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Last modified: 27 November 2015

Nicky Morgan probably isn't a witch

STEM vs. STEAM, the gender pay gap, and the root of happiness

Recently my twitter feed came alive with condemnation of Nicky Morgan. She was reported as saying that girls were putting themselves at a disadvantage by studying exclusively arts and humanities A-levels.

Lots of people didn’t like that. Some felt she was suggesting that arts and humanities were inferior to STEM subjects. I neither think that's true, nor that Nicky Morgan said it. Some felt she was suggesting that studying exclusively arts restricted future career options more than studying exclusively STEM subjects. I suspect that this is true on average, but I don’t have the data to prove it.

Education isn’t everything and lots of people working in technical fields didn’t study technical things. The inventor of the programming language PERL is a linguist, Gina Trapani studied English, and the founder of slack did a degree in philosophy.

Likewise lots of artists have technical degrees. The head chef at Leeds’ only Michelin starred restaurant has a degree in Chemistry and D:Ream’s keyboard player, Brian Cox, has, of course, a degree in Physics.

There are wonderful examples of people from all backgrounds succeeding in all walks of life. Often they succeed in many different fields or by bringing knowledge and skills from one field to another. STEAM is really important, and it’s something to celebrate.


And yet no matter how many examples we can list, examples do not solve the problem that I think Nicky Morgan was addressing; that women in the UK do not earn as much as men.

Men earn more than women not as individuals – consider JK Rowling’s income or the fact that the CEOs of both Yahoo and IBM are women – but on average. It is on average that the greater propensity of boys to study technical subjects at school in turn makes them more likely, on average, to work in technical fields and in turn more likely, on average, to earn high salaries.

There are other factors at play. Pure sexism seems to play a significant role in creating the gender pay gap we observe in the UK. But a larger part of that gap is caused by the decisions of more girls at age 15 to study no technical subjects at all.


I support the right of girls and boys to make that choice. For many it will be the right thing to do. Many will get great technical jobs in the future or be happy in other great jobs. But let’s be honest with them when they are making their choice that they will, on average, earn less.

There is much more to life than money. There’s certainly much more to education and study than estimated earnings. I wish we heard that more when discussing the gender pay gap.

None of this is a denial of the sexism that exists in many technical fields. Part of that sexism expresses itself in the differing expectations society has, on average, of girls and boys. It is extremely important that we all fight that sexism.

I think that Nicky Morgan was fighting it.

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