Encouraging more women to pursue careers in science, technology, education and math --- the so-called STEM fields --- is a worthy goal, given the potential payoff for our economy and for women who get jobs in these higher-paying fields. One surprising way to make it happen: Suffer through a recession.
It's where the money is
New research has found that increased unemployment leads both genders to move toward fields associated with better earnings and job prospects, and that women are more likely to shift their majors in that direction than men.
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The switch to more math-intensive majors suggests that there is a large pool of students who are capable of succeeding in these fields even if they might choose other areas of study in better economic times, according to a paper published by Institute for the Study of Labor, a German research center. This behavior contradicts the tiresome argument that women are less capable of success in STEM fields.
Good talent rises to the top
The researchers' findings show that there is a talent pool, says Erica Blom, who worked on the research while getting her PhD in economics from Yale University. "The problem isn't that there aren't enough women with the talent or inclination."
No one knows why women seem to be more sensitive to economic conditions than men, although previous research has shown women's decisions to work and to invest in higher education are more closely associated with economic conditions than are men's labor market decisions.
Still, policymakers should consider this sensitivity when trying to entice women to enter STEM fields. One way may be to focus on the economic payoff by framing education in STEM majors as an investment, the researchers say.
The study used the American Community Survey, an ongoing Census Bureau study, to examine what fields people have chosen over the past 50 years. The sampled population represents about 5 percent of all college graduates over that period.
The researchers found that recessions induce women to choose "gender atypical" fields and to choose more difficult, math-intensive majors, even after controlling for better employment and earnings prospects.
Making strides in business
Among women, business fields upticked the most when unemployment rose. Other large increases in the share of women occurred in nursing, accounting, technical health fields, computer-related fields, engineering and economics.
Fields that lost the largest share of women included education, literature and languages, sociology, psychology and other liberal arts studies.
Among men, the largest gains during periods of high unemployment were in natural science, pharmacy, accounting, engineering, nursing and chemistry and pre-med. Majors in early education and sociology dropped by the most, followed by other education fields, literature and languages, leisure studies, history and psychology.
The study was not trying to show that business and STEM majors are "better" than liberal arts majors, researcher Benjamin Keys hastens to point out. Nor was it gauging which fields make people happier or more fulfilled, or which careers are best for society.
But the study did find that increased income from switching to better-paying majors helped offset some of the lifetime loss of income that happens when people graduate in a recession. The offset made recessions "10 percent less painful" for recession-era graduates, the researchers found.
"It is simply a fact that people taking a math-intensive course of study end up getting paid more down the line," Keys says.