It’s a well-established fact that women are far less likely than men to get bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But what about the gender breakdown in other fields?
Randy Olson, a computer science graduate student at Michigan State University (and occasional Co.Design contributor), analyzed the gender breakdown of college degrees awarded over the last four decades using federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics’ (NCES) 2013 Digest of Education Statistics. Very few majors are evenly split between men and women, it turns out. To get an inverse perspective on the data, Olson also graphed it according to the percentage of degrees awarded to men. (That analysis devolves into a bizarre rant about men’s rights. Best to avoid.)
Women received a whopping 85% of undergraduate degrees in 2012 in health professions, which include nursing, veterinary medicine, and dentistry. Other women-dominated fields include education (79%) and psychology (77%).
Overall, women have made gains in attaining degrees in almost all fields, though the percentage of degrees awarded to women in art/performance and English–already female-dominated majors in 1970–largely stayed the same. The biggest increases in the proportion of degrees awarded to women between 1970 and 2012 were in fields like agriculture (5% women in 1970, 50% in 2012); social science and history (from < 10% women in 1970 to < 50% in 2012); and biology (< 30% women in 1970 to < 60% in 2012). This overall increase is likely due to the fact that in general, more women complete bachelor's degrees than men; that trend has been consistent since the ’80s.
However, in the field of computer science (CS), the inroads made by women in the ’70s and ’80s–when the proportion of women receiving CS degrees rose to around 35%–have disappeared. In 2012, less than 20% of degrees in computer science went to women. Engineering, too, faces a dearth of ladies: The proportion of women getting those degrees has risen fairly steadily since the 1970s, when close to no women graduated in engineering, but the rise has been slow. In 2012, the percentage of engineering degrees awarded to women hovered at a little less than 20%.
The numbers show that in STEM fields, where much attention has been focused recently on how to attract and retain women, not all disciplines are alike. Biology degrees for women have increased substantially in the last four decades, and now more women than men earn those degrees. The fields of both math/statistics and physical sciences, too, have managed to attract more and more women, awarding more than 40% of degrees to women in 2012, compared to 10%-15% in 1970.
While the percentage of degrees awarded to women in each field can give us a rough idea of the gender disparities that exist in those jobs, not everyone who gets a degree in physics or biology or education will actually go into that field–or stay in it.
It’s also useful to remember that even with significant improvements in achieving gender balance in education, the professional world isn’t exactly an egalitarian, sexism-free career wonderland. The number of women receiving degrees in architecture, for example, has risen dramatically since 1970, when less than 15% of degrees went to women. Now that number is closer to 45%, but women still face pay discrimination and sexual harassment working in the field.
Read more about the data from Randy Olson.