By Published: June 17, 2024

In newly published book, CU economics alumna Susan Averett analyzes whether STEM fields offer an equal path to prosperity for all women

When Susan Averett began her study of economics as an undergraduate, she recalls that the prevailing credo in the discipline was to adhere closely to the analysis of production, consumption and related topics.

That changed when she arrived at the University of Colorado Boulder to begin work on her PhD in economics. “I got really interested in the economics of gender, and (former faculty member) Elizabeth Peters, a true mentor in every sense of the word, was absolutely instrumental in that,” Averett says.

Peters taught courses in labor economics and economic demography that expanded Averett’s thinking. “It made me understand that economics can be used to look at questions like fertility, marriage and discrimination—things outside the purview of mainstream economics.”

Susan Averett

CU Boulder economics alumna Susan Averett researches the economics of gender, with a focus on labor and health economics and gender outcomes.

What she learned about economics at CU Boulder informed Disparate Measures: The Intersectional Economics of Women in STEM Work, her recently released book written with Mary Armstrong.

Averett, now the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, has gone on to become a renowned scholar in the field of economic demography, which looks at how economic factors affect various groups of people in society. Her work to date encompasses labor and health economics, with a focus on gender outcomes.

In Disparate Measures, Averett and Armstrong analyze how different groups of women have fared in STEM fields, and whether the presumption that STEM jobs broadly present a pathway to prosperity holds up.

Well-documented pay gap

The pay gap between women and men in the workplace is well documented, Averett notes. A Pew Research Center report last year found that white women earned 83% of what white men earned, and Black and Hispanic women earned far less. And while the report stated that the proportion of women in managerial positions in STEM fields was on the rise, they are nowhere near parity with men.

Averett says the idea for the book was to analyze exactly how much women had benefitted from STEM employment—sometimes called the STEM premium—and to do it in a granular way, looking at subgroups of women to identify differences in outcomes for women in varied demographics.

“The idea is that STEM is being sold as this great equalizer for women, good for innovation and good for the economy,” Averett says. “We took a different tack, and asked what actually happens once women are in the workforce.”

In the book, Averett and Armstrong, whose field is women and gender studies, worked from the massive trove of economic and demographic data in the American Community Survey, which the U.S. Census Bureau generates from questionnaires sent to a large sample of households.

Disparate Measures book cover

Disparate Measures analyzes how different groups of women have fared in STEM fields, and whether the presumption that STEM jobs broadly present a pathway to prosperity holds up.

Averett and her colleague wrote eight case studies on different subgroups of women, four on more standard demographics (Black women, American Indian and Alaska Native women, Asian and Pacific Islander women and Hispanic/Latina women), and four on groups of women not often separated out in studies of this kind (foreign-born women, women with disabilities, Queer women, and mothers).

The approach is what Averett calls an economic analysis of the population groups in an intersectional way, meaning that the study takes into account that people belong to more than one demographic group at the same time, such as women who are Black, or a men who have a disability.

“Everybody has different identities, and the idea was to make groups that have been invisible, visible,” Averett explains. “For example, with Black women, we looked at foreign-born Black women versus native-born Black women. With Asian women, we separate out Pacific Islander from AAPI, because they are usually grouped together.”

Inequality in the STEM economy

The results of the analysis are stark. Among Black women, 2.7% work in a STEM field, as opposed to 11% of white men. “In general, Black women as compared to white non-Hispanic men are poorly represented in the fields of engineering and STEM management,” Averett says. “Furthermore, Black women do not have wage parity with white men in any area of STEM work. They earn 75% of white men’s wages in STEM management, 76% in computer or math jobs, 78% in the physical and life sciences and 79% in engineering.”

In STEM-related occupations, such as medical fields, foreign-born Black women earn more than those born in the United States, across the board, she notes.

Averett says she hopes that this granular study will prompt policymakers and those who manage personnel in STEM fields to think equality in STEM. “Our use of an intersectional lens allows us to see that economic inequality is woven into the STEM economy. STEM wage gaps should be part of our thinking about how groups fare in STEM, but a continued focus on the STEM premium distracts from that.”

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