Do Economic Downturns Lead Women Into STEM Fields? Resources

A key issue in American workplace diversity is the lack of women in STEM — science, technology, education, and math — fields. Jobs in these areas tend to come with higher earnings and benefit the overall economy, and historically, they’ve been dominated by men.

One thing that could help change that, a new study finds, is the onset of economic downturns. According to research by Germany’s Institute for the Study of Labor, recessions are more likely to make female college students switch to STEM-related majors than they are to inspire males to do likewise. As Liz Weston writes for Reuters, this “contradicts the tiresome argument that women are less capable of success in STEM fields.”

While the study doesn’t explain why women are especially likely to let economic conditions affect their course of study, previous research has shown that females’ decisions to invest in college are more closely linked to the state of the economy. That’s led some to believe that policymakers interested in boosting the number of ladies in STEM fields should emphasize the idea that college is about investing in the future.

In performing its research, the Institute for the Study of Labor utilized 50 years of data from the American Community Survey, a Census Bureau study that tracks what fields people go into. Controlling for things like higher earning potential and better employment prospects, researchers found that recessions lead women to select “gender-atypical” fields that involve difficult math-intensive majors.

In particular, recessions seem to inspire women to pursue business fields, though nursing, accounting, engineering, economics, and fields related to computers and technical health also see upticks. Males, meanwhile, tend to pursue science, accounting, pharmacy, nursing, engineering, pre-med, and chemistry during times of high unemployment.

While researchers weren’t trying to imply that STEM fields are inherently better — either for jobseekers or society in general — than those associated with liberal arts, they come with an economic benefit. According to the findings, the switch to STEM-related majors leads to higher earnings, and that takes the sting out of graduating into a lousy¬†economy. In fact, it helps to make recessions “10 percent less painful,” Reuters reports.


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