A subtle cause of the gender gap in STEM jobs

Summary: Oceans of inks have been spilled about the gender gap. Few mention research about its causes, the trends leading to its closure, and how they will eventually put women on top. Here is a new paper about the subtle causes of the gap — and pointing to a very different future for society.

Women in Science

High School Choices and the Gender Gap in STEM

By David Card and A. Abigail Payne.
National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2017.


“Women who graduate from university are less likely than men to specialize in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM). We use detailed administrative data for a recent cohort of high school students in Ontario, Canada, combined with data from the province’s university admission system to analyze the dynamic process leading to this gap.

“We show that entry to STEM programs is mediated through an index of STEM readiness based on end-of-high-school courses in math and science. Most of the gender gap in STEM entry can be traced to differences in the rate of STEM readiness; less than a fifth is due to differences in the choice of major conditional on readiness.

“We then use high school course data to decompose the gap in STEM readiness among university entrants into two channels: one reflecting the gender gap in the fraction of high school students with the necessary prerequisites to enter STEM, and a second arising from differences in the fractions of females and males who enter university.

“The gender gap in the fraction of students with STEM prerequisites is small. The main factor is the lower university entry rate by men – a difference that is due to the lower fraction of non-science oriented males who complete enough advanced level courses to qualify for university entry. We conclude that differences in course-taking patterns and preferences for STEM conditional on readiness contribute to male-female differences in the rate of entering STEM, but that the main source of the gap is the lower overall rate of university attendance by men.”

A. Abigail Payne
A. Abigail Payne.

Summary and Conclusions.

“To summarize our main findings, {we} show the sources of the 13.2 percentage point gender gap in the fraction of newly entering university students who enroll in a STEM program. …

  • 2.1 percentage points are attributable to a lower rate of entering a STEM major by STEM ready females than males …;
  • 1.7 percentage points are attributable to the slightly lower fraction of females than males
    who are STEM ready at the end of high school and the slightly lower fraction of STEM ready
    females who enter university…; and
  • 9.4 percentage points are attributable to the higher fraction of non‐STEM ready females who finish high school with enough qualifying classes to be university ready.

David Card

“…In addition to these main findings, our analysis points to several other key differences between female and male students. On average, females have about the same average grades in UP math and sciences courses as males, but higher grades in English/French and other qualifying courses that count toward the top 6 scores that determine their university rankings.  This comparative advantage explains a substantial share of the gender difference in the probability of pursing a STEM major, conditional on being STEM ready at the end of high school.

“We also find that females are more likely than males to be on track to take STEM-related courses in their last year of high school, as measured by obtaining a grade of 70 or higher in level 3 academic track math. But fewer of these females take enough STEM‐related UP classes to achieve STEM readiness, so females end up slightly less STEM ready at the end of high school. This slippage presents a potential opportunity for policies to raise the fraction of females who complete three or more math and science courses in level 4, though we suspect that again the forces of comparative advantage may compel at least some of the on track female students to opt out of STEM courses.”

A look at the future.

With 55% to 60% of the undergraduate degrees going to women (and that fraction rising), the role of women seems certain to increase. Especially as the number of women going into STEM fields (and getting graduate degrees) increases. The inevitable result: the pay gap will continue to shrink.

STEM - women graduates

By what date will men be minorities in most high-paying professions? On that date will there still be special enrichment programs for women, special scholarships for women, and affirmative action programs for women? Will the game be reversed, with men the recipients of gender-based aid?

How will this gender ship affect society?

Also – about the mythical shortage of STEM workers.

Corporations want more skilled workers in order to push down their wages. “Shortage” equals good wages. There is no shortage of STEM workers (although there are always shortages in individual fields, due to the lag between a spike in demand and the time required to train people to fill it). See these posts for details.


About the authors

David Card is a professor of economics at Berkeley. See his website, with his C.V. and his publications.

A. Abigail Payne is a professor of economics at McMaster U and Director of the Public Economics Data Analysis Laboratory. See her website.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Women, society, and the gender wars, and especially these…

  1. Women have won the gender revolution.
  2. Conflict in tomorrow’s offices: strong women clashing with each other.
  3. The Economist proclaims that men are “The Weaker Sex”.
  4. Women are moving on top of men in America.
  5. We might become a low testosterone America. More research needed, stat!
  6. Women on Top, chapter 10: the growing gender gap in education.

