Because of a speech I gave at Brown University this morning, I have now had occasion to extend my recent blog on the 4th Industrial Revolution by digging a little deeper into the question of whether American women will be unprepared for this massive shift expected in the workplace. Once again, what I am finding is not really in keeping with all the “OMG, women are toast!” writing we are seeing on this matter. In fact, the more I read, the more I wonder why women are being singled out the way they are.
The big shift among students in American tertiary education over the past fifty years has been the steady upswing of female enrollees versus male. A new perception that better jobs were opening up for women—due to radical changes in job segregation brought about early in the Second Wave—probably caused young women and their parents to change previous views that college was only financially worthwhile for sons.
The graph you are looking at here attests to more than just a higher number of girls wanting to go to school. Universities recruit the best students for the seats in their classrooms. During this period those seats have been limited. Thus, the greater presence of females in the population is also a testament to their better ability to meet admissions criteria. Indeed, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, private schools in America began adopting lower admissions standards for boys in order to maintain gender balance. Over time, these practices have resulted in an admissions system that makes it harder for girls to get in, despite having better records. (See here, here, and here, for example.) But, in spite of this intentional disadvantaging from school admissions officers, girls are still the majority. Hence, female students are present in greater quality, as well as quantity.
Do note, please, that males have also enrolled in ever greater numbers throughout this same period. It is emphatically not true that men suddenly went down the cognitive drain. The women simply increased their numbers at a steeper rate, causing the relative representation by gender to change. People, like those at Fox News, who claim women’s gains come only with the total destruction of men have an agenda and are misstating facts to get there.
During this time, women have also graduated in greater numbers than men and have come to dominate post-graduate degree programs at every level. Women make better grades, do their homework more regularly, and so forth. These decades also saw the first women in medical and law schools, MBA programs, and the like—females have hardly shied away from challenges in tertiary education. Indeed, they have conquered male-dominated fields, one by one.
The final decade of the 20th century brought another milestone for American women in education. Additional spending to even out the availability of advanced math courses at the high school level resulted in higher math scores for women on standardized tests. As a result of this shift in access to resources, the dread “gender math gap” has been closed for twenty years. Twenty years and we still see folks claiming that women can’t do math, giving this as a reason for female “fear” of science courses or exclusion from tech jobs. (For a literature review discussing gender issues in math and science, as well as research on alleged brain differences, please click here.)
So why does the drumbeat now seem to imply that women don’t go into STEM majors because they are stupid, cowardly, or lazy?
Well, good question. I downloaded a bunch of data from the US Department of Education and got to work. I focused on those areas of study most often emphasized by the oracles of the 4th Revolution: health, business, sciences, engineering, math, and computer science.
The influx of female and male students into the system necessarily meant that the total number increased dramatically over the five decades we are looking at here. Some majors were able to attract/absorb these students; others were not. Specifically, health and business flourished in the expanding market, but engineering and digital did less well. (Indeed, health and business are now the two most frequently awarded degrees in America.) Math/statistics and the physical sciences stayed flat—failing to attract female or male students!
At the end of this sea change, we can see that a slim majority of all students major in a topic other than these I have selected (“other” majors would include history, art, social science, etc.). Business now accounts for nearly 20% of all degrees awarded. Health and bio sciences combined represent 17%. ICT and engineering are tiny, at a combined share of 9%, regardless of gender. Math/stats and physical sciences are so small, you can hardly see their slice of the pie.
The big takeaway on this graph, in my opinion, is that computer science attracts very few students, full stop. Yet that is where we hear all the noise about women avoiding the “right” fields. Why are we not hearing about how men are avoiding computer science? Or engineering? Or math/science in general? Seriously, where is this gendered foghorn coming from?
Just a little more digging produced a picture of how these growth trends played out by gender. The health professions and biological sciences—both marked to be key fields in the coming Revolution—have been taken over by women. (Notice we are not just talking about nurses here, but other health professions and all the life sciences. Women now make up 50% of all incoming medical students. I have been appalled at the number of people who respond to this graph by saying “Yeah, but that’s only nurses.” If that isn’t a gender stereotype, I don’t know what is. It is demeaning to both women and nurses.)
Women are majoring in business at roughly the same rate as men. They hover around 40% for both math and science, hardly the vast imbalance we are led to anticipate. But, again, the more salient question should be “why are there no more students in these fields than there are?” In engineering and ICT, the two areas the 4th Revolution rhetoric usually focuses on, women are about 20% each. Again, though, these fields are hardly swamped with men.
If you were to look at this conundrum without an agenda of gender-shaming women, you might have a very different analysis. You might say, for instance, that the STEM fields are not experiencing female antipathy so much as paying for their own failure to grow in an expanding market. And you might ask why it was that health and business, both of which are math-oriented and quite competitive (and both of which were male-dominated at the beginning of this period), were able to attract significant numbers of women when the other tech-oriented fields were not. You might ask, bluntly: “What was it about STEM courses that put all students off?” And, “What could now be changed that would recruit and retain more students of both genders into these fields?”
I only did a little rooting around to see what some answers would be to those questions. What I turned up were studies showing females have a worse experience than males in the coursework and internships in ICT and engineering. I also saw evidence and heard from colleagues that computer science and engineering are both still in a mode where they “weed out” students vigorously in the first couple of years in order to get the numbers down. The way this is being reported in the media is that many students (boys and girls) coming out of high school want to study STEM, but then they don’t make it through this “weeding” process because they are not prepared by their high school education. And then, of course, the blaming turns to high school teachers.
After twenty-five years in the academy, I have a different view of it. College administrators like to see enrollments going up in a major; college faculty like to see them going down (leaves more time for research, which is what they are really judged on, and no benefits come to faculty for increasing the number of students they teach). My guess is that the professors in these fields are doing their dead level best to keep their numbers small. If they really wanted to increase the number of students graduating from STEM, they would focus on better teaching.
I also think it is shameful to declare that a significant number of students just aren’t good enough to be in STEM because they didn’t get enough training in high school. We are talking about kids (male and female) who are still young, can still learn. Supposedly, we are talking about a national economic priority to get more people into STEM. In this light, the idea that universities are just arbitrarily “weeding out” innocent and still teachable 18-year-olds is offensive to me. If these fields are really that important to the national economy, money should pour in to offer “catch up” coursework for the students who need it, rather than just chucking them out. (Medical schools do this. Business schools do this.) In sum, these numbers are a matter of the choices made by those in control of the resources, not choices made by female students.
We must also recognize that students do not make their choices in a vacuum. They get loads of advice on choice of major, as well as reams of data, and will usually know which offers the best economic future. If they are not choosing a field, it may not be due to a deficit on their side, but to a differently-informed perception that a particular field does not offer them a bright future. Such is the case with women in tech, as I detailed in my last blog on the topic. If the powers that be specifically want more women in tech, they should be investing in improving the gender-friendliness of tech environments from the classroom to the workplace, instead of trying to blame women for their own failures.
But no. All we are hearing is that women are too bad at math, too lazy, and too frightened to study the “hard stuff.” This, despite the fact that females are the biggest and best pool of available talent. This, despite their having already conquered fields just as difficult and just as male-dominated.
The American economy does not have tech students to waste, regardless of their sex. But what we are seeing here is the STEM community walking away from the best and brightest—and most numerous!—students of a generation.
Basically, I am calling BS on this whole scare mongering campaign that says women are going to be the next Great Unemployed because they won’t go into the right areas of study. I think it’s on government, education, and industry—not young women— to solve the problem that American students simply don’t take tech.