New data shows one way for women to achieve pay equity with men: Intern first

Lack of confidence and early indoctrination of inferiority were identified as reasons women in the STEM fields are still making less money than their male counterparts, Stanford research revealed.

Equal Pay Day

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On June 10, 1963,  President John F. Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, prohibiting gender-based wage discrimination between men and women performing the same job in the same workplace. Yet, 58 years later the inequity continues. 

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New research from Stanford University has revealed that women in STEM fields are still not only underrepresented, but making less money than their male peers. The data, which came from nearly 7,200 respondents, offered an explanation for the gender pay gap in STEM fields. “Women are indoctrinated from birth to discount their own opinions of themselves in favor of what others think about them,” said Stanford’s Adina Sterling, Ph.D., of the university’s organizational behavior department in the school of sociology. Sterling and her colleagues are first to link this lack of self-confidence to early pay discrepancies and identify a link between confidence and pay gap at the beginning of STEM careers. 

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The researchers found that 2% of the pay difference between men and women can be explained by a gap in self-confidence. “The results suggest that addressing cultural beliefs as manifested in self-beliefs—that is, the confidence gap—commands attention to reduce the gender pay gap,” the report said. “The gender pay gap begins when women and men with earned degrees enter the workforce.” Because of this, women are more likely to earn a salary more closely aligned with their male counterparts if they start at an organization as an intern. 

The gender pay gap that exists in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the researchers speculated, may be because women choose STEM majors that pay less. Even with this consideration, women make less than men. The report said that in 2013, women with computing, mathematical and engineering degrees earned between 82% and 87% of what men earned, or $65,000 on average annually, compared with men’s $79,000. The gender pay gap affects who stays in the STEM workforce, “since lower compensation leads to less job satisfaction and greater exit from STEM jobs.” This compensation also relates to those who take a break mid-career (such as for parental leave) and their likelihood to return to the workforce (male peers who do not take a break will have work-time to progress further).

Placing more women into STEM fields has been a primary policy aim for addressing the gender pay gap. “Specifically, women are directed into STEM-related majors and college degree programs as a part of initiatives designed to help women reach pay parity with men,” the report stated. STEM grads earn more, it continued, “especially in lucrative, high-demand fields like engineering and computer science, two fields with the largest representation in the STEM-employed workforce and some of the highest growth projections. Yet, of all of the STEM fields, engineering and CS (computer science) have some of the lowest levels of occupational entry by women alongside some of the highest gender pay differentials.” 

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Women, the report noted, have “competing domestic priorities” because they’re busy growing a family. “Sociologists have argued that cultural beliefs about the appropriateness of women and men in engineering and CS professions operate at the societal level in ways that affect women’s and men’s beliefs,” the report continued. “Cultural archetypes such as ‘brogrammers’ highlight men as more competent—and ultimately more fit—than women in CS and engineering fields.”  

All genders have “have near-identical human capital at college exit, but cultural beliefs about men as more fit for STEM professions than women may lead to self-beliefs that affect pay,” the report said. “The early-career stage is a particularly potent time for gendered personal beliefs to come to the fore.” The report categorized personal beliefs as one’s self-efficacy, a psychological concept defined as a judgment about one’s ability to perform a necessary course of action to achieve a goal.

Women who lack confidence regarding their technical abilities, even with an engineering or CS degree, may pursue less-competitive, lower-paying jobs than men who have recently earned those same degrees. The less-confident who may be considered for lucrative jobs might simply be rejected by higher-paying and higher-status jobs, “leaving them to pursue lower-paying options after one or more failed attempts at greater levels of remuneration.” 

When computer science grads start their careers, the report found, there is “a significant difference between women and men in starting salaries.” Women with engineering degrees earn less than $61,000 annually, while men earn above $65,000 annually. 

The results highlight the importance of career guidance, internships and co-ops to strengthen female  students’ self-assessments and provide “stronger bridges to engineering and CS jobs with higher pay.” The report said it hypothetically asked practitioners and industry experts to reconsider hiring practices that overemphasize confidence in one’s ability as an indication of likely job success. Self-perceptions, researchers found, “may not accurately reflect technical ability and may correspond to gender, doing so may only stand to widen the gender pay gap.”

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