Women Lose Out to Men Even Before They Graduate From College

By Jackie GuJackie Gu

For almost 40 years, women have outnumbered men on U.S. college campuses. They’re accepted to the same schools as men, study in the same degree programs and graduate at higher rates than men. So when female graduates enter the labor force, you’d expect that they would at least find the same opportunities as their male peers, if not better ones.

That hasn’t necessarily happened, though. Male and female graduates of the same college majors tend to veer toward different types of jobs, according to a Bloomberg analysis of American Community Survey data of educational attainment, occupation and income. Women are less likely than men to have careers aligned to their field of study. The jobs many women take typically have lower career earning potential.

The data capture occupations and pay for people at different stages of their career, whether someone graduated from college last year or 30 years ago. But the trends are clear. Even in traditionally pre-professional fields, such as business, science and economics, equal educational attainment doesn’t always correspond to similar career choices by men and women.

Male psychology graduates are more likely to be psychologists and managers; female psychology graduates are more likely to be social workers and counselors. Male sociology graduates tend to become managers and lawyers, whereas common careers for female sociology graduates are, again, social workers and counselors. Though teaching is the top occupation for men and women in both majors, women end up as teachers at a much higher rate than men.

Psychology

Male

Female

9%

K-12 Teachers

4%

K-12 Teachers

4%

Psychologists

5%

Counselors

4%

Misc. Managers

32%

68%

5%

Social Workers

3%

Postsecondary

Teachers

4%

Psychologists

3%

Computer

Programmers

& Related

3%

Postsecondary

Teachers

82%

74%

Other

Other

Sociology

Male

Female

9%

K-12 Teachers

4%

K-12 Teachers

4%

Misc. Managers

6%

Social

Workers

33%

67%

3%

Lawyers & Other

Judicial Workers

4%

Counselors

3%

Postsecondary

Teachers

3%

Secretaries

3%

Social Workers

3%

Misc. Managers

83%

75%

Other

Other

Women who major in business often become secretaries or administrative assistants, whereas men who major in business become chief executives and legislators at roughly the same rate. Even in education, a major dominated by women, men are more likely to become professors.

Business

Male

Female

6%

Misc. Managers

5%

Accountants &

Auditors

4%

Chief

Executives

& Legislators

5%

K-12 Teachers

61%

39%

4%

Misc.

Managers

3%

Computer

Programmers

& Related

4%

Secretaries &

Administrative

Assistants

3%

Sales

Representatives

84%

82%

Other

Other

In general, across all college majors, women are four times more likely than men to become social workers and 35 times more likely to become preschool or kindergarten teachers. And though women make up almost 60 percent of undergraduate students on campuses nationwide, they are also 30 percent likelier not to be working after graduation.

Popular Fields of Study and Their Occupational Paths
The most common occupations for these college majors differ among men and women
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The reasons for this trend are murky. Researchers have been trying to identify the cause for decades, but there are no simple or universal answers.

Statisticians and academics, particularly those who study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education, often discuss the phenomenon in terms of a pipeline problem. The so-called “leaky pipeline” describes the obstacle-laden path, stretching from education to the upper echelons of management, that leads many women and minorities to leave their careers, resulting in their lack of representation in higher positions.

These obstacles look different for different people, and can vary by occupation type or location. Gender discrimination, sexual harassment and various social pressures are among the factors that discourage some women from pursuing a career related to their undergraduate degree. But sometimes, the leak is by choice.

Keun-Woo Lee, who teaches preschool in New York's Bronx borough, graduated last year from the University of Texas, Austin with a neuroscience degree. Though she says most of her peers in college planned to go to medical school, she chose to teach because she’s interested in early childhood brain development and barriers to good education for poor or minority children.

“There are some days I walk out of school thinking, ‘I could be getting paid so much more sitting at a desk,’” Lee said. “For now, though, pay isn’t among my top motivations for choosing a job, at least at this point in my life.”

Biology

Male

Female

9%

Physicians

& Surgeons

19%

Physicians

& Surgeons

7%

K-12

Teachers

5%

Dentists

50%

50%

7%

Nurses

& Related

5%

Physical

Scientists

4%

Postsecondary

Teachers

4%

Postsecondary

Teachers

3%

Misc.

Managers

3%

Misc.

Managers

64%

70%

Other

Other

Data released by PayScale last year reveal that many female-dominated careers report high rates of ‘job meaning,’ a metric corresponding to the percentage of people in a certain career who believe their work makes the world a better place. Ninety-five percent of education administrators in elementary and middle schools responded affirmatively, as did 91 percent of kindergarten teachers and 90 percent of counselors. Women represent upwards of 80 percent of each of these careers.

When a 2016 MIT survey asked students which leadership roles they had the most respect for, the top response for female students was “public service leader,” while male students overwhelmingly selected “CEO.” Successful leaders in the public-service sector were not given as much exposure as CEOs at MIT, however, and female students rated the quality of their professional development opportunities at MIT significantly lower than male students did.

Still, among people with the same educational qualifications, there’s a staggering difference between the careers that men and women choose—and, of course, the wages they’re paid. More problematic is that even when men and women with the same college degrees choose the same profession, women tend to be paid less.

Regardless of college major, the jobs held by the most women tend to pay the least. For instance, among biology majors who become nurses, 82 percent are women, and the average salary is $65,000. Among biology majors who become physicians and surgeons, only one-third are women, and the average salary is $240,000. And even when women enter higher-paying, male-dominated fields, they’re still paid less.

What Majors Do After Graduation
How many women work in these jobs, and how much are they paid annually?

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, says Michelle Ball, a career counselor at the University of Virginia. “Do teachers get paid less because the workforce is largely female, or is it that education is just underfunded and women are willing to go into it anyway?” she asked.

Even in such female-dominated professions as nursing or teaching, men are paid more. And the pay gap is even more severe for women of color: While college-educated white women earn only 55 percent of what college-educated white men do, college-educated non-white women earn even less.

Gender Pay Gap, by Race
College-educated women's earnings as a percentage of college-educated white men's earnings

This analysis of salary data from the American Community Survey substantiates prior research showing that the more women enter certain occupations and industries, the farther pay drops, even for identical jobs that men were doing previously.

The so-called motherhood penalty provides one possible explanation. For each child a woman has, her income decreases by 4 percent, whether by spending less time at work to care for her children, trading a higher-wage job for a lower-wage but more flexible one, or other reasons.

The labor of raising a family, then, is one of the biggest sources of divergent career paths for women and men who attain the same degrees. A recent U.K. study found that universities with generous maternity leave policies employed twice the number of women professors as those without, and a 2009 Center for Work-Life Policy survey found that among college-educated women who had left their careers, 69 percent said that they wouldn’t have done so if their companies had offered more flexible work options.

Garth Motschenbacher, director of employer relations at Michigan State University’s College of Engineering, says the female undergraduate students he advises tend to look for jobs that give them more lifestyle flexibility to accommodate someday raising a family—which many engineering corporations fail to offer.

“I used to espouse, at age 26, that my male colleagues and I would be the change, and we didn’t do it,” he said. “It’s very disappointing to see that inclusion has yet to happen within companies and corporate culture.”

For her part, Lee is so far undeterred by the inequalities of the labor market. Pay is important to her, but she says the greatest factor for her in choosing a career will remain the impact she can have on children, rather than money.

“I don’t think that’ll ever be my primary motivation,” she said. “I don’t think I would be happy that way.”