When President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, women working full time earned an average of 59 cents for every dollar made by a man in a similar job.
By the time President Obama signed the 2014 Equal Pay Day, an executive order making gender bias more difficult to hide in the workplace, women made an average of 77.5 cents for every man-made dollar.
Progress, right? But many women—71 percent, to be exact, according to a new poll by the Pew Research Center—still feel that it’s easier for men to land executive jobs; 50 percent of men agreed with that assessment. (Some 75 percent of working women, and 73 percent of working men, also said that men and women are hired, paid, and treated the same—it’s advancing up the ladder that’s the difficult part.)
This edition of the Pew study doesn’t offer any insights into STEM careers, but the numbers over the years haven’t been encouraging. In a 2012 study by the National Institute of Science, only 15.1 percent of women listed any STEM discipline as a major they intended to pursue, and just 0.4 aimed for a computer science degree.
That’s despite a decades-long push to introduce more women into the STEM professions. According to a 2013 study by the Census Bureau, women claimed STEM jobs in droves throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1970 and 2011, the number of women working in social sciences multiplied from 17 percent to 61 percent; in mathematics, the number rose from 15 percent to 47 percent; and in the life and physical sciences, the number rose from 14 percent to 41 percent. In 1970, women held just 15 percent of computer science jobs; by 1990, that number had reached a peak of 34 percent, before dropping to 27 percent by 2011.
It’s not clear what caused that notable retreat in computer science. “There’s a social image around what a computer scientist looks like,” according to a December 2013 EdWeek.org article quoting Kimberly Bryant, founder of a nonprofit group called Black Girls Code, which encourages African-American girls to pursue computer science jobs and degrees.
(Similar preconceptions paint male computer scientists as un-athletic, socially awkward intellectuals with a fetish for science-fiction movies and collectibles, Byrant added.)
Plenty of barriers in culture and primary, secondary and post-graduate education discourage women from going into some STEM careers, but the ultimate barrier is the people already working in those industries, suggests Ernesto Reuben, assistant professor of management at Columbia Business School and lead author of the study How Stereotypes Impair Women’s Careers in Science, which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February.
That report was the result of a “field study” in which Reuben and other researchers enrolled 150 participants to pose as job candidates, and nearly 200 people already working in STEM fields to pose as hiring managers. They found that both male and female hiring managers were so biased in favor of male candidates that they chose the male candidate twice as often as the female candidate, even when they knew nothing about either candidate’s skills and when they were told both did equally well on a pre-qualification mathematics test.
Even scoring better than the male candidate didn’t help women in most situations. When hiring managers were told the woman candidate had significantly better test scores than the man, it only improved her chance of being hired by 9 percent.
“Studies that seek to answer why there are more men than women in STEM fields typically focus on women’s interests and choices,” the report concluded. “This may be important, but our experiments show that another culprit of this phenomenon is that hiring managers possess an extraordinary level of gender bias when making decisions and filling positions, often times choosing the less qualified male over a superiorly qualified female.”
Other researchers have suggested solutions for boosting up the numbers of women involved in STEM fields, particularly computer science. “A commitment to systemic rather than piecemeal change is important,” Catherine S. Ashcraft, senior research scientist at the National Center for Women & Information Technology, told Dice last year. “Starting small is great but there needs to be a commitment to eventually change company-wide systems and policies. We like to say that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
That means analyzing job descriptions for bias, training supervisors and employees in work practices that weed out inequalities, and launching effective mentorship and sponsorship programs for female talent. But will that be enough? In a bid to keep climbing the ladder, many women are foregoing working for someone else, and instead choosing to start their own businesses.
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Chart: Pew Research Center