Computer science and engineering is booming in Utah. Will women reap the benefits too?

New data from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute shows tech keeps boosting Utah’s economy, but women still lag in getting degrees and pay equity.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

A new report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute released Tuesday that examines trends in engineering and computer science found that disparities between men and women in the lucrative fields are even worse in Utah than in the rest of the nation.

The latest data found from 2000 to 2020 the engineering and computer science workforce doubled in the state, surpassing national trends, but women made up a small, though slowly growing, percentage of that boom.

“We know that women are established in engineering and computer science, careers and workplaces but definitely not at the rates you’d expect based on Utah’s population and women’s participation in other industries in the state,” said Levi Pace, Kem C. Gardner senior research economist and report co-author during a press event on Tuesday afternoon.

The workforce in those fields generated $19.1 billion in earnings and over 230,000 jobs. “What I see in this as an economist is that engineering and computer science are driving growth in Utah’s economy,” Pace said.

Yet from educational attainment to persistent wage gaps, women working in engineering and computer science in Utah face an even steeper uphill battle, the report shows.

‘Invisible masculine culture’

“It’s no surprise,” Susan Madsen, founder and director for the Utah Women & Leadership Project and Utah State University professor, told the Tribune. Research published in 2019 by the Project revealed that from 2013 to 2017 women represented only 19% of workers in computer science and engineering.

Madsen noted that women leave STEM fields at higher rates due to what she calls “an invisible masculine culture.” She said that companies “don’t see that [the culture] was created for men. The pay structures are created more for men to thrive.

“These women will leave and they can’t put their finger exactly on why they just don’t feel like they belong,” Madsen said.

Researchers at the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found only 10.6% of engineering jobs in Utah were held by women between 2015 and 2019 and they accounted for just 17.7% of the computer science workforce. By comparison, women made up 46% of the workforce in other jobs in Utah.

To change that “requires something different than what we’ve done to date because we haven’t moved the needle significantly in the last 20 years and not for that demographic,” said Cydni Tetro, Brandless CEO and founder and president of the Women Tech Council, at the press briefing.

Wage gaps persist

These gaps are important because, as the report notes, Utahns with engineering jobs made an average annual salary of $96,600 and those with computer science jobs made $89,500, far surpassing the state’s average of $53,800.

However, women in engineering jobs did not reap the same wage bump benefits that men did. According to the report, from 2015 to 2019 “women in engineering jobs earned a median $70,000, 17.9% less than men.”

Things were even worse for women in computer science, where they earned 36.5% less than men.

Eight years after graduating from a Utah institution’s engineering or computer science program, the median female salary was still $7,000 less than the median salary for men four years after graduating.

The researchers noted in the report that while there were pronounced income disparities in engineering and computer sciences, “both percentage differences are smaller than the 39% gap for women in other occupations.”

Why are fewer women graduating in tech fields?

While the number of Utah women earning degrees in engineering and computer science has been growing, women still continue to make up a far smaller share of graduates.

Madsen told the Tribune while some argue these are simply “choices” women make, that’s not the whole story. “If young women do not know or do not even see STEM areas or engineering as an option,” she said, “then they really don’t have a true choice.

“There may be a lot more young women that would love and yearn to go into those areas,” Madsen said, “but they don’t consider them as options.”

Women in Utah make up roughly 49% of the college-age population but only earned 15.2% of engineering degrees in 2020 and 16.3% of computer science degrees that same year.

The report compared Utah’s System of Higher Education outcomes with data from the American Society for Engineering Education and found an “eight-percentage point disparity in bachelor’s and master’s degree attainment between Utah and U.S. females in 2020.”

At the doctorate degree level, the gap between Utah women’s educational attainment and the rest of the country was slightly better at 4%.

Some solutions coming

Richard Brown, University of Utah College of Engineering Dean, noted during the press event those numbers were changing. “We recently started a center in our School of Computing that is focused on recruiting women students into computer science,” he said.

When asked about declining enrollment of Pell grant eligible students (the number of Pell eligible students in the College of Engineering declined from a high of 35% in 2012 to a low of 23% in 2021 according to the report), Brown noted a scholarship at the U that makes up the difference between tuition costs and other funds. “I think we really are providing a path for students who come from a more challenging economic background to get these degrees.”

Brown added that a recent analysis of University of Utah female graduates found women were obtaining slightly higher salaries than their male cohorts.

Tetro said decreasing the pay gap is something private industry is focusing on. " I actually think the tech companies are leading the way on this.”

“We have companies like Adobe who offer six months paid maternity leave, or paternity leave, basically family leave policies,” Tetro said. “Those have really started to make a dramatic change in the way that we really evaluate and make people successful.”

When it comes to improving representation of women in engineering and computer science, Madsen pointed to the Women Tech Council and other programs like the SheTech Summer Internship Exploration. Nonprofits like Tech-Moms help people transition into tech careers.

These efforts are helping move the needle, albeit slowly, Madsen said.

“90% of the young women tell us the reason they don’t choose STEM degrees is because they have no role models and they have no mentors,” Tetro said. “They’ve never seen someone in that field before, they don’t have enough exposure.

“So much of the work that has to be done is broadening people’s vision to see what they can become. And showing them these great people who have forged paths before that align with what their passions are.”