Why is the gender pay gap widening in STEM?

Women are backsliding when it comes to the gender pay gap, especially in STEM, legal and marketing jobs.

That’s according to a new — and sobering — study conducted by Adzuna, which trained AI-powered machine learning models on more than 1 million resumes on their ValueMyResume website with known salary information.

Their research found that the gender pay gap in the U.S. has doubled from 2.9% in April 2022 to 6% in April 2024. The worst gaps are in STEM fields, especially in science and engineering. In March 2024, the gender pay gap in science was 13.1%, while in engineering the gap was 9.5%.

This is a change from the last two decades, said James Neave, head of data science at Adzuna. “It was not what I was expecting,” he said of the results.

Steps back in STEM, legal and marketing fields

While the reasons for the gender pay gap remain a stubborn problem, Adzuna hypothesizes that this specific widening gap for women in STEM is a dragging result of the pandemic, when many women felt forced to change their working arrangements or take on different roles because they helmed the bulk of child care duties in most families.

“They may have reduced their working hours during COVID and decided that’s the way they wanted to continue on,” he said. Once the worst of the pandemic had receded, when workers may have been asked to go back to more regular work arrangements and hours, or work in the office instead of working from home, a lot of those women may have balked, he added. Instead of continuing in their career progression, they decided to take on different jobs and roles that afford them a better work/life balance than jobs that may demand long and sometimes sporadic working hours.

STEM also suffers from atrophy when it comes to women in leadership roles, he added, because many women enter the field but are not supported, and are not promoted as fast as men. That may leave them stalled in their career process, or push them to leave the industry all together.

“Men end up sticking around and rising to more senior leadership roles,” he said, which also impacted survey results. “Once you get those gaps at the highest salary levels… that can skew mean salary data as well.”

This problem isn’t just limited to STEM. The research found that women in legal and marketing jobs also saw a bigger pay gap, increasing by 11% for women in law, and men earning 7% more than women in marketing.

Bright spots on the wage gap front

Not all the news from this survey is bleak, however. The report found that the gender gap has narrowed in baking and finance, with the gap dropping from 3% to 1.4%, and women earning 99 cents for every dollar earned by men. There’s also been pay gap progress for women in human resources and customer service.

Some industries, like banking and finance, have even pushed past the point of parity, with women in accounting earning $1.04 for every dollar earned by men in March 2024.

Neave said that this might be because jobs in banking, accounting and finance tend to have more regular and predictable working hours. “Women, rightly or wrongly, typically bear a bunch of the child care burden,” he said, which can make these sectors more appealing.

HR and customer service may also be more women-friendly, and are fields that have been much more open historically to women. That not only leads to better employment opportunities in these and finance fields, but also leads to better support for women throughout their careers — meaning they continue to be promoted, make good money and stay in leadership positions.

These trends are a wake-up call for employers, Neave said, revealing that the gender gap issue has not been fixed, and for a lot of women, is getting worse. “It’s a real problem,” he said.