Election Blog Promote STEM in grade school to fight the wage gap and grow the economy
Jonathan Schwabish, Yasemin Irvin-Erickson
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Yesterday, we talked about the pay gap between men and women and its consequences. Many of the policy prescriptions we identified focus on the workplace: raise the minimum wage; change federal family and medical leave laws; invest in affordable, high-quality childcare; and support pay transparency. Yet, there is less discussion about what can be done before people enter the workforce.

Here, we back up a bit and discuss how we can fast-track gender equality at the workplace at an earlier stage through mainstreaming gender-sensitive science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) policies to our national education policy.

The good and the bad

Since Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, American women have made great progress in educational attainment and achievements that hold across racial and ethnic groups. Compared with men, women between the ages of 25 and 34 “have higher graduation rates and lower high school dropout rates, take more Advanced Placement exams, and earn more advanced degrees than their male counterparts.”

The United States ranks within the top five Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and partner countries in the proportion of 25-64 year-old women who have attained tertiary education. And the most recent results on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which tests technology and engineering literacy, shows that girls outperformed boys.  

Despite these gains, women are still underrepresented in STEM fields of study. Looking at earned degrees in science and engineering fields, women are better represented in chemistry, life sciences, and mathematics and less well represented in engineering, computing, and physics.

It doesn’t appear that different levels of interest appear to drive the differences: In middle school, 74 percent of girls express interest in STEM, but when it comes to choosing a college major, just 0.3 percent of high school girls select computer science (admittedly only one portion of the wide-ranging STEM field).

So it appears that something happens between middle school and college that drives girls away from STEM fields. Some studies suggest internalized stereotypes about gender roles, girls’ perception of the need to work harder than men to be taken seriously in a STEM career, and the lack of role models and mentors contribute to girls’ hesitance to pursue STEM fields of study. 

Why STEM matters for the pay gap

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 17 million people were employed in the STEM fields in 2013. That’s more than 1 out of every 10 jobs in the United States. At that same time, people in the STEM field earned an average annual wage of nearly $80,000, nearly twice the US average.

But there is inequality between men and women in these growing and highly paid fields. The Census Bureau reports that in 2011, only 26 percent of STEM workers were women (PDF). Women are also significantly underrepresented in the more technical—and even more highly paid—STEM occupations, such as engineers and data scientists, jobs that account for more than 80 percent of all STEM jobs.

The road ahead

STEM education will play an increasingly important role in US economic competitiveness and the nations’ future economic prosperity. And that prosperity will depend on a workforce that consists of both highly skilled and highly trained men and women.

In 2009, President Obama’s executive order that created the White House Council on Women and Girls officially placed an emphasis on considering the needs of women and girls in federal agency programs and policies. With respect to education, Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative is geared toward helping improve all students’ performance in science and math education.

More recently, the president’s Computer Science for All initiative, as part of his 2017 budget request, consisted of $4 billion in funding for states and $100 million in direct funding for school districts to give all students the opportunity to learn computer science. Furthermore, as a supporter of the UN’s Planet 50-50 by 2030 gender equality initiative, President Obama recommitted the United States to encourage women and girls to pursue careers in the STEM field.

And 2016 marks the widespread lobbying of gender equality with not only the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, but also the candidacy of four women (out of eight contenders) for the role of UN Secretary-General.

It’s hard to know where the current presidential candidates stand on STEM education. Democrat Clinton has publicly supported the Every Student Succeeds Act, passed in late 2015, but appears to have given fewer details on how she would specifically create a “world-class education for every child in every community.” (It should be noted that the Clinton Global Initiative has supported a variety of STEM education-related projects through its STEM Education Working Group.)

Republican Donald Trump has rejected Common Core, but has also said little specifically on how he would change the nation’s education policy.

Yet, there are a variety of policies that could help address the lagging STEM education system, and close the gap between girls and boys, and women and men.

  • Make equal STEM participation a priority in the national education dialogue. It’s clear that the future workforce will need scientific and technical skills. Policymakers and decisionmakers should prioritize those skills as part of the early education curricula.
  • Educate the educators. Provide robust, dedicated support for effective STEM educator professional development and preparation.
  • Get girls started early. Give young (elementary-aged) girls the tools and resources to explore STEM-related fields and skills. Groups like Girls Who Code and Black Girls Code are working to these ends. 
  • Give girls role models and mentors. Existing stereotypes and negative attitudes toward girls and women in science and technology create barriers to equality and a successful workforce. Girls especially need to see that they can be successful in these fields and groups like Girls Who Code and CodeEd can help to promote girls’ success in technology.
  • Use evidence to support national education policies. Reforming the US education system to incorporate STEM education and knock down walls for girls and women should be based on a solid evidence-base. The Urban Institute, for example, conducts a wide range of research on the education system.

This year, we have history in the making with the candidacy of powerful women to lead two very important governing bodies of the world, the United States and the United Nations.  This year and beyond could be historic for women all around the world, as long as we step it up for gender equality.  

There is an abundance of evidence on the positive impact of gender equality in education and employment on economic growth. Promoting men’s and women’s equal participation in all STEM education fields and gender parity in the workforce, therefore, is not only a matter of inclusive growth, but also a matter of economic prosperity. 


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Economic mobility and inequality Wealth and financial well-being