Women in STEM and the Impact of Guest Worker Visas

Fact Sheet 2013

For a PDF Version of this fact sheet, click here.

In the last 10 years, women increased their density in professional occupations, now making up 57 percent of the professional workforce, but saw density declines in computer and engineering occupations.  Labor market trends are difficult to predict, but both the number and proportion of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs are expected to grow faster than average for all occupations from 2010 to 2020.[1]  While many of these jobs should be held by women as they make up half of the professional labor force, women are struggling to enter computer and engineering occupations that have a high concentration of temporary guest workers.

Women in Professional Industries

Women account for a majority of workers in professional occupations and their density is increasing.  Between 2003 and 2012 women increased their density in professional and related occupations by 0.8 percent (from 56.4 to 57.2 percent), that’s approximately 2.1 million new female professionals.[2]  From 2003 to 2012:

  • Women’s density in business and financial operations occupations grew by 0.4 percent (from 55.4 to 55.8 percent) resulting in approximately 700,000 new female professionals;
  • Among legal occupations, women increased their density by 4.2 percent (from 46.2 to 50.4 percent); and
  • Among health care practitioner and technical occupations, women increased their density by 1.3 percent (73.7 to 75 percent).

Women in STEM Occupations

STEM jobs include professionals employed in accounting and auditing occupations, computer and mathematical occupations, architecture and engineering occupations, and life, physical, and social science occupations.  Together, these occupations employ 9.35 million workers, of which, 32.5 percent are women.  From 2003 to 2012:

  • Among architecture and engineering occupations, the density of women decreased by 0.4 percent (from 14.1 to 13.7 percent);
  • Computer and mathematics occupations saw the largest decline of women’s density, decreasing by 3.2 percent (from 28.8 to 25.6 percent) despite the addition of nearly 700,000 new computer and math jobs; and
  • Among life, physical, and social science occupations, women saw a 2.3 percent increase (from 43 to 45.3 percent) despite an overall decline in employment in the sector.[3]

The Education Pipeline

Among U.S. and naturalized citizens, women earned over 342,000 science and engineering Associate’s, Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.Ds. in 2010.  Within the hard sciences (excludes psychology and social sciences) women earned nearly 140,000 degrees in 2010.

    • In computer science, women earned 7,621 Associate’s degrees, 6,903 Bachelor’s degrees, and 2,653 Master’s degrees in 2010.[4]
    • In engineering disciplines, women earned 4,945 Associate’s degrees, 12,766 Bachelor’s degrees, and 4,631 Master’s degrees in 2010.
    • In 2010, women earned 18.3 percent of engineering Bachelor’s degrees and 21.3 percent of engineering Master’s degrees.[5]


Women in STEM occupations not only have low density rates, they also struggle with high rates of unemployment, mostly in occupations that employ a disproportionately high number of non-U.S. citizens (among all occupations, non-U.S. citizens make up 8.9 percent of the workforce).  In fact, hundreds of thousands of temporary guest workers were employed in January 2013 while 4.7 percent of female computer professionals were unemployed.  Several occupations had even higher rates of female unemployment.  In January 2013:

    • Among female computer programmers, 7.7 percent were unemployed while 11.2 percent of the workforce was comprised of non-U.S. citizens;
    • Female software developers had a 4.9 percent unemployment rate, yet 22.9 percent of software developers were non-U.S. citizens;
    • Among female computer network architects, 62 percent were unemployed, but 12.1 percent of the computer network architect workforce were not U.S. citizens;
    • Female electrical and electronic engineers had a 10.5 percent unemployment rate, yet 12.7 percent of the workforce was made up of non-U.S. citizens; and
    • Finally, among female industrial engineers, 7.2 percent were unemployed and 12.5 percent of the workforce was made up of non-U.S. citizens.[6]

The H-1B Workforce

    • H-1B visas are held by the employer, not the worker. This system makes it hard for workers to change jobs, demand higher pay, or complain about working conditions.
    • From 2003 to 2011, nearly 430,000 initial H-1B guest worker visas were issued to employers to hire guest workers in computer-related occupations.
    • From 2003 to 2011, over 100,000 initial H-1B guest worker visas were issued to employers to hire guest workers in architecture, engineering, and surveying occupations.[7]


Women are woefully underrepresented in computer and engineering occupations.  A large temporary workforce appears to make it easier for employers to exclude traditionally underrepresented classes of workers.  Additionally, it is difficult to recruit women into computer and engineering occupations that have high rates of unemployment.

Increasing the number of H-1B visas available to employers will continue to hold the female high-tech workforce to disproportionately low numbers.  Unfortunately, legislation has been proposed that would do just that.  Senators Hatch and Klobuchar are proposing the Immigration Innovation (I2) Act of 2013 (S.169), which would greatly increase the number of H-1B visas and provide no protection for our domestic workforce.

Female high-tech professionals would benefit from comprehensive immigration reform.  But comprehensive immigration reform must include the creation of an independent commission that would assess and manage future labor flows based on labor market shortages that are determined on the basis of actual need.[8]


[1] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections. Table 1.2 Employment by detailed occupation, 2010 and projected 2020. 2012.

[2] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Household Data Annual Averages, Table 11. 2003 and 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, special tabulations of U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Author analysis of basic monthly Current Population Survey microdata, January 2013.

[7] U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Characteristics of H-1B Specialty Occupation Workers, Fiscal Years 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008; 2009; 2010, and 2011.

[8] Marshall, Ray. Immigration for Shared Prosperity—A Framework for Comprehensive Reform, Washington: Economic Policy Institute, 2009.


For more information on professional and technical workers, check DPE’s website:  www.dpeaflcio.org.


The Department for Professional Employees, AFL-CIO (DPE) comprises 21 AFL-CIO unions representing over four million people working in professional and technical occupations. DPE-affiliated unions represent: teachers, college professors, and school administrators; library workers; nurses, doctors, and other health care professionals; engineers, scientists, and IT workers; journalists and writers, broadcast technicians and communications specialists; performing and visual artists; professional athletes; professional firefighters; psychologists, social workers, and many others. DPE was chartered by the AFL-CIO in 1977 in recognition of the rapidly growing professional and technical occupations.


DPE Research Department
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Jennifer Dorning                                                                                                                                                      February 2013
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