June 19 2012
Vicki E. Alger
Tile IX proponents such as the National Women’s Law Center believe fewer women PhDs in the engineering field points to discrimination. As IWF Executive Director Sabrina Schaeffer explained yesterday in a Huffington Post article, “Hysteria over the shortage of women in math and science has been building for some time. …With such an emphasis on the underrepresentation of women in math and science, it’s important to remember that this is not the whole story.”
Indeed it’s not. And it’s worth asking, now that women and men earn comparable numbers of PhD’s, do we really want government telling us which fields they should be in? Take engineering, for example.
Engineering is just one nearly 40 major fields of doctoral study according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Engineering doctorates also represent less than 12 percent of all doctorates awarded. It is important to keep in mind first that not all professions require doctoral degrees. Unless someone’s pursuing a more theoretical or academic career path, doctoral degrees may not be the best choice, considering the upfront cost as well as lost earnings over many years being out of the workforce.
Occupational growth projections also indicate than more education in itself may not necessarily be good economics. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) numerous professions are projected have the same 10 percent employment growth as engineering over the next decade, including arts and design, food preparation and serving, as well as office administration and support. (See Chart 6) Numerous other occupations that do not require doctorates are also expected to grow even more, including building and grounds cleaning maintenance (12 percent); sales (13 percent); installation, maintenance, and repair (15 percent); sports and entertainment (16 percent); and personal care service (27 percent).
A closer look at the proportion and kinds doctorates American men and women are earning indicates economics, not discrimination, plays a decisive role. Women are earning a majority of doctorates in about twice as many fields as men, 11 fields compared to five (an equal percentage of men and women earned liberal arts doctorates). (Percentages excluded non-resident alien doctorates awarded).
Of the five fields in which men earned the majority of doctorates, four were academic (theology, philosophy, history, and liberal arts). Two men earned communications technology doctorates in the most recent academic year available (2008-09), an occupation expected to grow 22 percent in the next decade. Of the 11 doctoral fields in which women earned the majority of doctorates, five were academic (family and consumer sciences, English, area-studies, interdisciplinary studies, and liberal arts). The remaining fields were among the highest BLS growth occupations, including top-ranked health professions (27 percent); psychology (16 percent); education (15 percent); public administration and social service (24 percent); library science (15 percent); and security and protective services (11 percent)—all of which have higher projected occupational growth than engineering. (See Chart 6.)
Policy makers and education officials should work to ensure students of all ages and backgrounds can earn the degrees they need through low-cost, high-quality programs, flexibly structured with students’ work and family obligations in mind.