Women in Science Work for Less Money

Study hard, receive a science or engineering degree, and your reward will be a well-paying job in your chosen field. That's part of the sales pitch for those trying to attract more women into science. But according to a new U.S. government study, the "reward" includes earning 12% less than your male counterparts.

The 11-page report, "Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation," is the first analysis of women working in technical fields (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) by the Commerce Department's Economics and Statistics Administration (ESA). The study is based on data from the 2009 American Community Survey, an ongoing questionnaire by the U.S. Census Bureau that supplements the decennial census.

The report's overall conclusion that women are underrepresented in the U.S. STEM workforce -- holding 24% of all STEM jobs while comprising 48% of all workers -- won't be a surprise to anyone who follows the issue. But they may find the lack of progress depressing: "Over the past decade, this underrepresentation has remained fairly constant, even as women's share of the college educated workforce has increased," explains a departmental press release on the report, released yesterday.

Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, a Ph.D. economist who oversees both ESA and the Census Bureau, tried to put the best spin on the salary disparity between men and women in STEM fields. "There is a gender earnings gap across the economy," she told reporters. "But it's actually smaller in STEM areas than in non-STEM areas." Still, she acknowledged that the salary gap raises larger questions. "In fact, one might think that the smaller [salary] gap might actually draw women into STEM jobs. So it adds to the puzzle of what is it that we are doing inside our schools and our families that makes STEM jobs seemingly less attractive to girls."

Blank said the survey didn't analyze the gender salary gap by work setting, such as industry versus academia. "But we did look at the gap by occupations," she notes. "And what's interesting is that engineering, which has the lowest percentage of women, actually has the smallest gender gap. It's only 7 cents."

She said the gender earnings gap "is one of the big research questions in economics. Why does it exist, even after you control for presumably what are all of the productivity attributes?" Even so, she's willing to hazard a guess. One answer, she says, is that "women don't seem to get the same number of promotions and wage increases as men do."