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Some American colleges are finding answers to a question that has bedeviled employers and policy makers alike: how to get more women into the high-paying, in-demand fields that drive today's economy. Those schools, a new analysis finds, are using a range of strategies - from hiring more women faculty in fields where they're traditionally underrepresented to setting up specific programs geared toward advancing female students' ambitions in science, technology, engineering and math, or "STEM" - to prepare women for careers historically dominated by male graduates.
The schools' successes with female students who want to be actuaries, engineers or computer scientists can be seen in two ways: small gaps between the number of women and men earning STEM degrees, and higher earnings for female graduates. Their results offer a window into the role higher education could play in increasing the number of women in STEM fields.
"If it continues to be the white men who are doing the best coming out of colleges then to some extent higher education is failing in its fundamental mission to create opportunity for anyone who is willing to work hard," said Barbara Gault, the vice president and executive director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Schools can help get students into STEM fields
Women make up roughly 30% of the employees at Apple (AAPL), Google-owner Alphabet (GOOGL) and Facebook (FB), according to company diversity data released earlier this year. Some blame that on "pipeline issues," saying there are too few women graduating college with the necessary credentials.
The numbers support that contention. Just 29% of the bachelor's degrees awarded to women were in science and engineering fields in 2014, compared with 40% for men, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The share of 2014 female graduates with science and engineering degrees drops to 12% when social sciences and psychology are eliminated. Women received just 19.9% of the engineering degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2014, according to the American Society for Engineering Education.
STEM degrees are typically valuable. The median salary of a 2008 bachelor's degree recipient in STEM was $60,000 in 2012, compared with $46,000 for bachelor's degree recipients overall, according to a July 2014 report from the Department of Education.
Colleges can't take all of the responsibility for creating gender parity in high-paying fields. Some women with talents in science or math may face discrimination once in the workforce; or could be dissuaded from STEM studies as young girls because of subtle - or more overt - messaging from parents, teachers, friends and others; or they could simply prefer other endeavors. Still, according to a study of government data conducted for MarketWatch by Jonathan Rothwell, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, there are meaningful steps colleges can take to help. Some that have succeeded have used a targeted approach to help women make it in STEM fields, while others have used less formal methods.
Rothwell examined Department of Education data, studying schools where female earnings after 10 years most outperformed those from average schools with similar student profiles and that came closest to gender parity in STEM graduates. The overall difference in pay between a school's male and female alumni is a crude measure, Rothwell says, because the overall pay gap may have more to do with women entering fields that typically pay less.
MarketWatch interviewed deans, professors, students and career counselors at several of those schools to learn how they're achieving those outcomes. Many of the schools on the list, particularly those with a focus on STEM, have overall gender pay gaps in the low double or even single digits - well below the national average of 22%.
The schools range from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., to the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston and Harvard University. Zeroing in on the schools that have had success graduating women in science, engineering and math fields could help businesses and policy makers better address issues of gender inequity and benefit the economy more broadly, according to Rothwell.
"If you care about earnings inequality across gender then getting women into higher-paying occupations is a priority and one way to get women into higher paying occupations is to make sure they're studying in fields that are preparing them for higher paying occupations," Rothwell said. "Start with the motivation and then develop the tools and skills"
The schools' tactics vary widely. Some address gender imbalances in high-paying fields indirectly by offering programs to all students that may be of particular benefit to women. Others are trying to address these issues head on.
At Boston-area business school Babson College, for example, the Center for Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership sponsors research focused on gender equality in business and events at which students can meet female business leaders and mentors. The center also offers a group of about 20 women the chance to participate in an eight-month program that helps them start businesses through weekly sessions with experts, opportunities to work with coaches, access to financing sources, introductions to the venture capital community and more.
The women who take part in these programs benefit directly from the opportunities, but the existence of the center also reinforces the idea that the traditionally male-dominated business world is a natural place for women to pursue careers, said Nan Langowitz, an associate dean at Babson and the center's founding director.
"The way that business is often portrayed is sort of a nasty, elbows out, kind of place," which can be discouraging for some, said Langowitz. "When you are in the business world you have this tremendous opportunity to create economic and social value."
