Jacob Mortensen and Dr. Benjamin G. Gibbs, Department of Sociology
That a gender difference in pay exists has been well documented for decades. Originally described as a result of overt gender discrimination, advances in law have mitigated many of the worst practices, and yet, differences in economic outcomes persist. In order to explain the remaining difference researchers are beginning to incorporate premarket mechanisms to account for some obvious patterns—men and women with similar skills often pursue different careers (Charles and Grusky 2004) and different college degrees (Bobbitt-Zeher 2007). Clearly there are gendered norms that can influence preparation for one’s career well before the labor market can directly influence an individual’s career aspirations.
The college campus is a place where these norms become apparent as crucial decisions are made that impact one’s career and subsequent economic outcomes. What a student chooses as their field of study in college is a significant predictor of their future career and consequently, how much money they are likely to make. For example, students who studied mechanical engineering, an overwhelmingly male major, had a median yearly income of $80,000 while students studying early childhood education, a predominantly female major, had a median yearly income of just $36,000 (Carnevale, Strohl, and Melton 2011). While unsurprising that engineers make more than twice as much as someone who studied early childhood education, this stark difference clearly points to the fact that men and women make decisions about their education differently. In this project, we seek to understand why those differences exist and what factors are of greatest importance to men and women when selecting a field of study.
Our particular research draws on established research on the gender disparity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors, as (1) these fields have a strong connection to more affluent and prestigious careers and (2) they are highly segregated by gender. We explore different factors affecting male and female decisions to major in STEM at BYU, exploring the dynamic process and influences that help students legitimize their educational choices in such a way that ultimately results in highly disparate allocations of men and women across educational fields.
In order to understand this issue we employed a mixed methods approach, utilizing both quantitative data analysis and qualitative examination of in-depth interviews. To collect the data, we authored a 210-item survey that was sent to a random sample of 10,448 students at BYU, yielding a response rate of 29.77%. The data collected from the survey was analyzed using split logistic regression models for males and females in order to allow for comparison between the genders.
Our regression model yields a number of intriguing results. For both men and women a high ACT score and ranking the economy as an influential factor in choosing a major predicted an increased likelihood of STEM participation. Additionally, for both genders, a strong desire to work for social change in a career, self-reporting as being politically active, and having a professor who influenced the decision of what to study all made it significantly less likely for the student to major in STEM.
The factors that differ between the genders are especially interesting. For women, plans for post graduate education, being proactive in interacting with faculty, and placing a lot of importance on high potential income in their future career all predicted an increased likelihood of entering a STEM field. Additionally, having a mother who majored in STEM was a significant predictor of a female student’s likelihood of pursuing a STEM degree. None of these variables was a significant predictor of STEM participation for males.
The significant factors predicting male STEM participation are whether or not the individual’s father majored in STEM, which increased the likelihood of STEM participation, and whether or not a religious experience influenced their decision, which greatly decreased the likelihood that they would enroll in a STEM major. Neither of these variables was significant for female students.
These results provide some valuable insight into the process of major selection. They suggest that the most politically minded and progressive men and women on campus are not pursuing STEM degrees. This is a little surprising because it suggests that the men and women calling most loudly for equality in STEM education and the workplace may not be the one’s actively enrolling in STEM majors and pursuing STEM careers.
One surprising difference between the genders is which role models mattered most. For men, having a father who majored in STEM made them much more likely to also pursue STEM, while having a mother who majored in STEM had no effect. The opposite was true for women. This suggests that a student’s choice of major was closely tied to their gender identity, and when the student had someone of the same gender modeling that decision for them, they were more likely to make it themselves.
Last of all, we see that if a religious experience influenced choice of major, males were less likely to pursue STEM degrees. When examining this finding in conjunction with our interview data, we found that many male students had a religious experience that directed them to pursue a major that was not traditionally male. This is interesting because it suggests that a religious experience can provide the necessary legitimacy to justify pursuit of a non-traditional major.
In conclusion, we can see that choosing a college major is a complex decision influenced by a multitude of factors. We found that students who performed well on standardized tests and were concerned about economic outcomes were more likely to major in STEM, while students who were interested in promoting social change were less likely to pursue a STEM degree. Additionally, we saw that a role model, someone of the same gender who had majored in STEM, was very significant in predicting STEM participation. Last of all, we see that in some cases, a religious experience could provide male students with the conviction necessary to overcome social pressures and pursue a non-traditional educational experience.
1 Special thanks to Kyle Nelson and Ian Peacock, whose help was essential for this project’s success.
2 Our original proposal was to examine how religion influenced a student’s choice of major. However, due to the relative homogeneity of the student population at BYU in terms of religion, there was not enough variation in our sample to allow us to adequately explore this question. Instead, we decided to examine how gender might affect this important decision.
Bobbitt-Zeher, Donna. 2007. “The Gender Income Gap and the Role of Education.” Sociology of Education 80(1):1–22.
Carnevale, Anthony P., Jeff Strohl, and Michelle Melton. 2011. What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors. Washington D.C.
Charles, Maria, and David B. Grusky. 2004. Occupational Ghettos: The Worldwide Segregation of Women and Men. Redwood City, CA: Stanford University Press.