The wrong answer to the right question.

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For decades there has been a large push to add diversity to STEM careers, specifically to push girls into STEM (and when policymakers talk about STEM, they really just mean E for engineering). STEM fields and specifically engineering and computer science are largely dominated by men. According to the report Women in STEM Workforce Industries, women make up approximately 25% of the STEM workforce in the United States. They represent 16% of engineering jobs. Furthermore, women who do enter engineering often leave. Researchers estimate that 40% of the women who graduate with engineering degrees leave or never enter the profession.

Researchers, educators, and community members wonder why girls are less likely to enter STEM fields than boys. Is it because they are not capable? The research responded to that with a resounding no. Experts largely agree that girls and boys are equally prepared to take on the difficult math and sciences regarded to enter STEM fields but that gender stereotypes often produce math anxiety in girls which can long term hinder their performance and perception. But even if we look at the girls who do enter STEM majors, researchers find that they don’t stay. Sometimes it is because there is poor cultural fit with their colleagues. They encounter gender stereotypes in this male-dominated field. Furthermore, they have few role models.

While I agree that every field should be available to individuals regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or social class, those who are trying to make girls like STEM fields OR change the culture of STEM fields to be more welcoming to women are, at their core, tilting at windmills. These are both ambitious goals, but they would be moot if other professions, many of which are dominated by women, paid at similar levels to engineering. Engineering and computer science are some of the few fields that pay well for a bachelor’s degree level of education. Of the top 25 paying jobs that only require a bachelor’s degree, the majority of them are in math or science and those that are not tend to be managerial jobs that take years of experience. According to glassdoor.com, a starting entry level engineer in Silicon Valley makes $69k-120K a year. A starting teacher earns $43k – 73k per year. A senior software engineer at Netflix with 10 years experience might earn $554,000 per year plus stock bonuses. After 10 years teaching at San Jose Unified, a teacher has an annual salary of $77,622. A software engineer earns more than 7 times what a teacher makes (and the teacher probably has an additional year of school to become certified). So, yes, engineering pays well and so it is a good profession. But the problem is not that engineering pays well, it is that the disparity between careers is vast.

The way to improve equity is not to push any one group into a profession which may or may not be a good fit. In more equitable countries such as Sweden, the pay gap isn’t nearly so large. Thus, individuals are likely to end up in careers that are a better fit because there aren’t so few jobs that are well-paid. The question is: how can we ensure that women have access to well-paid jobs? The answer is not push them into STEM. The answer is to value fields outside of technology and pay the individuals in those fields equitably.

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