Women Have Made Big Gains In Attaining Degrees In Almost All Fields Except This One

Can you guess?

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.

[H/T: Reddit]

[Image: Ruth Colvin Starrett McGuire via Flickr user Smithsonian]

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  • I think most readers of Fast Company can read graphs and Ferro seems to cherry pick the data to reach a more sobering conclusion that what's shown. In fact Ferro's opening line mixes a truth with what is clearly false. Women are not far less likely to get a bachelor degree in science or math - as was pointed out, psychology and biology are well above 50%, along with the social sciences and math sitting at 49% and 43% respectively.

    It is alarming how low the numbers are in computer science and engineering but it is just as amazing to see the gains women have made in journalism and business, fields Ferro happily ignores. Are these less important?

    And why would you miss quote your own reference to make a "stronger" conclusion? The article you linked states "two thirds of women in architecture have suffered sexual discrimination at work", which is egregious but does not equate to sexual harassment. Point being, let's mark our collective gains so we don't tread on worn ground.

  • Hi Shaunacy, thank you for the great write-up about my visualization. I'd like to point out a small error (that was initially made in my write-up): Nursing, vet med, etc. are all Graduate degrees, not Bachelor's degrees. The Bachelor's degrees represented in the Health Professions are for nursing assistants, vet assistants, etc. etc. -- basically adding "assistant" to the end of the job titles I originally listed.

    I'd also like to comment about this sentence:

    (That analysis devolves into a bizarre rant about men's rights. Best to avoid.)

    and ask that you please elaborate on that point. All I write about in that article is that some men in some professions face systematic gender discrimination, just as some women in some professions do. Then I conclude: "Women aren’t alone in their struggle against discrimination," which is a well-known fact. How does that merit the label of "devolving into a bizarre rant"?

  • I think why you might be getting pushback is because the female academic advantage has failed to translate to professional equality, let alone an advantage (see: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/04/the-confidence-gap/359815/). As one example, male-dominated occupations greatly outearn female-dominated ones: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/03/how-male-jobs-hurt-female-paychecks/284495/

    I completely agree with you that discrimination is faced by both sexes and to discount the experiences of men is unfair and not conducive to progressive dialogue and change.