The Surprising Downside of a Great Education

New research shows that the pay gap between men and women is higher for those with postgraduate degrees and Ivy League educations.

Photograph: Getty Images

Education can be transformative, but it isn't improving the chasm between what men and women make. In fact, the gender pay gap seems to get worse the fancier your degree is, a new report shows.

The report, released Thursday by salary-tracking website PayScale, looked at wages for around 1.4 million full-time workers and found that women with postgraduate degrees were at a bigger compensation disadvantage than those with a bachelor's, associate's, or a high school degree.

Women with Ph.D.s make 5.1 percent less in total cash compensation than men with the same credential, the biggest wage disparity of any degree type. PayScale arrived at that number after controlling for a host of factors that could affect pay, including workers' experience, education, and skill levels, the size of their company, and how much management responsibility they had (taking all that into account, women as a group made 2.7 percent less than men). MBA-holders had the second-highest gender pay gap among degree types, at 4.7 percent, followed by M.D.s, at 4.6 percent.

"It's surprising for MBAs, because one of the big things you learn in business school is negotiation," said Lydia Frank, a senior editor at PayScale. 

In fact, the gender wage gap for MBAs widens over time. A Bloomberg survey of 12,773 business school alumni showed that six to eight years after graduation, male MBAs earned roughly 80 percent more in 2014 than female MBAs. That gap doesn't control for every factor that could have an impact on salary, but the women and men in the sample were similarly educated—they all had MBAs. 

High-prestige schools seem to produce more distance between male and female pay, as well. The pay gap for graduates of Ivy League schools is 4 percent, higher than that for public colleges, private nonprofit colleges, and for-profit schools. A woman with an Ivy League degree will still make more than her counterparts from other schools—$97,100 a year compared with $72,400 at nonprofits and $66,900 at public colleges. She'll just be earning less than her male peers with the same credentials. 

Some other sad findings from the PayScale study: 

The pay gap grows with seniority.

Women executives made 6.1 percent less than men at the same level. Compare that with junior workers: The difference in pay was 2.2 percent at what PayScale calls the "individual contributor" level. "The more executive the role, the  higher the wage gap between men and women," said Frank, adding that discrimination in top management levels is often due to unconscious bias. "Individuals gravitate toward people who are like them, which can put women in male-dominated industries at a disadvantage." 

Men and women both value family, but only women are penalized for it. 

At the highest levels of seniority, both male and female executives reported caring about their families more than their careers, said the report. "Male executives actually said they prioritized family life more frequently than their female counterparts," Frank said. Across all seniority levels, however, women with the strongest commitment to family and home life earned 3.4 percent less than what family-oriented men did.

"It's bleak," said Frank. "But the way to move forward is to encourage managers to challenge their unconscious biases and hire more diverse teams, which we already know leads to more profitable companies." 

 Watch Next: Why Aren't Women MBA's Earning More? 

Why Aren't Women MBA's Earning More?


Correction, 11/5: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that women who showed a strong commitment to family earned 3.4 percent of what family-oriented men did. They earn 3.4 percent less than family-oriented men.