The pay gap between men and women in the U.S — the 80-ish cents on the dollar that the average woman earns for every dollar earned by the average man — has narrowed at such a slow pace that it would be unfair to glaciers to call it glacial. Large chunks of the gap can be accounted for by differences like industry and role. And at the root of these differences, according to a new research report by Glassdoor, could be college major. Examining 46,934 resumes shared on Glassdoor.com by people who graduated between 2010 and 2017, the researchers looked at each person’s college major and their post-college jobs in the five years after graduation. They then estimated the median pay for each of those jobs (also using Glassdoor data) for employees with five years or less of experience. Their key finding: “Many college majors that lead to high-paying roles in tech and engineering are male dominated, while majors that lead to lower-paying roles in social sciences and liberal arts tend to be female-dominated, placing men in higher-paying career pathways, on average.” But other research shows that pay declines when women move into a field (like biology), and compensation rises as men take a field over (like computer programming). So even if more women move into high-paying college majors, the result may not be equal pay.
The pay gap between men and women in the U.S. — the 80-ish cents on the dollar that the average woman earns for every dollar the average man does — has narrowed at such a slow pace that it would be unfair to glaciers to call it glacial.
When people talk about the pay gap, what this phrase typically means is that a woman is being paid less than a man for doing the same work. A well-known example is Lilly Ledbetter, who had worked in a tire factory for almost 20 years when a colleague left her an anonymous note revealing she’d been earning thousands of dollars less than men in the same position.
But these kinds of pay gaps — same role, same experience, same firm — account for only a portion of the 20% pay gap between men and women, a gap that’s much worse for women of color. Large chunks of the gap can be accounted for by differences like industry and role. And at the root of these differences, according to a new research report by Glassdoor, could be college majors.
Examining 46,934 resumes shared on Glassdoor by people who graduated between 2010 and 2017, the researchers looked at each person’s college major and their post-college jobs in the five years after graduation. They then estimated the median pay for each of those jobs (also using Glassdoor data) for employees with five years of experience or less. Their key finding: “Many college majors that lead to high-paying roles in tech and engineering are male dominated, while majors that lead to lower-paying roles in social sciences and liberal arts tend to be female dominated, placing men in higher-paying career pathways, on average.”
When I spoke with Andrew Chamberlain, Glassdoor’s chief economist, he explained that one of his hopes with this research was to give all college students more insight into which majors pay the most, so that they can make informed decisions about which major they choose. He’s also hoping that “by showing young women the facts about what they could potentially earn, more of them might choose a physics or engineering major,” and that more of them will persist in those majors even if they’re the only woman in some of their courses.
That is a noble goal, but it’s one that I was skeptical would work. In our society, maleness and prestige often go together.
Jobs that are unconsciously coded male have more prestige and pay than jobs that are coded female. This is why a custodian or a janitor (usually a man) gets paid more than a maid or a “cleaning lady” (categorically female — have you ever heard of a “cleaning gentleman”?). And it’s one of many reasons that male factory workers who get laid off don’t rush into “pink-collar” jobs — not only do these jobs pay less, but they also are inescapably lower prestige. Corporate America is not immune to these trends: HR, once considered the most glamorous department to work in, has since become highly feminized, and must now fight for respect at the C-suite table.
A series of studies have shown just how tightly gender, prestige, and pay are tangled. Researchers have found that the pay gap is not as simple as women being pushed into lower-paying jobs. In effect, it is the other way around: Certain jobs pay less because women take them. Wages in biology and design were higher when the fields were predominantly male; as more women became biologists and designers, pay dropped. The opposite happened in computing, where early programmers were female. Today, that field is one of the most predominantly male — and one of the highest paying. The wage gap remains the widest at the top of the income ladder, where jobs tend to be male dominated.
