Are Female STEM and Business Majors Subject to a ‘Marriage Market’ Penalty?

Posted By Terri Williams on September 26, 2016 at 9:28 am
Are Female STEM and Business Majors Subject to a ‘Marriage Market’ Penalty?

New research may explain why women shun STEM and business degrees. Human Capital Investments and Expectations About Career and Family, a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, reveals that women college students believe majoring in STEM and business subjects them to a “marriage market” penalty, reducing their chances of getting married and having kids by a certain age.

Previous research has revealed that college majors vary significantly by gender and that men dominate majors that lead to high-paying jobs while women are overrepresented in some of the lowest-paying majors. A recent study examined the reasons why 40% of women engineering grads either quit or never enter that field.

But the new study digs into attitudes that can guide college major choices. Selected excerpts from the report are below:

  • Female students believe that on average, the chance of being married at age 30 is nearly 13 percent higher if they complete a degree.
  • Female students believe completing a science or business degree, rather than a humanities degree, will increase their probability of full-time employment at age 30 by 9 percent.
  • Female students also believe that their labor supply will be substantially different if they are married: They believe that the probability of working full-time at age 30 will decrease by 18 percent when married versus single.
  • Female students expect the probability of working part-time and not working to nearly double when married.
  • Female students believe that there is a marriage market “penalty” to completing a degree in science or business as these degrees, relative to a humanities or social sciences degree, are thought to reduce their chances of being married by nearly 15 percent by age 30.
  • Female students believe that completing a science or business degree rather than a degree in the humanities would reduce their expected number of children at age 30 by about 48 percent

STEM, business majors and the marriage market

So are some of these perceptions about STEM and the marriage market grounded in reality? In another study by Lora Park, associate psychology professor at the University of Buffalo, male respondents replied that they liked women who were smarter than they were – when they were unable to meet these individuals. However, if the smarter women were in the same room, or the next room, they lost interest in them. Some men in the same room actually moved their chairs away from the chairs of the smarter women, and they were more likely to rate these women as being unattractive.

However, there may be other contributing factors. Leslie Kiser, manager of Engineering for CDI Corporation’s Engineering division, tells GoodCall, “For many STEM careers, such as those in academia or the medical fields, extensive education is required.”

She says the long hours required to complete those academic requirements, in addition to the probability of working long hours, may severely limit social interactions. “Some of these women are thus primarily focused on their career and decide to delay a family, and it is important to note that this second consideration is a choice, a personal prioritization and not a necessary limitation.”

An alternate view of the marriage market

Regarding the engineering profession, Kiser says she thinks the perception that there is a marriage market penalty is inaccurate. “Although some STEM careers require an extended education, an engineering career is most often built upon an undergraduate degree, so under typical circumstances, an individual’s career begins around the age of 22 or 23.” She says this leaves plenty of time for marriage.

In fact, Kiser provides several reasons that she believes would work in favor of women in engineering to find success in the marriage market before the age of 30:

  • Today, the engineering work force remains predominately male. As many engineering companies support social activities for their employees, occasions for interactions with one’s co-workers are afforded outside the office to build personal relationships in addition to their working relationships. These activities may include social events, recreational activities, or community service endeavors.
  • There are many opportunities for engineers to travel as part of their occupation, both domestically and internationally, and the potential to live elsewhere on an assignment may also be an option. Employment decisions, such as the industry you choose or type of company for which you work, determine the extent of these opportunities so an individual can align their decisions to coincide with their preferences.
  • Depending on the industry one chooses, many engineering careers include changing project teams with a variety of clients, which provide opportunities to meet people around one’s home base. This enables a person to meet others with similar careers and likely common schedules and interests.
  • Although there are exceptions, an engineer’s typical workweek is 40 hours, which allows for a good work-life balance. Many companies even offer a four-day workweek working 10 hours each day, which affords the employees a three-day weekend.
  • Company networks such as CDI’s Women’s Network, which is open to both men and women, provide mentorship, networking opportunities, and community service activities that also increase one’s interactions with others, both inside an industry and beyond it.

A case study of STEM and marriage

These sentiments are echoed by Adrienne Minnerick, associate dean for Research & Innovation, College of Engineering; assistant to the Provost for Faculty Development; and professor of Chemical Engineering at Michigan Technological University.

Minnerick admits that she’s had perspective students ask her how majoring in engineering would affect dating. “My response has been that undergrad and graduate school were fun because I quit trying to be a person that I thought others expected me to be and just spent time being myself and doing what I enjoyed.” Minnerick says this resulted in more rewarding interactions – she met her own husband early in her undergrad years and they married the summer after they graduated from college.

“Given that we have now been married 18 years and have two kids – both under 10, I can easily tell you that he would not have been attracted to someone who didn’t have some similar interests – namely STEM.”  And Minnerick says a healthy relationship that is likely to last longer must be based on mutual respect. “My advice is to follow your passion and you will meet your partner and develop joint, rewarding interests.”  And since STEM professions are primarily male, Minnerick concludes that female students can probably afford to be somewhat selective.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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