Economic Astronomy II: Gender Shares of Jobs

The other big gender-disparity graph making the rounds yesterday was this one showing the gender distribution in the general workforce and comparing that to science-related fields:


This comes from an Economics and Statistics Administration report which has one of the greatest mismatches between the tone of the headline of the press release and the tone of the report itself. Nice work, Commerce Department PR flacks.

There are a couple of oddities about this report, the most important being that they appear to have excluded academics from the sample, though that probably depends on how people reported their jobs (that is, if you’re university faculty, would you list yourself as a “professor” or as a “physicist”?). The main issue, though, is more or less the same as with the report discussed in the previous post: in some sense, they’re looking at a time average over the last forty years or so of changing conditions.

In this case, the issue is not salary, but purely hiring: the graph above shows the share of all STEM jobs held by women right now, which includes people who were just hired as well as people who were hired in 1970. That includes a lot of years when the fraction of science degrees awarded to women was a whole lot worse than it is today.

That means it’s a little unrealistic to expect the fraction of women in STEM jobs to be identical to the fraction of women earning STEM degrees right now, because there’s a huge reservoir of men who were hired back when they weren’t hiring women at all. Even in the hypothetical fantasy universe where there are absolutely no inequalities in hiring and promotion now, you would expect this figure to lag behind, because it reflects the results of biased hiring in the past.

However, the picture here isn’t as positive as in the report discussed in the previous post (though these authors, to their credit, actually include some change-over-time data in the report, saving me having to Google for it). The table at the bottom of page 2 compares the situation in 2000 to the situation in 2009, and, well:


There’s no difference. The total number of both men and women in STEM jobs has increased, but by the same proportion for both. Which means that there’s no change in this fraction, as you would expect to see if there was steady improvement taking place.

This, to my mind, is more damning than either of the graphs that have been widely reproduced. You do see slight improvements in the general workforce, as you would expect, but not in the STEM subset.

It’s not clear from these data what’s going on, here. What you would need to sort this out is some information on the specific career choices of new graduates. That is, are women graduating with STEM degrees now being hired in proportional numbers (they say that about 35% of current STEM degrees go to women), or in smaller numbers? If they’re going into the STEM job market in higher numbers than in the past, then they must also be leaving it at a higher rate than men to keep the total fraction the same. If they’re not being hired into STEM jobs at the same rate as they’re getting STEM degrees, is that a matter of choice, or hiring bias?

It may be possible to sort some of this out using data from other reports that they cite, but I have already exceeded the time I allowed myself for blogging this morning, so I don’t have time to go looking for it. Feel free to post relevant links in the comments, if you have them.

4 thoughts on “Economic Astronomy II: Gender Shares of Jobs

  1. I was wondering what counts as a STEM job for the purposes of the study. A lot of STEM educated end up doing stuff like computer programming, or science or math teaching. For instance my wife graduated with a math degree, but ended up doing technical writing. Self reporting of some of these jobs that might be considered on the margins of STEM might not have a geneder-neutral level of bias.

  2. I think the only thing you can conclude is that women were not hurt disproportionately by the depression and its aftereffects, which will skew any future study that uses 2009 or 2010 as a reference point.

  3. Institutional sexism in hiring, promotion, creation of chilly climate etc. Leaky pipeline fact 1: the percentage of women, out of the women at any given level, who carry on up the ladder decreases at each step. Fact 2: the main reason now given for them leaving is not child birth or care; it is the chilly climate and hiring problems. Putting one and two together, there really is no denying institutional sexism, especially with the oodles of studies that prove it exists, such as blind peer review tests.

  4. Kind of OT, but I still consider myself as ‘astrophysicist,’ though I’ve been teaching for 15 years now. I sweated blood for that first degree. Teaching’s just an extended outreach program – yeah, that’s it (and I can’t afford to quit now and go back to school…)

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