17 thoughts on “A subtle cause of the gender gap in STEM jobs”

  1. Humans have a natural tendency to see themselves as victims. Consider the neo-Nazis who deny the Holocaust: rather than believe it happened and view themselves as inheritors of a legacy of destroying evil, they deny that it happened so that they can see themselves as victims of a Jewish conspiracy. I think this is because victimization is a powerful focuser and motivator; the enemy has done you wrong, so nothing is your fault, everything is the enemy’s fault, and everything you do against the enemy is justified. Attack the enemy!

    So, will women continue to see themselves as victims in need of reparations/special attention even when they’ve risen to the top? Of course! They are humans, after all, just as much as you and me, and prone to the human tendency to seek victimhood status. Plus, even if you truly understand that you aren’t a victim, why would you disturb a status quo that benefits you? So plenty of women will fight to keep the status quo. The question then becomes: how well will the narrative of victimhood hold? Will it continue to convince neutral parties that these programs are still necessary, or will the spell be broken and the narrative fail? It’s holding pretty well now, but as you’ve repeatedly said, there is always a counterrevolution. Will women’s victim status fall by the wayside? Too early to tell. I don’t know of any way to stress-test a narrative to see if people will continue to believe in it.

    I am confident, however, that I would continue to get shit on Facebook if I ever try posting articles like this again…

    1. Tice,

      “Humans have a natural tendency to see themselves as victims.”

      Magnitudes matter. Yes, there is tendency. No, it is not a constant in history. The current enthusiasm for “victims” is a rarity in history, linked to the political propaganda declaring “victimhood” to endow people with morally superiority.

    2. Well, it looks like I have just demonstrated a different natural human tendency: assuming that the status quo is universal and unchanging. I’ve spent so much of my life in Western victimhood culture that absorbed its assumptions and taken them as constants. Oops.

      1. Tice,

        Most of us do that at one time or another. We lack deep knowledge about other times and places. That’s why much anthropology and history is shocks. For example, I was often shocked when reading the “A History of Private Life” series (books I highly recommend).

  2. Bottom line of the research: If you don’t take higher level math courses you don’t take a science or engineering degree.
    It is unclear to me that the research sheds any light on what it is that (a) prompts students not to take STEM qualifying courses during high school or (b) prompts students who have already done well in STEM related courses through 11th Grade to stop taking similar courses later on that would make them STEM ready.
    The authors seem to suggest that students pursue degrees in fields that they show more aptitude for/interest in as reflected in their course grades.
    I have deliberately avoided talking of gender differences here since the authors present no evidence that gender in and of itself has any causal significance in whether or not students receive STEM degrees. Outcomes appear to reflect individual choices and preferences while in HS. There appear to be no significant gender differences in capabilities in STEM related courses.

    1. Bernie,

      (1) You are looking at the abstract and two paragraphs of the conclusion section — from a 42 page paper. You’re expecting too much from too little text.

      (2) “the authors present no evidence that gender in and of itself has any causal significance”

      What a weird thing to say. They don’t present any evidence of that because they don’t say any such thing.

    2. Editor:
      Two points:
      First, I have the full NBER paper not the abstract. You might have asked rather than assumed!
      Second, I understand that they explicitly do not argue for gender difference – but it is implicit or why is the analysis focused entirely on differences between male and female students? In fact I think this is an excellent effort to identify what might explain the reasons for why students of either gender chose or do not chose STEM degrees. My point is exactly what I said: If the policy goal is to generate more STEM graduates, the research needs to focus on those reasons and less on the more readily publishable notion of a gender gap. They hint at a comparative grade gap in scores between STEM and non-STEM qualifying courses – that is IMHO an excellent proposition to explore. They hint at the selection of Calculus and Physics, again an excellent proposition to explore. They hint at choices made for the final year courses, again and excellent proposition to explore – and the one they explored the most. They hint at the decision to pursue a degree is made prior to 11th grade – again an interesting proposition to explore.

      I have a general antipathy for research that explicitly or implicitly focuses on immutable demographic characteristics. See, for example, Herbert Blumer’s classic article, Sociological Analysis and the “Variable” https://brocku.ca/MeadProject/Blumer/Blumer_1956.html . The authors of the article you linked to have laid the groundwork for focusing on choices made by students in HS and what potentially influences those choices. This kind of cohort data offers lots of opportunities to define topics to explore in more depth. However, since the relevant unit of analysis are individual choices then at some point the research has to focus on precisely why John or Jane chose the courses they did and the university courses they did.

      1. Bernie,

        “I understand that they explicitly do not argue for gender difference but it is implicit or why is the analysis focused entirely on differences between male and female students?”

