SALT LAKE CITY — Women employed in science, technology, engineering and math may make more money than people in other fields, but they are professionally hobbled by gender discrimination when they work primarily with men, a new report says.
The report, released Tuesday by Pew Research Center, paints a troubling picture of how women believe they are treated in some of the best-paid and fastest-growing segments of the workplace.
More than three-quarters of women who work in STEM fields at male-dominated workplaces report experiencing at least one type of gender discrimination, ranging from being turned down for a job to making less than a man for the same work.
Reports of discrimination are highest among women with advanced degrees and those who work with computers. Just 4 in 10 women in computer occupations — jobs that include computer scientists, systems analysts, software developers, information systems managers and programmers — say they are given equal opportunities for promotion and advancement.
"For women working in science, technology, engineering or math jobs, the workplace is a different, sometimes more hostile environment than the one their male co-workers experience. Discrimination and sexual harassment are seen as more frequent, and gender is perceived as more of an impediment than an advantage to career success," the authors of the report wrote.
Pew's findings emerge as school districts across the nation launch efforts to ignite interest in STEM studies. But even as the availability of technology jobs expands, the number of women in them is shrinking. In 1990, women held 32 percent of jobs related to computing, compared to 25 percent today, Pew said.
While the new report describes a workplace that young women may hesitate to enter, it also provides a roadmap for improvement, analysts say. And it points out the measurable value of an education in science, technology, engineering and math, with STEM employees earning two-thirds more than non-STEM workers overall, according to the report.
Why STEM jobs matter
STEM is an acronym for a range of subjects and jobs that include computers and math, architecture and engineering, life sciences, physical sciences and health care.
Women are not underrepresented in all of those categories; in fact, in health care, they are overrepresented, said Cary Funk, Pew's director of science and society research.
While women comprise 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, they perform nearly three-quarters of health-care jobs, with even higher numbers in some occupations. Ninety-five percent of dental hygienists, for example, are women, as are 96 percent of speech-language pathologists, according to Pew.
But more than 6 in 10 STEM jobs are in computers or engineering, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with computer occupations comprising 45 percent.
Among the top 10 fastest-growing jobs in 2016, specialists in software development and applications made the most money, earning more than $100,000 annually, compared to registered nurses, who made about $68,500, the bureau said.
And the wage gap has been steadily widening since 1990, when there were just 9.7 million STEM jobs in the U.S. Now, there are 17.3 million, and the largest growth has been in computer jobs. The average STEM worker earns about $71,000 each year, compared to the $43,000 that non-STEM workers earn, the Pew report said.
Analyzing data from the U.S. Census Department, Pew researchers found that women's presence in life science and math occupations were roughly equal to their presence in the workplace; in physical science, a little less so. But the numbers plunge when it comes to computer and engineering jobs. Women comprise 7 percent of sales engineers and 8 percent of mechanical engineers, Pew reported.
Vance Checketts, vice president and general manager for Dell EMC in Utah, is also chairman of the board of the STEM Action Center, a Utah nonprofit that promotes STEM studies.
Utah’s rate of women in computer jobs roughly corresponds with the 25 percent national rate that Pew reported, both at Dell EMC and in other Silicon Slopes companies, Checketts said.
But he believes that will change in light of initiatives the center has been involved with, such as a state-funded partnership to establish computer science programs in schools where they didn’t exist, and the new STEM Mentor Exchange, which connects teachers with industry mentors.
Checketts also pointed out the work of Utah’s Women Tech Council, which sponsors an event called SheTech (this year, March 1), which educates girls about technology careers.
Gender discrimination within STEM
In a preliminary report released in December, Pew reported that 4 in 10 American women had reported gender discrimination in the workplace. Those findings, culled from the same online survey of 4,914 adults in July and August, showed higher levels of reported gender discrimination among women with advanced degrees, a pattern that also emerged when researchers examined the responses of 3,344 respondents working in STEM fields.
Forty-four percent of women in STEM jobs report having experienced at least one form of gender discrimination. That's roughly equivalent to the same number of all professions. But when women in STEM fields were asked if they worked mostly with women or with men, the number of women reporting gender discrimination climbed to 78 percent when the women said they worked mostly with men.
And nearly half of those women said their gender has made it more difficult to succeed at work, compared to 14 percent of women in non-STEM jobs who felt that way.
“People automatically assume I am the secretary, or in a less technical role because I am female. This makes it difficult for me to build a technical network to get my work done. People will call on my male co-workers, but not call on me," one respondent, a 36-year-old woman who is a technical consultant, told Pew.
Women with advanced degrees who work in STEM jobs are more likely than other women in STEM to have experienced gender discrimination at work (62 percent compared to 41 percent). And more than a third of women with an advanced degree believe their gender has made it tougher to succeed, compared to 10 percent of women in STEM with some college or less education.
Only about half of women with postgraduate degrees say they are treated fairly when it comes to opportunities for promotion, compared to 76 percent of women with less education.
Well-educated white women, however, aren't the only group of workers who believe they are discriminated against. About 6 in 10 African-American STEM workers report being discriminated against because of race, compared to about half of African-Americans in non-STEM jobs.
What are the solutions?
The Pew findings add to a national conversation that was inflamed last year when a Google engineer, who has since been fired, wrote an internal memo that purported to explain why women are inadequately represented in technology jobs. The memo said that women didn't make as much as men, in part, because of women's "neuroticism" and "men's higher drive for status."
Damore's solutions to the problem of inequity included "de-emphasizing empathy" when making policy decisions and rethinking corporate programs designed to help people identify their unconscious biases.
But it is programs that help workers identify biases that are most effective in ending gender discrimination, according to Susan R. Madsen, founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project. That organization is holding a gender-equality training seminar in Lehi, Utah, on Feb. 28, designed to help human-resource professionals and organization leaders spot workplace practices and procedures that might foster unthinking discrimination.
“If we are going to be fair and respectful of everyone, we need to learn more about unconscious bias,” said Madsen, editor of the 2017 book “Handbook of Research on Gender and Leadership.”
The people who participated in the Pew survey offered suggestions of their own. When asked why they believe women are underrepresented in STEM, equal numbers (39 percent) said women face discrimination in recruitment, hiring and promotion, and that girls are not encouraged to pursue STEM subjects when they're young.
That's something that technology leaders are trying to change in Utah, said Checketts, of Dell EMC and the STEM Action Center. "The biggest need is clearly in the lowest grades," Checketts said.
Other respondents in the Pew survey suggested that the numbers of women in STEM jobs would grow if the jobs offer work/life balance and if there are more female role models.
As for increasing the number of Hispanics and African-Americans in STEM jobs, most respondents (42 percent) said that providing access to quality education that would prepare young people for these jobs would have a beneficial effect.
"Black men currently in the STEM industries must be visible to the younger generation in order to show the value of those skills and the career implications," one respondent, a 30-year-old African-American man who is a systems engineer, said.6 comments on this story
There's also hope in the number of Americans who reported that they enjoyed studying science and math. Although 73 percent of respondents said they believe that K-12 STEM education in the U.S. is average or below average, 75 percent said they had personally enjoyed studying science, and they especially liked labs and hands-on learning.
Of the people who said they didn't like science classes, 36 percent of respondents said they didn't see how the information would be useful to them in the future, a position they might want to rethink given the disparity between STEM and non-STEM salaries.
The full report is available on the Pew Research Center website, pewresearch.org.