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Closing the Wage Gap: The Path Is Math

By Allie Singh '25, Commentary Staff Writer

Since 1980, female undergraduate college enrollment levels have surpassed male levels of enrollment, and according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 60% of the 3.1 million students enrolled in master’s degree and doctoral programs in 2019 were female. The data shows that the historic gender gap in education has been eliminated in the U.S. Despite this fact, median earnings for full-time working women in the U.S are still stuck at only 81% of men’s earnings.  A deeper dive into the characteristics of the degrees being earned by women compared to their male counterparts may help explain why women continue to make less money.  

Many explanations exist as to why the gender pay gap continues to exist despite the high percentage of women with bachelor’s and advanced degrees. Gender discrimination, time taken off to raise children, and the need for reduced work hours when raising children are all factors that contribute to the wage gap. However, womens’ choice of college major is another element that may also contribute to the gender wage gap. While women significantly surpass men in earning advanced degrees in fields including public administration, education, social and behavioral sciences, arts and humanities, and health and medical sciences, they significantly lag in attaining degrees in the STEM fields of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and physical and earth sciences. According to the Council of Graduate Schools, less than 35% of advanced degrees in engineering, mathematics, or computer science were earned by women in 2018-2019. Based on a study conducted by MIT Women in Mathematics, the percentage of women awarded bachelor’s degrees in mathematics at five top tier universities (Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, and Brown) ranged from only 15%-28% of the math degrees awarded, and the percentage dropped to 12%-20% for doctorates attained in math at these schools. This is consequential because women in STEM jobs earn about 35% more than their female peers in non-STEM-related jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The growth in STEM jobs is expected to exceed the growth of non-STEM-related jobs in the next decade, thus providing strong future employment opportunities. Furthermore, the gender wage gap for STEM occupations in general is about 16%, compared to 19% for all occupations, based on the American Community Survey completed by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019. The wage gap falls further to 15% for computer occupations and about 13% for both mathematical science and engineering occupations. 

By participating in higher-paying STEM fields, particularly those where they are currently underrepresented such as math, engineering, and computer science, women will not only earn higher average income levels, but also help bridge the gender pay gap. The key to bolstering the involvement of girls in STEM-related majors starts in middle school and high school. Girls are more likely to choose STEM-based college majors if they take classes including physics, high-level mathematics, and computer science in high school. However, studies have shown that in the U.S., girls often believe from a young age that boys are inherently stronger in math. Although unfounded, this stereotype causes many girls to refrain from enrolling in these classes because they fear that if they perform poorly, they may reinforce the stereotype. This may result in classes with few girls, which may further cause girls to bypass the class. Also, a lack of diverse STEM role models represented in film and media and fewer female STEM teachers in the classroom also inhibits females from entering these fields of study.   

Notably, at Newark Academy, almost all students take calculus, which is not the case at many high schools. More specifically, for Advanced Placement level calculus (including AP AB, BC, and AB/BC combined), the aggregate percentage of males versus females taking these three classes at Newark Academy in the last year was about 56% to 44%, according to faculty of the math department. On the other hand, Differential Equations and IB Computer Science had female enrollment of only 35% and 18%, respectively, this year.  A small sample survey of NA female students revealed that their primary reason for not taking upper level math classes stemmed from the fact that they are more interested in other advanced subject disciplines.  One IB student stated, “I am looking to challenge myself with academically rigorous courses,...but math is not one of my passions” and another similarly noted, “If I have the opportunity to take a good class, I will take it in the area I am most interested in.” Given the significant number of upper-level math and science classes offered at Newark Academy, I believe that all female students, even if only modestly interested initially, should enroll in higher level math and computer science classes to test their aptitude and interest, and build confidence in these subject areas. This singular decision in high school could ultimately provide a greater array of educational and financial opportunities in the future. Furthermore, since math and computer skills are often elements of non-STEM focused jobs, having experience with these subject areas may help secure jobs and achieve success in other career paths as well. Regardless of what career a woman ultimately chooses, strong skills in mathematics can only help our female students of today find high paying, innovative, and challenging careers and become role models for other girls in the future.

Photo Caption: Image courtesy of Towards Data Science
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