Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

Symbolic of the gender inequality in STEM, 1927's Solvay Conference on Physics featured only one woman, Marie Curie (bottom row; third from left)

September 4, 2017

New Study Offers Insight Into Gender Imbalance in Higher Education

Print More

Gender inequality in science, technology, engineering and math has been a long documented issue, but a new study coming out of the Cornell Center for the Study of Inequality offers encouraging evidence of avenues to bridge this divide.

Dafna Gelbgiser, grad, and Kyle Albert, grad, found that green fields in higher education tend to bridge the gender divide in both STEM and non-STEM fields. Gelbgiser defined green fields as those that contribute to green jobs, which provide goods or have production processes that benefit the environment. Examples of such fields include environmental science and sustainability studies.

Gelbgiser explained that both she and Albert were interested in studying green fields since they could track “what happens when a new field of study emerges in terms of gender inequality in those fields.”

According to Gelbgiser, green fields are unique because they do not have clear roots in other disciplines. So, students do not have prior gender dispositions about the field.

“Men and women looking at fields like mechanical engineering would know that there would be very few women in those classes. If they’re thinking about psychology, they know they’re going to meet quite a lot of women,” Gelbgiser said. “But if they’re thinking about new fields like environmental engineering for example, these fields don’t necessarily have enough history for them to establish gender norms. We argue that new fields open up a new space.”

The results of their study are rooted in quantitative data. The U.S. Department of Education tracks all degree recipients for a given year. Gelbgiser and Albert analyzed data on bachelor degree recipients from 2009 to 2014 to make sure green fields were actually “gaining hold.” They found that degrees awarded in these fields rose by 81 percent over that period.

“Then we looked at the gender composition of the graduating class from fields that are green and not green, in both STEM and non-STEM areas,” Gelbgiser said. “There is a lot of literature on how women are underrepresented in STEM fields. However, women are 57 percent of degree recipients so they are over represented in other fields like humanities, social sciences, education etc.”

Green fields also had an equalizing effect for non-STEM fields that usually have a higher representation of women. A field like environmental education has a higher percentage of men relative to “non-STEM, non-green fields.”

“What it shows is that green has this systematic equalizing effect: it’s not only bringing women into STEM fields but bringing men into fields that have traditionally had more women,” she said.

According to Gelbgiser, the study shows that framing fields differently can attract both men and women.

“Traditionally we do know that fields that have a technical and scientific framing tend to have a higher proportion of men, while fields that fall into humanistic and are care-oriented, tend to have a higher percentage of women,” she said. “Green fields have the potential to close that divide in higher education because they emerge as both technical and care-oriented, scientific and humanistic.”

Additionally, the study shows that fields like psychology, sociology and computer science — that traditionally have a higher gender imbalance — benefit even more from the equalizing force of the “green effect.”

“The larger the gender imbalance in a particular field — having a very high proportion of women or a very low proportion of women — the higher the effect of green,” she said. “The difference between green and non-green is the largest in those highly imbalanced fields.”

However, Gelbgiser is cautious about the effects of green fields on the labor market.

“Green fields are still a small share of higher education and we just don’t know yet how it will play itself out in the labor market, given that the labor market has ways of replicating inequality.”