Women and High Demand Degrees

If you listen closely, you can hear a whole bunch of the communications and government relations staff here at the Puget Sound Regional Council dropping their coffee mugs in fear and saying, “Uh oh, what is Eric going to write about gender and workforce issues that he is going to mean comically but will come off as controversial and get us all fired?” But don’t worry, team, I’m not going to do anything other than point out a very revealing set of statistics about the education levels of women…

The NYT today has a piece that points out that

[W]omen are now just as likely as men to have completed college and are virtually equal in earning advanced degrees, part of an accelerating trend of educational gains that have shielded women from recent job losses.  Among adults 25 and older, 29 percent of all women in the U.S. had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30 percent of men, according to 2009 census figures released Tuesday….Women also have drawn even with men in holding advanced degrees. Women represented roughly half of those in the U.S. with a master’s degree or higher, due largely to years of steady increases in women opting to pursue a medical or law degree. (emphasis added)

Why emphasis added, you ask?  Because today’s article comes only two days after this article that talks about the dearth of women in the high tech workforce, which points out that “Only 18 percent of college students graduating with computer science degrees in 2008 were women.”  The point being that, while women are getting an equal number of advanced degrees, a significant portion of them aren’t getting their advanced degrees in the fields that are driving our regional economy, where approximately 50% of the jobs require STEM degrees.

The problem, of course, is not just a matter of equity, but – like with all diversity issues – it’s a problem of missing out on the innovations and contributions of a huge segment of the population.  But it’s also a huge opportunity for our region.  We talk a lot in the Prosperity Partnership about increasing the number of STEM degrees awarded in our state, which we know is both a supply (enough funded slots at our colleges and universities) and a demand (kids that are interested in and have the K-12 achievement to pursue those slots) issue. And the demand side is hard. For some reason, math and science aren’t as sexy as they used to be when everyone wanted to be the next astronaut or work at Bell Labs, and it’s hard to get those skills in the K-12 system for a variety of reasons, from teachers to curriculum to learning environments to social pressures.

But rather than try to take a blanket approach to “getting kids excited about math and science,” the big wins are in trying to remove the barriers for underrepresented groups to catch up. If women don’t feel a stigma about science being for boys, then you could see a sea change in a relatively short amount of time. Not that I know how to just snap my fingers and make generations of stereotypes go away, but I bet that we have the resources (financial and otherwise) in this region to figure out some pretty innovative solutions.

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