Women STEM bachelor’s degree grads concentrated in lowest-paying STEM fields

Not all STEM fields are created equal, according to a study by Temple University economist Doug Webber and summarized in Science Careers.  Webber determined the expected lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients in different fields, and corrected his results for what he called an “ability premium” – the tendency for a higher-ability employee to earn more regardless of educational level.  In addition, Webber excluded bachelor’s degree grads who went on to earn higher degrees – master’s degrees or doctorates.

The results are not surprising, but still striking.


STEM grads earn significantly more than bachelor’s degree grads in non-STEM fields.  But there is a STEM field in Webber’s study that earns less than the non-STEM average – biology.  Chemistry grads do significantly better than bio grads, and the hierarchy of STEM fields goes up from there:  computer science does better than chemistry; physics does better than computer science; and, engineering does better than physics.

With those results in mind, take a look at the share of bachelors’ degrees earned by women in Florida’s State University System in 2012-2013 for different fields:


Women earn close to 60% of the bachelors’ degrees awarded in all fields by the SUS.  They also earn about 60% of the bachelors’ degrees in the biosciences (CIP code 26, for the aficionadoes).  But in STEM fields in which there is an actual earnings premium – computer professions (CIP code 11), engineering (CIP code 14) and physics (CIP code 40.081), fewer than 20% of the bachelors’ degrees are awarded to women.

Given the considerable public resources that are spent on attracting girls to STEM fields, the implication for policy is pretty clear:  Public resources should not be spent on programs that recruit girls into the biosciences.  Instead, those resources should be focused on recruiting girls into fields in which there are clear earnings premiums – computer science, engineering and physics.

In addition, Florida’s decision to focus its K-12 instructional program on biology is worse than questionable – it is a misdirection of an enormous amount of public effort.  I’ve made that argument before, and the Webber results only provide another brick in the wall.

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