Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) employers in the US pay doctorate recipients who acquired a disability early in life $10,580 less per year on average than those without disabilities, according to a Johns Hopkins University study (Nat. Hum. Behav. 2023, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-023-01745-z). The pay gap is even larger for disabled scientists and engineers within academia, whose average annual salary is $14,360 less than that of their nondisabled peers.
Although many studies have examined the wage gaps for women and people of color in STEM, researchers have mostly overlooked disparities for scientists and engineers with disabilities. Until now, “there’s been little understanding and little analyses on gaps that people with disabilities in STEM face,” says Bonnielin Swenor, director of the Johns Hopkins University Disability Health Research Center and one of the authors of the study. “It’s hard to change what you don’t know you need to change.”
Many factors could explain the pay disparities the researchers uncovered, but Swenor says most of them arise from the fact that STEM is not designed with disabled people in mind. She explains that inaccessible spaces combined with the ableist belief that disabled people can’t succeed in science or academia can limit job opportunities and negatively affect salary negotiations for scientists and engineers with disabilities, especially if they acquired a disability early in life.
And even after people with disabilities are hired, bias from nondisabled peers and managers can creep in, limiting the chance for career advancement. When Swenor and her colleagues analyzed data from the US National Science Foundation’s 2019 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, they found a dearth of disabled STEM professionals among higher-ranking academic roles, such as professors, tenured academics, and university deans and presidents. The researchers believe this fact may account for the especially large pay gap in academia.
The results presented in the study are heartbreaking, says Alyssa Paparella, who is a cancer and cell biology PhD candidate at the Baylor College of Medicine and wasn’t involved in the study. They’re also worrying. “As someone who is openly disabled in my early-career stages, I am concerned of how this pay discrepancy will impact my future career,” Paparella writes in an email.
Alleviating the pay disparities will require collecting more data, Swenor says. “Without the data, you don’t have the evidence to create policies and programs and strategies to address the barriers that those of us with disabilities are living every day.”
At the same time, Swenor says, STEM institutions need to start promoting more disabled people into positions of power. “It really does take people in leadership positions to champion for change,” she says.