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Given the complex social, political and economic factors that go into wage gaps and career disparities between men and women, perhaps it makes sense that the disparities in some STEM majors require multifaceted answers as well.

In a new working paper, Georgetown University researchers explored what drives women who entered a STEM major to switch to something else. Their findings, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, show that the answer is a complex combination of factors, including the environment, perception of the major and grades. It also showed that previous theories don’t always hold up.

“Only when women are in a male-dominated STEM field are they more responsive than men to the negative feedback of low grades,” the researchers wrote in "Choice of Majors: Are Women Really Different from Men?" One of the co-authors, Adriana D. Kugler, a professor at Georgetown's McCourt School of Public Policy, said that negative feedback in the form of bad grades equally affected male and female undergraduate's decision to exit from the STEM field, and the trend wasn’t noticed in other male dominated fields -- only in STEM, leading the researchers to determine that attitudes and perceptions about the field are an additional factor.

“Women persist,” Kugler said. “They have to get triple signals, triple cues, that they don’t belong, that they don’t belong to actually be turned away more than men.”

Figuring out why men and women end up graduating with the majors they do applies beyond just academe If choice of college major is one of the explanations for the wage gap, where men out earn women economically, “understanding why women and men graduate with different majors is critical for understanding later occupational opportunities and other choices that can influence the gender wage gap,” the researchers write.

The study analyzed a large, private university on the East Coast, using data from 2009-16, broken down semester-by-semester to track students' changes in grades and majors in as close to real time as possible. While other studies have suggested that women came out of high school less prepared, or that increasing female STEM faculty could help provide women mentors, the Georgetown study didn’t support those findings.

“Women faculty don’t seem to attract more women into a field, and that was sort of sad news for us,” Kugler said. “We were hoping we could make more of a difference.”

One of the reasons women might feel undue pressure in STEM fields might actually be because of how recruiting and mentoring is framed. Many times, those efforts actually end up reinforcing the idea that STEM is for men.

“Society keeps telling us that STEM fields are masculine fields, that we need to increase the participation of women in STEM fields, but that kind of sends a signal that it’s not a field for women, and it kind of works against keeping women in these fields,” Kugler said. 

And while many STEM majors are male-dominated, the framing of recruitment and mentorship efforts can sometimes paint inaccurate pictures for STEM fields that aren’t male-dominated, and contribute to an inaccurate picture for STEM as a whole, the paper says:

While men may not have a natural ability advantage in STEM fields, the numerous government and other policy initiatives designed to get women interested in STEM fields may have the unintended effect of signaling to women an inherent lack of fit.

While computer science, biophysics and physics tend to be male-dominated, Kugler said, neurobiology, environmental biology and biology of global health tend to be female-dominated.

“Changing this perception that STEM is male-dominated and masculine is something that would certainly help,” she said.

Although the study raised interesting points, Kugler said it also raised additional questions.

“We’re still baffled by what’s the big driver in differences between the choice of majors in men and women,” she said. While the study was helpful for analyzing disparities in STEM majors, it doesn’t necessarily help with figuring out why disparities exist in non-STEM majors that are still dominated by men, such as history, economics and finance.

“What is that driving force that gets women away?” Kugler said. “We know what works for STEM, but we don’t know about some of these other fields.”

Even if those questions are eventually answered, it might not be all good news. As more women enter a major, its earnings potentials tend to decline. That’s especially important to consider in light of the Georgetown study, since advertising post-college earnings was seen as a better way to encourage women to enter STEM fields than high school preparation or increasing the number of female faculty.

“We might see a trend that STEM becomes lower paying,” Kugler said. So while changing culture and perception around STEM is important to get more women in those majors, it doesn’t mean that researchers and advocates for equal pay can take their foot off the gas.

“Maybe it might backfire, in the sense that if you attract more and more women to the field, it will turn into a lower-paying field,” she said. “It’s still important to watch for pay equity measures to make sure that women, once they enter into those fields, that they don’t get paid a lot less than men."

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