Study: Perceived value of “hard” versus “soft” engineering might drive gender pay gap

Inequality in engineering isn’t just a product of how few women are in the profession: the tasks women perform within engineering are relevant, too. Deep-rooted ideologies also contribute to a gender wage gap, according to a Rice University sociologist.

As “first generation” bias — discrimination based on overt factors like gender or ethnicity — is becoming unacceptable, we need to dig deeper into cultural processes that reproduce inequality. That’s what Erin Cech has done in a new study. After all, inequality is still apparent, with women and minorities continuing to be underpaid and underrepresented in many job sectors. Cech thinks an implicit dualism in engineering — the notion of “hard” technical work versus “soft” social or people-focused activities — contributes to women’s lower pay.

To test her theory, Cech used data gathered by the National Science Foundation from nearly 10,000 recent college graduates who identified as being employed as engineers. Women made up only 11 percent of the sample. There was a clear pay gap between men and women — $13,000 annually or about a 16 percent difference — across all engineering subfields. Cech found that women more likely worked in “softer” fields like industrial engineering, or chemical and bioengineering, than in electrical, computer, or mechanical engineering. Women were also underrepresented in technical work activities, like research and development, and overrepresented among management, administration, or teaching activities.

When she drilled down further into the numbers, though, she found that women actually experience a pay penalty for engaging in technical work, and also a slight penalty when their work is related to their highest academic degree. As Cech wrote in the paper, “women are devalued for engaging in technical primary work activities but not social ones.” Apparently culturally benign beliefs that are persistent in engineering, like the separation of the technical and social aspects of engineering, thus seem to contribute to the wage gap.

In engineering especially, the “purest” forms of the profession, like design, research, or computational activities, are valued more highly than management, sales, or teaching, according to Cech. She compared the data from the engineers to other scientists, but found that the same wage inequality patterns were not apparent in biology or physical sciences. The technical/social dualism doesn’t appear to drive segregation in those fields.

Cech thinks this is because the ideology is especially strong in engineering, where judgments of professional competence or fit are associated with the parts of the profession that are most valued. Thus, what’s driving the devaluation of women isn’t their gender, but their engagement in undervalued parts of the profession, like management, or perceived unsuitability for its more valued technical aspects.

Cech thinks the cultural ideologies that contribute to the wage gap in engineering could be changed through training and by refuting the technical/social dualism in college engineering education, where the professional culture for tech gets ingrained. The simple realization that both men and women engage in heterogeneous work activities in engineering could be a start. Because the cultural contributions to pay inequality appear to be strongly specific to engineering, Cech believes training may be more effective than attempts to create broad “inclusive climates.”