Dogends and Cold Leftovers

Nora and I were talking this morning, and she said, “I wonder if all of these women-in-STEM and minorities-in-STEM initiatives are just a sign that STEM is finished…”

One of the arguments I make in the new book, drawing from research in economic sociology, is that once a career path is fully opened to women, it’s suddenly not compensated as well, not as prestigious, more highly regulated than it had been when it was mostly guys that did it.

For instance, Hadas Mandel’s research describes what she calls the “up the down staircase” phenomenon of “declining discrimination against women as individual workers, and rising discrimination against occupations after the entry of women.”[i] Or Josipa Roska’s research that shows college grads entering male-dominated fields starting out at salaries far greater than those of college grads entering female-dominated fields.[ii] Or Anne Lincoln’s research in the “feminization” of veterinary practice, and the ways in which male students begin to avoid academic disciplines that become the site of increasing women’s participation.[iii] Or Levanon, England and Allison’s research showing more evidentiary support for devaluation of “feminized professions” than for exclusion of women from “masculine professions.”[iv]

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that it’s deeply uncertain whether the nation is facing a “STEM Crisis.” Certainly there isn’t one in academic science; the BLS study shows that the average doctoral faculty member in STEM produces about four new PhDs over the course of her or his career, far above the required replacement rate for academic jobs. In non-academic fields, employers in the study showed little difficulty in finding bachelor’s-degree holders for entry STEM work, but a shortfall in students with advanced degrees. But those industry demands are fluid, changing with the price of oil and Federal infrastructure and defense policy, fluctuating far more rapidly than a long educational process can predict.

(This is true, of course, for all career types. Students are asked to guess, at age 18, both what they want to do and what careers will be in demand, five or six years into the future. If they could accurately do that as a group, they’d be way, way ahead of almost every Wall Street investment house or venture capital firm, which are wrong most of the time.)

Anyway, when college was only for the sons of the well-to-do, there wasn’t much oversight, and wasn’t much handwringing about choosing the right major; now that women and students of color are there in high proportion, it’s become more vocational and subject to far more oversight. When college faculty were mostly men, there were plenty of tenured faculty jobs; now that women have succeeded enormously in faculty work, the job availability has collapsed and contingency has boomed (and the majority of adjunct teachers are women). When college was a mostly male endeavor, state governments funded more than half of the costs of public universities; now that college enrollment is nearing 60% women, state funding has collapsed almost everywhere.

So here’s an economic rule of thumb: once something that had been restricted to elite participants is now made available to a broad community, the original participants have mostly sucked the nutrients out of it, leaving a depleted landscape. Nora’s comment over breakfast makes me think that STEM is no different—we’re going out of our way to invite women and minorities in, just at the moment when the possibilities are drying up and we merely need cheap workers.

[i] Mandel, Hadas. “Up the Down Staircase: Women’s Upward Mobility and the Wage Penalty for Occupational Feminization, 1970-2007.” Social Forces 91, no. 4 (June 2013): 1183-1207. See also the Crates and Ribbons blog post, “Patriarchy’s Magic Trick: How Anything Perceived As Women’s Work Immediately Sheds Its Value.”

[ii] Roska, Josipa. “Double disadvantage or blessing in disguise? Understanding the relationship between college major and employment sector.” Sociology of Education 78, no. 3 (July 2005): 207-232.

[iii] Lincoln, Anne E. “The shifting supply of men and women to occupations: Feminization in veterinary education.” Social Forces 88, no. 5 (July 2010): 1969-1998. 

[iv] Levanon, Asaf, Paula England, and Paul Allison. “Occupational feminization and pay: Assessing causal dynamics using 1950-2000 U.S. Census data.” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (December 2009): 865-891.

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