Women Achieve Gains In STEM Fields

Progress has been uneven, but women are achieving significant gains in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Despite the overall gains, certain specific fields continue to demonstrate big differences in enrollment by gender. These fields include computer science, engineering, economics and physics, which are disproportionately male.

A pay gap also persists among recent college graduates in all STEM fields.

More Women Are Majoring in STEM

Based on data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), women represented 45% of students majoring in STEM fields in 2020, up from 40% in 2010 and 34% in 1994.

IPEDS has tracked fall enrollment by major field of study and gender since 1994. The four STEM-related fields include engineering, biological sciences, mathematics and physical sciences.

The Research Science Institute (RSI), the most prestigious summer STEM program for high school students, reports that female students will outnumber male students for the first time in 2022, representing 55% of accepted U.S. students, up from 22% in 1984.

RSI uses the same admission criteria for male and female students: Excellence. According to Joann P. DiGennaro, President of the Center for Excellence in Education (CEE), which sponsors RSI, this year’s milestone is “proof that meritocracy can be reached by all with persistence and grit.”

Women Dominate Overall Undergraduate Enrollment

The trends in STEM enrollment fall short of overall college enrollment by gender, but women are catching up.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, female students represented 58 percent of total undergraduate enrollment in fall 2020. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, 59.5% of college students were female as of spring 2021.

A possible reason? Women are more likely than men to enroll in college immediately after high school graduation.

Gender Distribution Varies by Field of Study

Based on data from the 2017 follow-up to the 2016 Baccalaureate and Beyond longitudinal study (B&B:16/17), women represented 53% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in science, engineering and math, 65% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in psychology and other social sciences and 80% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in health and medicine.

But, the gender distribution in STEM fields is more uneven when drilling down into specific fields of study. Women represent only 16% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in computer and information sciences, 21% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in engineering and engineering technology, 27% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in economics and 38% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in physical sciences.

On the other hand, they represent 48% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in mathematics and statistics, 63% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in biological and biomedical sciences and 83% of Bachelor’s degree recipients in health professional and related sciences, preferring social and behavioral sciences and non-STEM fields.

Women are proportionately half as likely to major in math, computer science, science, engineering and technology as compared with men. A much lower proportion of women choose to major in these fields as compared with non-STEM fields, contributing to the gender gap.

Persistent Differences in Employment and Income

Women remain underrepresented in STEM occupations and earn less than men in STEM jobs.

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that women represented 27% of STEM workers in 2019, up from 8% in 1970. They represent 75% of workers in healthcare, 64% of workers in social science, 50% or workers in life sciences, and 47% of workers in math. But, they represent only 41% of workers in physical sciences, 26% of workers in computer science and 15% of engineers.

There are also persistent differences in income even after women graduate with Bachelor’s degrees in the same fields as men.

This table shows the detailed breakdown of annual income one year after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree, based on the B&B:16/17 data.

The U.S. Census Bureau data, which is based on all workers in STEM fields, not just recent college graduates, shows a greater disparity. This table shows median earnings for civilians aged 16 years and older.

In addition, women who work in STEM occupations earn less than men in all racial groups.

Pending Legislation

The Women and Minorities in STEM Booster Act of 2021 (S. 2217 and H.R. 4366) seeks to increase the participation of underrepresented demographic groups in STEM fields. This bill was introduced by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) in the Senate and Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY-12) in the House.

The legislation would provide funding for online STEM workshops, student mentoring programs in STEM, STEM internships for undergraduate and graduate students, STEM outreach for K-12 schools and programs to increase the recruitment and retention of underrepresented faculty in STEM.