In California and the United States as a whole, women have made strong educational progress over many decades. In 2006, for the first time ever in California, women became more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree than men. Women’s educational advantage over men has continued to grow in the past decade. In 2017, women received 57% of the bachelor’s degrees, 58% of the master’s degrees, and 54% of the doctorates awarded by California colleges. Much of this advantage stems from better preparation: women are more likely to graduate from high school than men and are also more likely to complete the college preparatory courses required for admission to the state’s public universities. Even so, women remain underrepresented in key science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors—in California and across the nation.
Statewide, only a few majors are gender balanced—meaning that half the bachelor’s degrees are awarded to women and half to men. In 2016, according to federal data, among the 22 most popular majors in California’s public and private nonprofit colleges, more than 60% of the bachelor’s degrees in 10 majors and fewer than 45% of degrees in 5 majors were awarded to women. At one extreme, women make up more than 80% of the graduates in consumer sciences, education, liberal arts, social services, and health professions. At the other extreme, only about 20% of bachelor’s degrees in engineering and computer science were awarded to women in 2016.
Because engineering and computer science are associated with strong labor market outcomes, low shares of women in those fields is cause for concern. The proportion of women majoring in these fields has not risen much in recent years: from 2010 to 2016, the share of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in California increased from 19% to 21% in engineering and from 16% to 18% in computer science.
Efforts to address STEM gender imbalances are under way. For example, an NSF study by UCLA researchers is using longitudinal data across a set of colleges to identify actions that can increase the share of women in computer science. Given California’s high tech economy, the state’s colleges and universities should play a leading role in meeting this challenge.