According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 1970, women made up 36 percent of the U.S. workforce, but a mere 7 percent of the U.S. STEM workforce. By 2011, the total workforce was 48 percent female and the percentage of women who made up the STEM workforce had risen to 26. Now more than ever, American women are pursuing STEM-related fields in their academic and professional careers.
But a new study published in Psychological Science found in countries that heavily promote women’s rights and have significant support for gender equality movements, like the U.S., the percentage of women pursuing STEM-related fields is significantly lower than that in countries rife with gender inequality, such as Turkey, Algeria and Tunisia. For example, the study found that in Algeria, more than 40 percent of STEM college graduates were women—a full 15 percent higher than here in the U.S.
The reason for the disparity is not completely clear. In an interview with The Atlantic, University of Wisconsin Gender Studies professor Janet Shibley Hyde said, “In wealthy nations, they believe that they have the freedom to pursue those alternatives and not worry so much that they pay less.” In other words, the disparity could be because countries with greater gender inequality, in turn, have greater wage inequality, as well as less extensive welfare programs, meaning that poverty rates for women are higher. As such, women in these countries may pursue STEM-related fields because they offer a more certain economic future.
Similarly, within the U.S., a recent study at Cornell University found that students’ choice of college major bears a significant correlation to their parents’ income. Specifically, students who come from higher-income families are more likely to select a major in the humanities, such as English, history, visual/performing arts and sociology. Alternatively, students from lower-income families, tend to select majors in more reliably lucrative fields, such as computer science, medicine and mathematics.
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Cornell sociologist Kim Weeden, head of the study, suggested, “Kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment.” Basically, students with a financial cushion from their parents have the flexibility to be able to choose a career with a less certainly lucrative financial future.
Pursuing a STEM-related field bores significantly less financial risk, as careers in such fields tend to have higher salaries, almost entirely across the board. Those with a less stable financial background or a politically less certain financial future likely choose these fields in order to ensure the ability to establish financial independence.
Strictly speaking, being able to choose a financially riskier major is a privilege. This is not to say that fields such as history, English and performing arts are unimportant. These disciplines are rigorous, intellectually challenging and vital to society. A society could not exist without experts in these areas and moreover, even students studying STEM fields should be well versed in humanities disciplines in order to have a more holistic view of the world.
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With that said, focusing in humanities courses is not as easy for some. With less financial flexibility, careers have to be about making enough money to live. With greater financial freedom comes the ability to choose a career based on not only earning potential but also based on passion. Students from higher-income backgrounds and more supportive communities have more freedom to pursue passions without fear of failure leading to insolvency.
Just as with any type of privilege — whether racial, sexual orientation-based, gender-based or otherwise — the first step to addressing it is to acknowledge it. Having enough privilege to pursue higher education in the first place is one thing, but it’s important to recognize that the buck doesn’t stop there. Within institutions of higher education, there many, many tiers of privilege that we often don’t see when thinking about ourselves as one community of badgers.
Attending college boasts the opportunity to do what you love and pursue your passions, but that isn’t necessarily realistic for everyone. Recognizing how your experience at UW may be different from that of your peers can go a long way toward equalizing higher education and allowing more students at UW and around the world to pursue their passions, as opposed to merely seeking financial security.
Cait Gibbons ([email protected]) is a sophomore majoring in Chinese with a certificate in statistics.