Women in STEM: The Pay Gap

Driving Question: In the workforce, how do salaries compare between men and women of equal job stature? What incentives are there for women to pursue jobs in STEM fields?

It is baffling that more than fifty years have passed since the Equal Pay Act of 1963, yet there is still a large discrepancy between the salaries, benefits, and compensation for men and women in many careers. Across all fields of work, women earned an average of 77% of what equal male counterparts earned according to a 2012 study.(1) How are women to be motivated to work difficult jobs knowing that they will not always be fairly compensated? The pay gap between men and women creates problems not only for women in STEM fields, but for all working women. The reality is that the stereotypes explored in my previous blog play a role in determining salaries for some women. When the Fair Pay Coalition hosted a celebration of Equal Pay Day on 17th April, 2012, representatives explained the troubling pay gap by citing reasons such as women choosing to pursue lower-salary careers and temporarily leaving to care for a family as two common reasons the pay gap exists. (1) Personally, I think both of those reasons are easily disproved. Women would pursue high salary jobs more often if they had the the confidence and societal support to convince them that they could, and many women return to work soon after having children. For example, my parents both worked as field engineers at the start of their career; they started working at the exact same level in the exact same year, but my dad’s salary was higher than my mom’s. My mom took minimum maternity leave but it was not until later in her career that she started to receive equal pay.

However, I was surprised and encouraged to find that that the pay gap in STEM fields is generally smaller than in other fields. The same 2012 study by the Association for Women in Science found that women in STEM earn on average 81% of what men in equal positions earn. (1) In response to the second driving question, more fair pay is an incentive for women in STEM! Still, the wage gap in any field is discouraging. The American Association of University Women argues that because STEM majors are by nature very challenging to pursue, the salary gap is especially discouraging. (2) If we want equal representation, doesn’t it make sense to provide equal pay? Below is a table portraying the wage gap among selected STEM fields. (3) The data is from 2008, and salary differences have made minor improvements in the last 6 years, but the takeaway remains: all else equal, men and women who work the same job at the same company should be paid the same salary.

(Click on the picture and it shows up more clearly. I’m not sure why it’s so blurry in the post!)


A common argument that was previously mentioned is that women often have to take on the role of caregiver. Whether raising children or taking care of elderly family members, employers seem to assume this is a women’s job that may interfere with her career. This issue has some overlap with the issue of gender stereotypes, but it also contributes to the salary discrepancy. I have a personal stake in this issue as well. I have a problem with the assumption that women will quit their jobs to raise the children while men bring home the pay. I know I talk frequently about my parents, but I have a lot of respect for both of them. It never bothered me that I had to go to daycare before and after school or I had babysitters every summer when I was little because my parents were not home. I’m proud of my mom and my dad for working hard and I’m glad my mom never quit her job like some people (her own father!) suggested she do. The dean of undergraduate education at Duke University, Donna Lisker, comments that “Women find it difficult to combine requirements of job with family time.”(4) This is a topic I may explore in my next blog, but there obviously are some biological differences between men and women and one that I keep coming across in my research is that women are more inclined to be caregivers, which can be counterproductive to working a challenging career. Still, Lisker suggests that STEM jobs focus on making work requirements more flexible and supportive with health care and childcare. At Duke, for example, STEM employees, despite their gender, can turn take a leave of absence in life changing situations and return to the same position. In another effort towards equality, Duke offers employees “parental leave” rather than just maternal leave. (4)

Troubling as it may be, the pay gap between the salaries of men and women in STEM fields is not as severe an issue as it may be in other fields. While the likeliness that a women could pursue a job in science, technology, math, or engineering and earn less than a male counterpart is still discouraging, the smaller difference between men and women’s salaries, and the higher salary in general, should be incentives for women to pursue STEM careers. Women’s role as caregivers in their families may put them at risk for lower pay. As an initiative to treat men and women fairly in the workforce, some companies are revising policies on maternity leave and childcare within the office to better support women and help them succeed in STEM careers.


1. http://www.awis.org/displaycommon.cfm?an=1&subarticlenbr=595

2. http://www.aauw.org/2013/04/05/three-reasons-the-wage-gap-hurts-women-in-stem/

3. http://www.aacu.org/ocww/volume39_1/feature.cfm?section=1

4. http://www.dukechronicle.com/articles/2011/10/21/stem-jobs-pay-more-reduce-wage-gap-between-men-and-women

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4 Responses to Women in STEM: The Pay Gap

  1. Sounder says:

    I think a major roadblock to women gaining the incentive to enter STEM fields is that they have so few role models to look up to. As a guy, I have so many: Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Watson and Crick, John Nash, Einstein, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Gregory Mendel, Stephen Hawkings, BILL FREAKING NYE! However, the only notable women in STEM fields that I can recall off-the-cuff are Marie Curie and Ada Lovelace (and I only just learned about Ada this semester in my CMPSC textbook). What I feel would really drive women to pursue STEM fields is someone as epic as Bill Nye but female. If you feel that that is unlikely, maybe you should try to one day be that epic woman in STEM, Rachel? 🙂

  2. aqb5500 says:

    I think your post is very informative. It is nice to see the hard numbers behind the wage gap. I think it is awful that in the United States there is no federally mandated parental leave. Overall great post.

  3. Rachel says:

    Kyle, I’m not entirely sure what could be done to equalize the pay between men and women since technically the federal government did intervene with the Equal Pay Act of 1963. I think at this point it is the responsibility of private companies to provide equal salaries and develop policies on parental leave and childcare that best fit their employees and requirements. I think these changes are happing, even if the change is gradual.
    I noticed the higher percentage of biologists as well. One thing that may explain that is that biology is a popular major for people in nursing and other medical fields, which women commonly pursue.

  4. Kyle King says:

    Really great informative post, Rachel. Do you think there needs to be state or federal intervention to create more equal pay situations or mandate certain types of parental leave policies, or is this something that private companies and organizations are slowly but surely figuring out on their own?

    Also, one other question: Any explanation why women comprise 53% of biologists but 10-30% of most other STEM fields? I thought there might be more chemists, as a sort of “Marie Curie effect,” but I can’t explain the proportional equality of biologists very easily.

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