I suspect that our assumptions about what type of work is skilled or specialized is also subtly gendered, although I’m not aware of any research examining this specific question. But why do we assume that STEM subjects are “harder” than subjects that are more person- or language-oriented? Aren’t human beings just as complex as code? When I posed my hypothesis to Chamberlain, he was skeptical. He pointed out that if you write bad code, the program probably just won’t work. Human beings are less rigid, or just have lower standards. When it comes to writing, for example, “many people are willing to accept mediocre work.” (Sigh.) There’s also the pesky issue of market forces and the skills that society values. Music may be a highly technical field, but it’s a low-paying one.
Nonetheless, the Glassdoor data does show that even when women and men study the same subject, women sort into lower-paying jobs when they get out of school. For example, among female biology majors, the top post-college jobs are lab technician, pharmacy technician, and sales associate. Among the male graduates, the most common jobs are lab tech, data analyst, and manager. Since the latter jobs are higher paying, the pay gap persists even among people who majored in biology. The data shows similar gaps for mathematics majors: Among both genders, data analyst and generic analyst roles were popular. But men were much more likely to be found in sexy data scientist roles, and so the average male math major earns $60,000 a year in his first five years out of school, while the average female math major earns only $49,182. Other research has shown that more of the gender wage gap comes from within-industry gaps than between-industry gaps.
When I asked Chamberlain why women aren’t getting those higher-paying industry jobs, despite their qualifications, he said his data didn’t indicate a reason. It could be driven by the behavior of the job seeker. Perhaps men feel pressured to find and take the highest-paying job they can get, while women think holistically about work-life balance and flexibility. Perhaps companies are fast-tracking men into prestigious, higher-paying roles. Or perhaps companies are being too narrow in what they’re looking for. For instance, if you’re trying to hire a data scientist and you tell your recruiter to look only at statistics majors, you’ve immediately narrowed your pool of applicants to mostly men. If companies looked at skills rather than credentials, they might find that there are women trained in sociology, biology, or anthropology who are just as handy with a spreadsheet.
One curious wrinkle in the data is in the areas where people aren’t doing anything with their major. Many of these people seem to be earning less than the people who are making use of their degree. Take kinesiology majors. Despite these students studying a somewhat scientific topic (the movement of the human body), which ought to lead to remunerative work in the booming health care industry, what Glassdoor’s data shows is that a significant proportion of them aren’t going on to become physical therapists. They’re becoming low-paid personal trainers, coaches, or waiters. This leads to a small reverse pay gap: Women who major in kinesiology make, on average, $2,000 more a year than men do, because they are more likely to take the physical therapy jobs that make use of the skills they learned in school.
Music majors show a similar pattern. “Most women go into music in some way — the most common job was audio engineer and music teacher,” said Chamberlain. “[But] the men who majored in music often did nothing related to music. They worked as low-paid landscapers, or sales associates.” Why would these men opt to not use their degree? Perhaps because “music teacher” has a stereotype of being female, Chamberlain speculated. Male music majors earn less than their female counterparts, in large part because they’re not using their knowledge. (Depressingly, one reason the gap has narrowed or reversed at the low end of the income spectrum is not only that some women are earning more than their mothers did; it’s also that men are earning less, on average, than their fathers did.)
It’s nice to think that some young woman out there will seize on these findings and decide to persist in her dream of majoring in physics, math, or engineering. But I am pessimistic about that. I suspect that if we suddenly found ourselves in a world where 90% of mechanical engineers were female, that work would then be looked down on as low creativity and low prestige, much as software engineering was perceived when it was heavily female.
While I find research about the wage gap endlessly fascinating, I also find it frustrating. So much of the debate has descended into a muddle of details: It’s really a motherhood penalty. It’s driven by women working fewer hours. It’s the result of personal choices. It’s because women don’t negotiate. I don’t mean to sound dismissive; the details do matter. But focusing on them is like focusing on the swarm of gnats in front of your face and missing the huge, ugly alligator lurking just beyond. The nasty truth that underlies all these details is very simple: We just don’t value women as much as we value men. And until that changes, women will never get paid equally for their work.