Stanford University Study Finds That Lack of Self Confidence Can Explain Part of the Gender Pay Gap in STEM Fields

A new study led by Adina Sterling, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, finds that for employees with identical credentials, women are paid less than men in entry-level positions in STEM fields.

The researchers surveyed 559 engineering and computer science students who graduated from more than two dozen U.S. institutions between 2015 and 2017. They found that women earned $61,000 in their first jobs compared to $65,000 for men, despite having the same degrees and grade point averages. According to the subjects’ answers to questions about their capabilities, the researchers concluded that a portion of the pay gap between men and women could be explained by a gap in self-confidence.

Compared to their male counterparts, women in the survey applying to engineering and computer science jobs reported feeling less sure of themselves when designing a new product or project, conducting experiments, building prototypes and models, as well as other skills hiring managers look for in potential employees. Yet, in actuality, these women possessed the same skills as the male applicants. Employers in engineering and computer science fields appear to offer higher starting salaries to applicants who present as self-assured, and those applicants are mostly men.

“We see students who have taken four or five years of hard classes, some have done internships, but our data implies that employers are so swayed by the confidence with which these 22-year-olds are expressing what they can do,” explains Dr. Sterling.

Dr. Sterling joined the faculty at Stanford University in 2015 after teaching at Washington University in St. Louis. She is a manga cum laude graduate of Ohio State University, where she majored in chemical engineering. Dr. Sterling earned a Ph.D, in organization and management at Emory University in Atlanta.

“Confidence is not the same as competency,” says study co-author Sheri Sheppard, a Stanford professor of mechanical engineering. “If you’re judging somebody based on projected confidence, you’re losing out on hiring individuals who are going to be doggone good at the work.”

Professor Sheppard is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan.

The full study, “The Confidence Gap Predicts the Gender Pay Gap Among STEM Graduates,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It may be accessed here.

Filed Under: Gender GapResearch/Study


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