Intel, the multinational semiconductor giant, offers jobs to female engineers with high salaries and excellent conditions – if only the women would come. The problem is that only 18% of those earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering in the United States are women, so Intel’s challenge of hiring more women engineers is not so simple.
A 10-year research project completed just now by Prof. Sigal Alon of Tel Aviv University studied candidates applying to TAU and the Technion in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. The study found that today, despite the prevailing spirit of gender equality, men still prefer studying subjects considered traditionally masculine, such as electrical and mechanical engineering, and computer science, while women apply to programs with more female students, such as industrial engineering, biotechnology and food engineering.
“There are two contradictory trends in everything involved in women integrating into academia,” says Alon, an associate professor in the sociology department, who conducted her research jointly with Prof. Thomas DiPrete of Columbia University in New York. “On one hand, the gap between men and women in terms of numbers of students has been closed in the last decade, with an advantage for women. Now 52% of those graduating with bachelor’s degrees in Israel, and in the West in general, are women. This process has been influenced by egalitarian norms that have taken root even among conservative communities such as Arab and Haredi women.
“On the other hand, we’re not seeing almost any change in the division between sexes in everything concerning choosing the field studied, as seen in a survey of no less than 121,000 applicants for majors at Tel Aviv University and 52,000 candidates for majors at the Technion,” Alon says.
In the 1960s, in the United States and Israel, as throughout Western economies, the barrier to gender segregation in fields of study began breaking down as more and more women began taking majors that had been considered more masculine, and vice versa. But the trend petered out in the 1980s as traditional forces overcame egalitarian trends.
No known remedy
Alon has adopted the explanation of American researchers who say there is not a lot to be done. There are cultural forces that push women to choose to study what are considered masculine fields, but they face traditional influences that prevent it, she says. The rational decision-making model states that people choose options that maximize the benefits of their actions.
Thus, when they choose what to study in college, they weigh the advantages, such as the salary they will earn, the degree of self-fulfillment they expect, and the satisfaction or risk they are taking upon themselves in the profession they will work in after they graduate, says Alon.
In Alon’s research, the applicants for the majors were asked to rank the profession they want to study with first and second choices. Most of the men said they wanted to study electrical engineering, computer science or mechanical engineering as their first choice. Most of the women chose industrial engineering (a field that also requires good interpersonal relations), biotechnology and food engineering, and chemical engineering, in that order.
But when researchers examined the gender distribution for respondents’ second choices, the gaps shrunk significantly, and more women were willing to study in what is traditionally considered a more masculine field, such as electrical engineering, while more men tended to study in a women’s field like industrial engineering. The level of separation for the first choices – in other words, the percentage of people who would have to change their choice of major to achieve equality between the sexes – was 43% while in second choices it was only 37%, Alon says.
The reason for this difference is the considerations applicants have for their first choice of a major compared to their second choice, she says. “For men, there are two considerations when they are making their first choice of a major: The salary in the profession they are studying and the risk involved, which leads them to choose competitive professions, while women in their first preference tend to join a field where there are more women,” says Alon.
But in their second choice, men tend to follow these rules less strictly and will turn to a major where they can get in, even if it is less competitive and its graduates are not guaranteed high salaries. Women, too, when they reach the stage of their second choice, stop insisting on a major with a “gendered atmosphere,” explains Alon.
The conclusion of the research is that there is an influence of egalitarian forces on the choice of field of study, but the traditional factors, which are a separatist force, are still strong at the stage of making the first choice of major.
“Maybe there is a process of social change and of the strengthening of the influence of the idea of equality,” says Alon, “but they are very slow. Maybe in the future studying electrical engineering or computers, and maybe even construction engineering, will enter the first stage preferences for women, but it will take time.”
Why didn’t you examine in your research other professions that are clearly female, such as social work, nursing, dietitians or occupational therapy?
“We intentionally examined fields in which people with high academic abilities are studying, because social change always occurs first with the elites. On one hand we found the findings of the research depressing, since even among this elite group there is a large gender difference. But there’s hope, since in the broad range of preferences and choices of majors, there are also preferences for majors and professions of the other gender,” says Alon.
Prof. Liat Kulik of the School of Social Work at Bar-Ilan University says the division between masculine and feminine professions was clear 40 years ago, but has becoming blurred even if divisions remain. More and more women are entering what had been considered male professions, but not nearly as many men go into traditionally female professions to the same extent.
In recent years the government has tried to attract men into the teaching profession, which decades ago was male and turned into a clearly female field, but it hasn’t worked, she says. The government tried to tempt men working in high-tech to switch to teaching, but only a few of them remained for very long in the school system, which remains women’s territory, says Kulik.
Gender separation has shrunk a bit over the years, and mostly is expressed in women entering male professions such as engineering, inside of which they choose niches, such as architecture, she says. They also go into the softer areas in medicine, where the work may not guarantee as high remuneration, but allows them a reasonable combination with family life, a consideration important to women. For example, orthopedics is almost completely male, but pediatrics is dominated by women, she says. Many women also work in law, but they tend to find work, for example, in the prosecutor’s offices rather than in high-power law partnerships, because as employees of the Justice Ministry they can leave the office relatively early, says Kulik.
“Women work as pharmacists, but only a very few manage pharmacies. In plastic surgery, which is a delicate profession with an aesthetic side that would seem to invite more women, men are actually the majority. Why? Because it’s a profession that promises especially high earnings and the competition in it is stiff. When it comes to those factors, men have an advantage. Social work has become a female profession, mostly because of the eroding salaries. The few men who are social workers are employed as heads of welfare departments in local authorities, a position that guarantees a higher salary,” says Kulik.
As to why more women are moving into male professions than there are men moving into female jobs, Kulik says it is both because lower salaries offered in traditionally female professions and the feminine image of the jobs, which even many women now see as a negative.