Getting more women into STEM jobs isn't enough to fix the wage gap, top sociologists say. It requires 'treating women more like men'

Treat others the way you want to be treated. It’s an old adage with staying power for good reason. But in today’s workforce, what that really means is: treat everyone like men. 

To close the gender gap in both representation in STEM fields and in pay, it’s critical to treat everyone as though they’re a high-performing man, finds new research from Sharon Sassler, a sociology professor and the director of undergraduate studies at Cornell University’s Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy. If women received the same relative compensation as men at each life stage, the gender wage gap would narrow by 6.3%, she found. And if women received the same marriage premium—8.2 cents per hour—that men receive, the gap would likewise narrow by nearly 5%. 

Sassler, with Federal Trade Commission economist Pamela Meyerhofer, dug into women’s experiences in the computer science field, alongside other STEM arenas. (The report was co-authored by University of Michigan associate public policy professor Katherine Michelmore and Dartmouth College associate sociology professor Kristin Smith.) 

Computer science professionals account for nearly half of STEM workers, the researchers wrote, so the persistent wage gap in that speciality could speak volumes about the larger industry. Sassler and Meyerhofer zeroed in on full-time, college-educated workers aged 22 and 60—a wide sample. They sought to uncover “what proportion of the gender wage gap would remain if men and women were equally rewarded for the same attributes—such as parenthood or marital status, degree field, or occupation.” 

Over time, women have shown up in STEM fields in larger numbers and gained greater footholds, but their overall strides and pay levels leave much to be desired (STEM fields remain two-thirds male). “It’s not the composition of women in STEM—it’s the returns that they experience for the very same attributes as their male counterparts, such as degree attainment,” Sassler told the Cornell Chronicle

Sassler and Meyerhofer studied women’s earning rates against men in computer science jobs between 2009 and 2019, and found that those women made about 86.6 cents on the men’s dollar. Controlling for age, degree field, education level, occupation, and race narrowed the gap to 91 cents on the dollar. 

That’s much better than the average woman worker, who makes 82 cents on the man’s dollar, but it’s still a long way from equal. By the time women reach their mid-20s, before most of them have kids, they’re already leagues behind men, Sassler added. “We keep saying that if we encourage more women to study and enter into STEM fields, the wage gap will go away, but it’s not going away.”

Breaking down by background

Married women have a wage premium over unmarried women, the data finds, and women with young children end up earning more than child-free women. Divorced men seem to benefit from having been married before—they earn a marginally significant 1.5% more than never-married men. Divorced women don’t get the same bump over never-married women, however, and they earn 4.5 cents fewer per hour than single men.

All women, however, earn less than men in any family set-up. And the problem is worsening. Not only does the computer science field persistently present barriers to female participation, but those barriers have only grown for workforce entrants since the early aughts, per the research. 

The wage gap could trace back to the kinds of computer science jobs women work—more likely to be lower-paying than men—but that only accounts for about a third of the gap, the researchers wrote. Rather, the overarching issue is that women receive “different returns” on their characteristics, like their marital and parental status, than men do. 

Men also “receive sizable wage premiums” for their computer science degrees, while women with the same education don’t accrue anything. That’s why, in Sassler’s words, “closing the gender wage gap in computer science requires treating women more like men, not just increasing their representation.”

Sassler recently authored two studies that paint the grim picture for women in STEM-related careers. The first, published on October 28, is titled “Cohort Differences in Occupational Retention among Computer Science Degree Holders: Reassessing the Role of Family.” The second, published two days later, is “Factors Shaping the Gender Wage Gap Among College-Educated Computer Science Workers.” Both reports concluded that women with computer science degrees are much less likely than their male to peers to get a high-paying, relevant job.

Unfortunately, as any working woman could tell you, it’s not just a STEM problem. This year, according to Payscale’s 2023 Gender Pay Gap Report, the disparity between men and women’s earnings still costs women $90,000 over their lifetime. But the actual reason for pay disparity remains hazy. A whopping 70% of it is “immeasurable,” the report found. 

“It is kind of hard to say exactly what’s happening in that 70%,” Sarah Jane Glynn, senior adviser at the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, told Fortune at the time. “I think there is pretty broad consensus among researchers and economists that at least a portion of that is discrimination. But because we can’t pinpoint it precisely in these kinds of statistical models, it’s sort of an open question.”

Even computer scientists can’t figure it out.

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