Today, the number of women earning college degrees, the single most significant predictor of income later in life, is vastly outpacing the number of men. And yet, it is well known that women, on average, continue to earn 77 cents to every dollar earned by men - a percentage that has improved by only three points over the past 20 years and is more drastic for minority women.
Of the different explanations, the gender gap in college majors remains a fundamental one - resulting from and reinforced by socialization, and ultimately leading women into historically lower paid professions, contributing to what is considered by economists to be widespread occupational segregation.
Notably, UConn Today recently shared the results of a Washington Post survey of 90 public institutions nationwide, showing that the increase in women graduating from UConn’s School of Engineering is the largest percentage increase in the country, at 9.3 percent - with 24.3 percent of the school’s 2015 graduates being female.
The improvement is certainly attributable to sustained outreach and institutional support aimed at both the recruitment and retainment of traditionally underrepresented undergraduate engineering students - such as the BRIDGE summer program, specifically for underrepresented students and women in STEM mentorship programs. It shows how far such targeted programs can go, along with the continued need for them. The UConn Today article is also notable in that it specifically cites how students themselves, many female, have taken the lead in addressing the problem.
While this effort is applaudable, there is continued room to grow - specifically in making sure these programs designed to empower underrepresented groups in STEM are not monolithic, but nuanced and cognizant of the unique challenges that women and minority populations face. Clearly, it seems the university community - faculty and students - are moving in this direction, both in mindset and allocating resources.
Yet overall, it should be noted that UConn remains relatively in line with the nationwide trends for gender gaps in college majors. Mechanical engineering, Electrical Engineering, Physics and Civil Engineering are all in the top six most male-dominated majors according to 2015 data from payscale.com. Nationally, these majors are 92, 91, 88, and 85 percent male respectively. At UConn, they are 88, 90, 87, and 82 according to 2015 data from the Office of Institutional Research and Effectiveness.
It feels like it should go without saying: but if one operates on the understanding that there is no essential biological difference between men and women in terms of particular academic aptitude and interest, as one should, then there is no reason this number should depart so far from 50. The culprit, along with explaining why women drop out of STEM majors at higher rates, is socialization.
Some have tried to explain away the problem by citing “brain differences” between the sexes – a damaging idea. In what is now referred to as the Tel Aviv Study, over 1,400 MRI brain scans were analyzed, with results suggesting that any brain differences that exist, though slight, are the effect of socialization, rather than any sort of cause. “Such differences are small and highly influenced by environment, yet they have still been used to paint a binary picture of the brain,” writes Kate Wheeling of Science Magazine.
Socialization, by its nature, can be difficult to target. Reflecting with friends as a senior in college, however, it’s not hard to come up with examples. While much takes place in formative, younger years, discouragement that fosters self-doubt can come at the exact time when young women are supposed to be focused on best preparing themselves to jumpstart their careers after college. While it is true that such backlash may, quite frankly, be helping college women prepare for the realities of gender discrimination in the workforce, it’s still wrong - and has calculable effects, according to two seniors who requested to remain anonymous.
One recalled being at this fall’s UConn Engineering Scholarship Banquet - a few weeks before the UConn Today article was released - and being asked by her male peer, “Is that one of those things you need ovaries to get?” Another, who switched from Computer Science to Economics at UConn, said, “A big part of my decision to switch was a lack of female role models in Computer Science, which contributed to the feeling that as a woman, I might not do well in the field or be able to find much support. I did a few software engineering internships and was the only female intern in the department. Although I enjoyed my job, being surrounded entirely by males was kind of uncomfortable and isolating.”
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As UConn and other universities continue to work on closing the gap, they must continue to address these experiences and partner with students. Gender socialization is not an easy problem to solve. This is not at all to say that women, or men for that matter, should be discouraged from social sciences and humanities majors. Non-STEM students fill a crucial and growing void. In fact, a notable part of the gender wage gap is the undervaluing of what is traditionally seen as “women's work” - such as education and nursing.
What it is to say, however, is that the gender major gap, and gender wage gap, are two interrelated, systemic issues. Universities have a crucial role to play in solving it, both in recruitment, retainment and support, and that faculty and students must work together. However it also requires a comprehensive understanding of gender socialization from a young age . Solving the gender wage gap with more women entering higher paid professions, along with greater positions of power, requires that we continue questioning how we raise our girls compared to our boys.