        Wow. You are really working to read your political perspective into this paper. They identified a gap and used research to explain the gap. That kind of incremental step is how science works. Everyone is of course welcome to their own opinions. Imposing that perspective on others’ work (“it is implicit”) seems a bit odd.

        As for more research, there are probably thousands of people doing research in this area at this moment. I’m sure many of them have identified the lines of research you suggest.

    3. Editor:
      I do not see my position as a political perspective but a methodological perspective – exactly the same one taken by Herbert Blumer in the reference I linked to. As for your assumption that ” there are probably thousands of people doing research in this area at this moment. I’m sure many of them have identified the lines of research you suggest.” I kind of doubt it. Such research is much harder, more labor intensive and expensive than analyzing an administrative data-base or survey. If you know of any, I would be more than willing to look at it.
      Here is an example of a better, more open minded piece of research on the issue of inequity. In my mind it leads to far more useful conclusions and organizational policies. https://www.wsj.com/articles/sap-goes-after-the-gender-pay-gap-1502676120#livefyre-toggle-SB10694715721560183485904583301983377506930 Unfortunately, SAP has not been willing to share its data with me.

      1. Bernie,

        “I do not see my position as a political perspective but a methodological perspective –”

        Well, OK. These things are somewhat subjective.

        “I kind of doubt it. Such research is much harder, more labor intensive and expensive than analyzing an administrative data-base or survey.”

        Time will tell. I don’t understand the basis for such a belief about such a high-profile subject. For example, many NBER papers involve studies far larger and more expensive than this one — about subjects getting less attention.

        “If you know of any”

        Not a subject I care that much about, and I don’t follow it. I spotted this study on the list of new NBER papers.

    4. Editor:
      One other note. You introduce the article with a comment I agree 100% with and which largely makes the same point I am trying to make:
      “Oceans of inks have been spilled about the gender gap. Few mention research about its causes, …”

      You go on to note, “Here is a new paper about the subtle causes of the gap — and pointing to a very different future for society.” Well I agree if the research focuses on the actual decision-making processes of all high school students. Such research would be relevant to all students, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation or whatever other demographic “identity” label is fashionable.

      1. Bernie,

        The other scenario is that in a few years people look at the trends and realize the problem is the massive underperformance of males in an education system focused on crushing and remolding them. For example, teachers’ belief in “toxic masculinity” and indifference to boys’ nature (e.g., cancelling recess, forcing them to sit at their desks all day). Plus, of course, the massive drugging of boys with Ritalin etc if they refuse to color only within the lines and sit quietly and docily.

        At that point most of this research about the girl’s gap will go into the dumpster, a historical curiosity showing only society’s relentless gaze about the past as a basis for public policy to guide the future.

    5. Editor: I think most of this research is problematic anyway. It needs to be more ethnographic and behavioral per my earlier comments. But though I enjoyed reading Christina Hoff Summers book on “The War Against Boys”, I would be much happier if the focus (and concomitant resources) was on the roots of educational under-performance regardless of gender or ethnicity. Manifest attitudes, expectations, competence and behaviors of Teachers is an obvious place to start – “Stand and Deliver” is a great illustration as is “Brooklyn Castle”. But again the unit of analysis has to match the phenomena being addressed.

  3. We are truly living in an age of victims. Extending Title IX to STEM enrollments would be a natural extension of this crusading victimhood rolling over the academy.

    This research is useful in providing more information on what is happening, allowing cautious inferences as to why it is happening. It is not politically correct to consider that massive differences in fetal hormonal exposures may influence subsequent brain formation and later life behavioral tendencies and preferences.

    This type of surface level statistical research is barely appropriate for modern feminist censors. A deeper, more profound, more incisive and profoundly scientific examination may have to wait for a later age.

    1. Schoenfield,

      All valid points! However my guess is that the tide of pro-girl anti-boy education and socialization will push women into an increasingly dominant position in the next generation. Making all this whining about the gender gap — occurring while women are moving on top — look deranged.

      There will always be men that rise thru the adverse circumstances. And — as we already see — men raised in other (more boy-friendly) nations can succeed when they move here. This latter group might come to play an increasingly large role in an America of beta-ized males and feminist women. Prepare for interesting and different futures!

  4. Editor of the Fabius Maximus website,

    Beautifully said “men raised in other (more boy-friendly) nations can succeed when they move here.” My question is how are we gonna keep the status quo of military/Economic hegemony with beta-ized males and feminist women, running things. Conflict and the market doesn’t care about their sensibilities/Ideology. Sure we are the worlds reserve currency, but that can be slowly taken away (BRIC for example is still a possibility) Definitely strange, interesting and frustrating times.

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