The gender pay gap in India is among the widest in the world, with women, on an average, earning 21% of the income of men, according to the Global Gender Gap Report 2021. A critical component of this gap is the low enrolment of women in high-paying mathematics-intensive majors at university, which shuts them out of many high paying occupations. Science and economics majors tend to dominate higher paying occupations, and men significantly outnumber women in these majors, both in India and around the world.
In a study of this phenomenon in urban India with Aparajita Dasgupta, we found that while majors in science and economics earn 17-32% more than majors in social science and the humanities, 39% of women study these subjects, compared to 68% of men. If women were to enrol at the same rate as men, the overall pay gap would reduce by as much as a fifth, we estimated.
So why do so few women enrol in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors? We conducted a survey of undergraduate students enrolled in a leading Indian university to understand how students decide what major to study. We asked students to rank their preferred major choices across four categories (science, economics, social sciences, and the humanities), and then asked them what they thought their academic and career prospects would be if they were to graduate in each of these majors. We found evidence of a sharp gender divide across science and economics, on the one hand, and social science and the humanities on the other. Women were much less confident about their abilities in maths-intensive courses than men: Men predicted higher grades for themselves relative to women in science and economics, while women predicted higher grades for themselves than men in social sciences and the humanities. Moreover, these predictions were systematically incorrect: Women underestimated their grades in science, while men overestimated their grades in both science and economics. Women were also less likely to believe they will enjoy the coursework in such majors.
This is aggravated by the fact that women cared a lot more about studying a course they enjoyed and getting high grades, rather than earning a high income. Women were willing to forego 8.1% of earnings after graduation for a one percentage point increase in the probability that they enjoyed coursework, and 5.1% of earnings for a one percentage point increase in the probability that they obtained an above-average grade. This combination of having lower grade expectations as well preferences for high grades could push women into social sciences and humanities.
Students did not appear to care about job-related characteristics such as work-life balance and gender-balanced workspaces. In fact, women’s expectations about whether they will be working, married or have children within the next 10 years were no different from men. These results are perhaps explained by the fact that these are students at elite universities who are ambitious and presumably less constrained by conventional gender norms.
Evidence from social psychology suggests that while there are gender differences in interests in science, these are not hardwired in biology but are socially constructed and influenced by prevailing gender stereotypes, discrimination, and other cultural and social constraints on women seeking to enter these fields. Shifting these preferences can be challenging, although a recent intervention with schoolchildren in Haryana was successful in expanding the universe of opportunities perceived to be open to women.
Similarly, in the United States, exposing college students to female role models in the field of economics led to an increase in enrolment. Correcting the misperceptions of students could also lead them to reassess their choices: Recent research finds that students change their majors once they have been provided information about their potential earnings. In our context, women are far more pessimistic about their grades than men in science and economics. Whether giving female students information on women’s successful academic trajectories in maths-intensive fields can encourage them to switch their majors is an area for future research.
Anisha Sharma is assistant professor, Ashoka University
The views expressed are personal
Enjoy unlimited digital access with HT Premium
Subscribe Now to continue reading