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Reprising SAP: Part 1, US Women Studying Tech

Updated: Feb 13, 2020

Last Friday, I was invited to give a talk at SAP’s International Women’s Day Event.  I focused on two topics:

  • The truth about women studying tech (which I will address here) and

  • The current state of research on brain differences between men and women (which I will post separately or this blog will get too long).

I put up a blog in advance of the talk with data to address the question whether women are shying away from studying tech.  Everyone seems to believe they are, but I arrived at a different conclusion when looking at the actual data.  The data are from the US Department of Education (for more international data, you can see the blog I posted for the speech in Chile on February 28).

Source: US Department of Education. Over the course of the past 50 years, the student market in higher education has expanded dramatically. Business and health science have grown, having successfully attracted more share of the market. Engineering and computer science have done less well. Math/stats are virtually flat since 1970. Neither male nor female students are going there.

The US information shows that college students in America are shying away from studying digital technology, regardless of gender.  I am at a loss as to why the pundits keep ranting about women shunning tech: only 3% of total college students graduated in ICT last year, regardless of gender.  It’s not a lot. America really does not have tech graduates to burn.  But about 80% of that sliver of grads were male.  So where did the females go? Art history? Philosophy?  No, it turns out they went into fields that are demanding on the same terms as ICT.

The historical data put important context around this phenomenon.  Since the 1970s, there has been steep upward growth in the number of women going to college around the world.  In the US, this trend is even more pronounced.  I think it is pretty clear that the increase is due to the jobs opening up for women after the Second Wave—jobs lead study more than study leads jobs.

As this new “surplus” of female students grew, however, neither ICT nor engineering picked up much share of the new “market.”  Instead, women went into health professions (including the biological sciences, which women now dominate) and business (where they are now about half of all graduates).

Source: US Department of Education. See that women “own” health and dominate in bioscience. They are equal in business. Though they are certainly present in fewer numbers among the remaining disciplines, all these fields have scarily low enrollments to begin with.

It’s important to note that these cohorts of females were not only more numerous, but better qualified than their male counterparts.  We know that because they passed admissions standards so much more frequently that private schools adjusted the standard for males, in order to keep their classes gender-balanced.

The main areas where growth is anticipated in the 4th Industrial Revolution are:  health, business, math/science, ICT, and engineering.  Today, female college students in America represent 84% of medical degrees (50% of incoming MD students are women), 60% of biological sciences, and half of business.  In math/science, women represent a bit less than half of majors.  They don’t seem to be scared of it, but neither sex seems particularly interested (a total of 3% of students study math or physical science).

Note that health and business are now the top two fields chosen by American students:  that is where all the growth in the number of female students went.  Both of these fields are quantitative, competitive, and were male-dominated at the beginning of the period.  So, the frequent explanations for why women are allegedly shying away from tech—they aren’t good at math, they hate science, they don’t go where the good jobs are, they aren’t as competitive as men—simply don’t wash.  I concluded that it’s incumbent on institutions, not incoming 18-year-olds, to step up to the plate and solve this labor gap.

At the SAP talk, I also spoke about the oft-claimed brain difference between sexes.  That information is in the next post.


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