Dartmouth College's Thayer School of Engineering focuses on tackling big societal issues as well as the nitty-gritty of solving math and physics problems. The school's introduction to engineering course has only a basic math requirement; instead, it focuses on a different topic, such as energy efficiency or the quality of life for seniors, each semester.
That may help explain why women made up nearly 40% of Thayer's graduating class last year, said Joseph Helble, dean of the engineering school. "You're starting from a position where [the subject is] a problem students want to solve," he said. "You start with the motivation and then you develop the tools and skills."
Other Dartmouth programs are directed specifically at female students. Through the Women in Science Project, freshman women get the chance to work for professors in labs, an opportunity not often afforded to first-year students at most other colleges.
"It gives them a leg up," said Mary Lou Guerinot, a biology professor who has been working with the program since it started in 1990. At that time, the number of women students and faculty in the sciences at Dartmouth was relatively low, but nearly half of the school's science majors were women in 2012 and there are female faculty members in each of the sciences.
"When I was a science major years ago there just weren't many women in the classroom," said Guerinot. "It took a little more chutzpah to stick it out."
Women made up just 14% of faculty members in physics departments in 2010, according to the American Institute of Physics. At Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, the head of the physics department is a woman, and half of the department's faculty are women. While that wasn't the result of a targeted hiring push, according to department chair Simonetta Frittelli, it may contribute in part to the fact that half of the department's spring 2015 graduates were female. Over the past 15 years, women have made up 30% of the physics department's graduating classes on average, compared with a national average of about 21% between 2000 and 2010.
"Just having those role models helps the students have a sense that being a woman in the field isn't a problem," Frittelli said.
At some schools, employers join the push to find and promote diverse talent. Insurance giant Liberty Mutual sends employees to teach classes at Bentley, said Maura Quinn, the company's director of specialized campus recruiting, who said the company typically hires about 100 Bentley students as interns and full-time employees each year. Four of the six professionals Liberty Mutual sent to the school last year were women, according to Quinn.
Some programs, while available to men, nevertheless may help women students push through some of the subtle discrimination research indicates women face in the workforce. Kettering University, a Flint, Mich.-based, science and engineering school that is the alma mater of General Motors CEO Mary Barra, has an overall pay gap of just 11.8%, well below the national average, according to Rothwell's analysis.
Kettering requires students to spend roughly half the time they're in college working, giving them experience and confidence that can set them apart from graduates of other schools. They also get chances to build skills needed to succeed in the workforce, such as salary negotiation. Other strategies are more informal. Kathryn Svinarich, the physics department chair at Kettering, says she tries to send female students subtle signals that there is room for them in the male-dominated field.
One example: She makes a point of wearing stylish dresses and skirts, aiming to send the message that "if you want to do this in pink, hey, go do it in pink." Choosing careers never imagined before arriving on campus. Young women who went through these programs say exposure to role models, access to internships and guidance from career advisers and professors helped them channel their interests into careers they never imagined before starting college.
Rebecca Mikolajczyk, who was raised in a small Michigan farming town, said she thought the only career options for girls who liked science and math were teaching or nursing, in which she wasn't interested.
"If you asked me, when I was 18, if I would ever go into physics I would have definitely laughed at you," she said.
But then she saw Kettering's acoustics lab, where students can conduct experiments on musical instruments and bottles; had candid conversations with her professors about her insecurities and her future; and picked up work experience at various companies while still in school. Encouraged to pursue her interests, Mikolajczyk, now 24, works in acoustics in Silicon Valley.
When Maria Chua arrived at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., four years ago she knew she wanted to turn her math talent into a career, but didn't know how. When professors began nudging her to consider a career as an actuary, she was drawn to the career. After graduation in May, Chua will start a job at consulting firm Aon Hewitt with the knowledge that her salary is much higher than that of many of her male and female peers: School officials say the median salary for actuarial science majors at Bentley is about 30% higher than the median salary at the school overall.
"As a girl," said Chua, "it is kind of cool because I can say I get paid more than 'Mr. Finance Guy' over there."
- Jillian Berman
Dow Jones Newswires
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