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Bry on Business: Why does the pay gap still exist between men and women?

Person removing paycheck from envelope
(Andrey Popov / stock.adobe.com)

After four years on the San Diego City Council, I’ve returned to the world of innovation and entrepreneurship, and this week, here is what’s on my mind as my darling husband, Neil, takes time off to go fishing.

We would like to think that the world is becoming more equitable, that women are getting more opportunities and that the pay gap is narrowing, particularly in STEM, where employer needs outpace the supply.

So I was stunned to read in Stanford Business Insights that women in entry-level STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) jobs are paid less than men even though they are equally qualified. The pay gap is significant — about $4,000 annually — and it means that women generally stay behind for their entire career.

According to the study, women earn $61,000 in their first engineering and computer science jobs vs. $65,000 for men, despite having the same grade-point average and degrees.

So why does this gap exist?

The one thing separating men and women is their self-confidence or lack of self-confidence, according to the study, which surveyed 559 engineering and computer science students who graduated from college between 2015 and 2017.

“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.” The study also found that women are less likely to negotiate their compensation.

How does apparent lack of self-confidence express itself?

For example, the researchers say, the male candidate guarantees he can prototype and problem-solve, while the second candidate is less certain and expresses her doubts. This unfortunate tendency is known as imposter syndrome, which sadly afflicts many qualified women who feel like a fraud despite their excellent credentials and experience.

The results of the Stanford study are similar to what Tamar Elkeles, who was then an executive at Qualcomm, learned more than 20 years ago. Her research found that the specific traits that characterize exceptional engineers are not perceived to be possessed by women, and that both women and men engineers believed this. This is sad because the quality of doubt is a sign of critical awareness of the problem. In the real world, women bring key knowledge and perspective to engineering and strengthen the teams on which they serve.

So what can we do?

First, we need to start when girls are young. Teachers have an important role to play in fostering a positive mindset. They can make sure that girls are in situations where they can succeed and see that they are just as qualified as the boys in their STEM classes. Participation in programs like Girl Scouts and the Sally Ride Science Junior Academy builds self-confidence.

Internships for high school and college students are another valuable tool. The researchers note that preliminary evidence suggests that when women are given the chance to try out, they receive higher starting salaries. Employers in STEM fields need to step up to provide them, since this is about training their future workforce. In San Diego, employers can access programs operated by the San Diego Workforce Partnership that handles all the paperwork.

Recruiters and human-resources professionals should re-evaluate how they screen candidates and be more aware of confirmation bias. The hiring process should include having applicants perform tasks they need on the job. Colleges can offer workshops on salary negotiation.

Most importantly, women need to support each other. Clubs on college campuses can be helpful. For example, UC San Diego has chapters of the Society of Women Engineers, Association for Women in Mathematics, Girls Who Code College Loop, and Undergraduate Women in Computing.

After they graduate, San Diego women in tech can join Athena San Diego, the organization I started more than 30 years ago to empower women in the innovation economy. Today, it has more than 500 members. I started Athena because I’ve always believed that by women working together and supporting each other, we are more powerful. It’s why I led the establishment of the Workplace Equity and Civility Initiative to address sexual harassment and pay inequity.

Rule No. 665: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” — Madeleine Albright, former U.S. secretary of state, at a “Celebrating Inspiration” luncheon with the WNBA’s All-Decade Team in 2006

Barbara Bry of La Jolla was the San Diego City Council member for District 1 from 2016 to 2020. She and her husband, Neil Senturia, are serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies. You can hear their weekly podcast on innovation and entrepreneurship at imthereforyoubaby.com. Email ideas to neil@blackbirdv.com.