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The Stereotypes, Identity and Belonging Lab at the University of Washington is now a member of the blogging community! We will be using Decoded as a forum for disseminating our research on women and computer science and discussing current issues related to the field of computer science including: women's involvement and how computer science is changing the way we live. We would love to hear your thoughts and comments on our posts.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Is Technology to Blame for the Gender Pay Gap in Seattle?

According to a recent article by the National Partnership for Women and Families, Seattle has the biggest gender pay gap of any major city in the United States, with women earning 73 cents to every dollar men make. These statistics, based off 2012 census data, pointed to Seattle, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Detroit as the cities with the largest gender pay gaps. Though each city is approaching this issue in a different way, many fingers in Seattle are pointing at the gender disparity in IT for the answer.

In a debate article published in the Seattle times, Bruce Ramsay argues that female career and lifestyle choices have created the wage gap. Specifically, he maintains that women’s reluctance to pursue high paying STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers contributes to this problem: “I see tech people every day at lunch: most are men. That's not discrimination; it's that more men can do, and are willing to do, the sort of computer work for which Seattle's employers are willing to pay good money.” Similarly, in an article in the New York Times, Christina Hoff Sommers, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, noted that much of the gender pay gap is explained by differing jobs and college majors. She suggests that women who want money should choose different majors: “Talented young women who aspire to be rich and powerful would be advised to major in economics or electrical engineering rather than psychology or social work.”

Ramsay and Sommers have put the blame on women for not being interested in lucrative fields. However, our research at the Stereotypes, Identity, and Belonging Lab has shown repeatedly that small changes to the environment, role models, and media, can help women get interested in STEM fields like computer science. Women are deterred by the surrounding stereotypes of fields like computer science, rather than the content of the fields. 

In our recently published study, we established the role of the media in communicating stereotypes to women. Women who read an article which said that the stereotypes of computer science were changing reported more interest that women who didn’t read an article at all, or read an article saying the stereotypes were the same. Just by letting women know that they do not have to fit the nerdy, masculine stereotype of computer scientists to join the field, the media can help women express more interest in choosing a STEM field.

In a rebuttal to the argument that women are just choosing the wrong fields, Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn is right on track with the current research. According to McGinn, the role of socialization as well as lack of female role models cannot be ignored when it comes to career choices. “Women are socialized from childhood to believe they are better suited for jobs in traditionally “female friendly” industries.” McGinn commented on large topics we’ve published about here in the SIBL: “One of the biggest barriers to women entering the tech industry is lack of role models (not to mention institutionalized sexism and frequently unfriendly workplaces).” Our research on role models and work environments suggests that interactions with non-stereotypical rooms and people can bolster women’s numbers in computer science.

Both Mayor McGinn and President Obama are taking action to try to close the gender pay gap. President Obama was quoted saying ““I want every child to grow up knowing that a woman’s hard work is valued and rewarded just as much as any man’s,” and Mayor McGinn has brought together a task force to help the city understand the problem and recommend changes. This task force will focus on city employees, developing programs to help create equal gender representation in currently male dominated and high paying positions, as well as change employment and contracting procedures that may contribute to gender biased decisions.

So how can we reduce the gender pay gap in Seattle? Our research points to a few solutions: present more nonstereotypical representations of STEM in the media, increase the nonstereotypical role models available to women interested in STEM, and reduce the stereotypicality of classrooms and work environments to help women feel more welcome.

What sorts of solutions do you think will make a difference in the gender wage gap? How can we achieve gender equality in pay, not just in Seattle, but throughout the world?

-Posted by Amia