Pathways to Science and Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees for Men and Women

Joscha Legewie, Thomas A. DiPrete

Sociological Science, February 18, 2014
DOI 10.15195/v1.a4

Despite the striking reversal of the gender gap in educational attainment and the near–gender parity in math performance, women pursue science and engineering (S/E) degrees at much lower rates than their male peers do. Current efforts to increase the number of women in these fields focus on different life-course periods but lack a clear understanding of the importance of these periods and how orientations toward S/E fields develop over time. In this article, we examine the gendered pathways to a S/E bachelor’s degree from middle school to high school and college based on a representative sample from the 1973 to 1974 birth cohort. Using a counterfactual decomposition analysis, we determine the relative importance of these different life-course periods and thereby inform the direction of future research and policy. Our findings confirm previous research that highlights the importance of early encouragement for gender differences in S/E degrees, but our findings also attest to the high school years as a decisive period for the gender gap, while challenging the focus on college in research and policy. Indeed, if female high school seniors had the same orientation toward and preparation for S/E fields as their male peers, the gender gap in S/E degrees would be closed by as much as 82 percent.

Joscha Legewie: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin fur Sozialforschung. E-mail:

Thomas A DiPrete: Department of Sociology, Columbia University. E-mail:

  • Citation: Legewie, Joscha, and Thomas A. DiPrete. 2014. “Pathways to Science and Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees for Men and Women.” Sociological Science 1: 41-48.
  • Received: September 18, 2013
  • Accepted: October 10, 2013
  • Editors: Jesper Sørensen, Kim Weeden
  • DOI: 10.15195/v1.a4

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2 Reactions to Pathways to Science and Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees for Men and Women

  1. Mary Robinson February 28, 2014 at 3:15 pm #

    An important finding. You can see that similar numbers of male and female high school seniors follow through, and that we have lost the girls before 8th grade. As a 60 year old female computer scientist, I can relate this to my personal experience. As an 8th grader, I saw very few role models for female scientists. There is so much emphasis on attractiveness at that age. US society currently puts a lot of pressure on girls to be feminine, and STEM is not viewed as feminine. In my opinion, there is active social pressure to discourage women scientists at this young age. This makes me want to mentor at my local middle school!

    I went on to become a computer scientist because my interest was just so overwhelming. But, at 13 I was depressed because I did not think I would be allowed to be a scientist.

  2. John-Paul Smiley March 11, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    Pathways to Science and Engineering Bachelor’s Degrees for Men and Women: A Response to Legewie and DiPrete

    This is an interesting and important piece of research which makes a valid contribution to the literature. The results contribute to our understanding of the persistent gender gap in science and engineering careers within the context of the United States and have the potential to inform new policy directions. Further research in this area, however, would arguably benefit from two additional elements: (1) greater comparative work, for example, cross-country studies. Contrasting the context of the United States with other countries would allow greater insights to be discerned; (2) a greater linking of the empirical work carried out with broader social theory to boost the explanatory power of the research. This could perhaps take the form of a consideration of ontological security and/or sociological variants of institutional theory. Such research should also make explicit the ontological and epistemological assumptions of the social actors involved. Such a theoretical lens would possibly prove useful in explaining the continuing cultural norms and expectations which contribute to the persistent gender gap in science and engineering.