Monday, March 2, 2015

Is the STEM Pipeline Really Leaking?

It has been common knowledge for a while that women are under represented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. There has been a lot of scrutiny as to why this is and a commonly referred to reason is the ‘leaky pipeline’ theory. This is the idea that there are higher rates of women leaving the STEM pipeline after entering college than men. The theory suggests that factors such as a lack of interest and discrimination make it more likely for women to leave academic STEM subjects. So as a result women who earn bachelor’s degrees in these subjects are less likely to succeed in earning a doctorate.

However, recent studies carried out by researchers David Miller and Jonathan Wai have shown that from an analysis of 30 year trends in STEM fields that women are no less likely than men to earn advanced degrees in STEM fields. The gender gap in persistence rates in the 1970s showed that men were almost twice as likely to earn a relevant doctorate. Yet, by the 1990s the gap had completely closed.

Miller however goes on to say that women and men are still not equally represented in STEM academia with men outnumbering women by roughly 3 to 1. These differences though are not due to gender bias in the pipeline. The study found that 25 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM are female and the percentage of doctorate recipients is 27 percent.

Miller of Northwestern believes that instead of trying to plug these leaks, there should be an emphasis on getting more students, both male and female, interested before the bachelor degree level. Curt Rice of the University of Tromsø claims that it could be that there are now in fact more men leaving the pipeline which is the cause of the lack of gap. He believes that it could be that the leaks in the pipeline are getting even bigger. This could again point to the need to get more people interested in STEM fields at lower ages. This would mean a higher number into the pipeline and a potential to increase numbers moving through to doctorate level and further.

The question that sprang to my mind when seeing the study results was even though percentages of women closing the gender gap at colleges is better than it was 30 years ago, what is the gap like at the top STEM institutions? In a previous post I focused on whether the top institutions were boys clubs and this could be the case for why there still is an under representation of women in top STEM companies. The top universities were found to have 14 percent female undergraduate degrees awarded in computer science. It may be harder for women to succeed at the top institutions for STEM fields and thus progress into top companies. So the STEM degrees and doctorates from potentially less prestigious institutions may not be enough to get into the best companies. Therefore the degrees could be taken into non-STEM fields such as health or politics where there is more chance to progress and succeed.

About the Author: Harry Kempe, a marketing intern at IIR USA, who works on various aspects of the industry including social media, marketing analysis and media. He is a recent graduate of Newcastle University who previously worked for EMAP Ltd. and WGSN as a marketing assistant on events such as the World Architecture Festival, World Retail Congress and Global Fashion Awards. He can be reached at


  1. I have a manuscript under review about elite institutions - will let you know when it gets published :) The basic conclusion is that women's progress at elite STEM Ph.D. programs is not a glass ceiling. Depending on how you define "elite," women's representation is equal or higher at elite than non-elite STEM Ph.D. earners. This finding is briefly mentioned in the coverage in Nature:

  2. By the way, InsideHigherEd just published an op-ed of mine that expands the debate beyond bachelor's -> Ph.D. It also responds to point about the decline for men (near the end of the piece). And also thank you for such an excellent write-up of my research :)