The Pipeline Problem: How College Majors Contribute to the Gender Pay Gap

For many people, college is a time for personal growth and exploration. However, it’s also a time that affects future careers. The choice among college majors can have a dramatic impact on jobs and pay in the years after graduation. While many think of choosing a college major as an expression of personal interests and values, it’s also a practical financial decision — one with implications for a lifetime of work and earnings.

Many college majors are divided by gender. For a variety of reasons, men and women tend to cluster into different fields in college. For example, in 2014 women earned 57 percent of all bachelor’s degrees granted in America,[1] but earned just 9 percent of degrees in Construction Management. By contrast, women earn 89 percent of degrees in Occupational Therapy today, compared to just 11 percent earned by men.

This gender divide among college majors effectively places men and women on different career tracks early in life. Although college majors certainly don’t completely determine careers, differences in skills and training imparted by different college majors clearly affects which career doors are open or closed after graduation — skills like coding, knowledge of financial principles, written communication, engineering methods, statistical theory, best practices of design, and more.

Because men and women systematically sort into different college majors, they experience different early career paths, which pay differently. These pay differences in turn reveal themselves as a major contributor to the well-documented gap between male and female pay in the labor market. Because the choice of college major affects job prospects and pay later on, choosing a field of study goes far beyond an expression of personal preference; it is also a decision that affects America’s persistent gender pay gap.

Executive Summary

  • Using a unique dataset of more than 46,900 resumes shared on Glassdoor, we illustrate how men and women sorting into different college majors translates into gender gaps in careers and pay later.
  • 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.
  • The most male-dominated majors are Mechanical Engineering (89 percent male), Civil Engineering (83 percent male), Physics (81 percent male), Computer Science and Engineering (74 percent male), and Electrical Engineering (74 percent male).
  • The most female-dominated majors are Social Work (85 percent female), Healthcare Administration (84 percent female), Anthropology (80 percent female), Nursing (80 percent female), and Human Resources (80 percent female).
  • Nine of the 10 highest paying majors we examined are male dominated. By contrast, 6 of the 10 lowest-paying majors are female dominated.
  • Even within the same major men and women often end up on different career tracks, resulting in a pay gap that could follow them for a lifetime. In our sample, across the 50 most common majors, men and women face an 11.5 percent pay gap on average in the first five years of their careers.
  • Majors leading to the largest pay gaps favoring men include Healthcare Administration (22 percent pay gap), Mathematics (18 percent pay gap) and Biology (13 percent pay gap).
  • Majors leading to the largest pay gaps favoring women — a reverse pay gap — include Architecture (-14 percent pay gap), Music (-10.1 percent pay gap) and Social Work (-8.4 percent pay gap).
  • Choice of college major can have a dramatic impact on jobs and pay later on. Our results suggest that gender imbalances among college majors are an important and often overlooked driver of the gender pay gap.

More Resources:

[1] See National Center for Education Statistics, “Table 318.30. Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctor’s Degrees Conferred by Postsecondary Institutions, by Sex of Student and Discipline Division: 2013-14.” Available at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_318.30.asp.

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