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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Why some colleges are better than others at getting women into STEM careers


Written by Jillian Berman

Some American colleges are finding answers to a question that has bedeviled employers and policy makers alike: how to get more women into the high-paying, in-demand fields that drive today’s economy.

Those schools, a new analysis finds, are using a range of strategies — from hiring more women faculty in fields where they’re traditionally underrepresented to setting up specific programs geared toward advancing female students’ ambitions in science, technology, engineering and math, or “STEM” — to prepare women for careers historically dominated by male graduates.

The schools’ successes with female students who want to be actuaries, engineers or computer scientists can be seen in two ways: small gaps between the number of women and men earning STEM degrees, and higher earnings for female graduates. Their results offer a window into the role higher education could play in increasing the number of women in STEM fields.

“If it continues to be the white men who are doing the best coming out of colleges then to some extent higher education is failing in its fundamental mission to create opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard,” said Barbara Gault, the vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Schools can help get students into STEM fields
Women make up roughly 30% of the employees at Apple AAPL, -0.69% Google-owner Alphabet GOOG, -3.14% and Facebook FB, -3.04% according to company diversity data released earlier this year. Some blame that on “pipeline issues,” saying there are too few women graduating college with the necessary credentials.

The numbers support that contention. Just 29% of the bachelor’s degrees awarded to women were in science and engineering fields in 2014, compared with 40% for men, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The share of 2014 female graduates with science and engineering degrees drops to 12% when social sciences and psychology are eliminated.

Women received just 19.9% of the engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2014, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.

STEM degrees are typically valuable. The median salary of a 2008 bachelor’s degree recipient in STEM was $60,000 in 2012, compared with $46,000 for bachelor’s degree recipients overall, according to a July 2014 report from the Department of Education.

Colleges can’t take all of the responsibility for creating gender parity in high-paying fields. Some women with talents in science or math may face discrimination once in the workforce; or could be dissuaded from STEM studies as young girls because of subtle — or more overt — messaging from parents, teachers, friends and others; or they could simply prefer other endeavors.

Still, according to a study of government data conducted for MarketWatch by Jonathan Rothwell, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, there are meaningful steps colleges can take to help. Some that have succeeded have used a targeted approach to help women make it in STEM fields, while others have used less formal methods.

Rothwell examined data Department of Education data, studying schools where female earnings after 10 years most outperformed those from average schools with similar student profiles and that came closest to gender parity in STEM graduates. (The overall difference in pay between a school’s male and female alumni is a crude measure, Rothwell says, because the overall pay gap may have more to do with women entering fields that typically pay less.)

MarketWatch interviewed deans, professors, students and career counselors at several of those schools to learn how they’re achieving those outcomes. Many of the schools on the list, particularly those with a focus on STEM, have overall gender pay gaps in the low double or even single digits — well below the national average of 22%.

The schools range from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., to the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston and Harvard University.

Zeroing in on the schools that have had success graduating women in science, engineering and math fields could help businesses and policy makers better address issues of gender inequity and benefit the economy more broadly, according to Rothwell.

“If you care about earnings inequality across gender then getting women into higher-paying occupations is a priority and one way to get women into higher paying occupations is to make sure they’re studying in fields that are preparing them for higher paying occupations,” Rothwell said.

‘Start with the motivation and then develop the tools and skills’
The schools’ tactics vary widely. Some address gender imbalances in high-paying fields indirectly by offering programs to all students that may be of particular benefit to women. Others are trying to address these issues head on.

At Boston-area business school Babson College, for example, the Center for Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership sponsors research focused on gender equality in business and events at which students can meet female business leaders and mentors.

The center also offers a group of about 20 women the chance to participate in an eight-month program that helps them start businesses through weekly sessions with experts, opportunities to work with coaches, access to financing sources, introductions to the venture capital community and more.

The women who take part in these programs benefit directly from the opportunities, but the existence of the center also reinforces the idea that the traditionally male-dominated business world is a natural place for women to pursue careers, said Nan Langowitz, an associate dean at Babson and the center’s founding director.

“The way that business is often portrayed is sort of a nasty, elbows out, kind of place,” which can be discouraging for some, said Langowitz. “When you are in the business world you have this tremendous opportunity to create economic and social value.”

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