor of policy analysis and management, Sharon Sassler.

Sassler, a demographer, recently completed a new study on women who earned college degrees in technology, engineering and mathematics in the 1970s through the early 1990s.

Sassler found that when women planned to delay marriage and limit the number of children they wanted – which would let them focus exclusively on work – it did not result in the same employment opportunities in STEM careers as those afforded to men.

Of those graduating with a STEM degree, 41 percent of women and 53 percent of men were employed in a STEM job within two years of completing college.

As Sassler figures, the numbers are statistically significant.

“These women have the characteristics of the ideal worker,” she writes in the study. “They expect to have few family distractions and work in STEM both within five years and at midlife. They really have strong aspirations,” she told the Cornell Chronical.“But they were no more likely to enter STEM jobs than women who anticipated marrying young and having two or more children.”

[See also: Women flock to STEM careers, but drop out sooner than men.]

The study, “The missing women in STEM?” was published in Social Science Research. Sassler’s co-authors include Yael Levitte, associate vice provost for faculty development and diversity at Cornell University.

The National Institutes of Health, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the U.S. Department of Education, funded the research.

The researchers analyzed data from the 1979 National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth. This sample of young people ages 14-22 were interviewed in 1979, again as young adults and periodically through the present about their teenage career aspirations, fields of study during college and occupations over time. The researchers focused on 163 women and 353 men who completed STEM bachelor degrees.

Employer bias was one potential reason for the STEM employment gap, the researchers concluded. Another was women’s underrepresentation in STEM majors, the study concluded.

Sassler noted that if women aren’t getting into STEM employment, then they’re not there to mentor other women.