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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.”

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

  1. Probably most women’s pay-equity advocates think employers are greedy profiteers who’d hire only illegal immigrants for their lower labor cost if they could get away with it. Or move their business to a cheap-labor country to save money. Or replace older workers with younger ones for the same reason. So why do these same advocates think employers would NOT hire only women if, as they say, employers DO get away with paying females at a lower rate than males for the same work?

    Here’s one of countless examples showing that some of the most sophisticated women in the country choose to earn less while getting paid at the same rate as their male counterparts:

    “In 2011, 22% of male physicians and 44% of female physicians worked less than full time, up from 7% of men and 29% of women from Cejka’s 2005 survey.”

    A thousand laws won’t close that gap.

    In fact, no law yet has closed the gender wage gap — not the 1963 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, not Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, not the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act, not affirmative action (which has benefited mostly white women, the group most vocal about the wage gap –, not the 1991 amendments to Title VII, not the 1991 Glass Ceiling Commission created by the Civil Rights Act, not the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, not diversity, not the countless state and local laws and regulations, not the thousands of company mentors for women, not the horde of overseers at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and not the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which is another feel-good bill that turned into another do-nothing law (good intentions do not necessarily make things better; sometimes, the path to a worse condition is paved with good intentions)…. Nor will a “paycheck fairness” law work.

    That’s because women’s pay-equity advocates, who always insist one more law is needed, continue to overlook the effects of female AND male behavior:

    Despite the 40-year-old demand for women’s equal pay, millions of wives still choose to have no pay at all. In fact, according to Dr. Scott Haltzman, author of “The Secrets of Happily Married Women,” stay-at-home wives, including the childless who represent an estimated 10 percent, constitute a growing niche. “In the past few years,” he says in a CNN report at, “many women who are well educated and trained for career tracks have decided instead to stay at home.” (“Census Bureau data show that 5.6 million mothers stayed home with their children in 2005, about 1.2 million more than did so a decade earlier….” at If indeed a higher percentage of women is staying at home, perhaps it’s because feminists and the media have told women for years that female workers are paid less than men in the same jobs — so why bother working if they’re going to be penalized and humiliated for being a woman.)

    As full-time mothers or homemakers, stay-at-home wives earn zero. How can they afford to do this while in many cases living in luxury? Answer: Because they’re supported by their husband, an “employer” who pays them to stay at home. (Far more wives are supported by a spouse than are husbands.)

    The implication of this is probably obvious to most 12-year-olds but seems incomprehensible to or is ignored by feminists and the liberal media: If millions of wives are able to accept NO wages, millions of other wives, whose husbands’ incomes vary, are more often able than husbands to:

    -accept low wages
    -refuse overtime and promotions
    -choose jobs based on interest first, wages second — the reverse of what men tend to do
    -take more unpaid days off
    -avoid uncomfortable wage-bargaining (
    -work fewer hours than their male counterparts, or work less than full-time instead of full-time (as in the above example regarding physicians)

    Any one of these job choices lowers women’s median pay relative to men’s. And when a wife makes one of the choices, her husband often must take up the slack, thereby increasing HIS pay.

    Women who make these choices are generally able to do so because they are supported — or, if unmarried, anticipate being supported — by a husband who feels pressured to earn more than if he’d chosen never to marry. (Married men earn more than single men, but even many men who shun marriage, unlike their female counterparts, feel their self worth is tied to their net worth.) This is how MEN help create the wage gap: as a group they tend more than women to pass up jobs that interest them for ones that pay well.

    More in “Will the Ledbetter Act Help Women?” at