Study Finds More Women Entering High-Paying Majors

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Oct 4, 2019


A working paper from the University of Chicago asserts that much of the gendered earnings gap comes down to what women major in and what jobs they choose to take after graduation, but it noted that over the past few decades, there have been more women entering higher-paying majors and, therefore, higher-paying professions. 

The study defined a major’s potential wage based on the "median log hourly wage of native, white men aged 43-57 who matriculated with that major." With this measure, it compared the major choice of women relative to the major choice of men for each birth cohort where the units of the index are in potential log wage differentials. It found that, across all birth cohorts, women systematically choose majors with lower potential wages relative to men. It also asserts that, on top of this, even when women do graduate with high-paying majors, they tend to go into lower-paying jobs anyway, and tend to select jobs with fewer hours. 

However the study has pointed to change over time. The researchers determined that college-educated women born in the 1950s matriculated with majors that had potential wages 12 percent lower than men from their cohort. In contrast, for college-educated women in the 1990s, that gap is now about 9 percent. The researchers attributed this to women beginning to select higher-paying majors and professions. 

"For example, for the 1950 birth cohort, women who majored in engineering chose subsequent occupations with potential wages that were 14 percent lower than men from their cohort who majored in engineering. For the 1990 birth cohort, however, women who majored in engineering ended up working in occupations with roughly the same potential wages as men who majored in engineering," said the paper. 

However, other research suggests that women's gains by entering these higher-earning professions may be temporary, as it posits an opposite hypothesis: As more women enter a field, the field itself becomes lower-paying. Using census data from 1950 to 2000, bolstered with additional data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the researchers found that—even when controlling for age, education, labor force experience, race, and the skill required for the job—"a 10 percent increase in proportion female is associated with .5 to 5 percent decrease in hourly wage in each decade."  Through statistical modeling, the researchers also ruled out a converse explanation, that as compensation in a profession diminishes more women enter, saying this was not the case. 

"Together, these assumptions imply that work in predominantly female jobs will be devalued by both employers and prospective employees due to the low status of the jobs’ incumbents, and that pay in predominantly female jobs is lower because women fill the jobs. In this view, a change in the gender composition of an occupation will lead to a change in the valuation of the work being preformed, leading to a change in occupations’ relative pay rates," said the paper. 

The New York Times noted that this has happened in many occupations as they became increasingly female. Ticket agents' average wages dropped by 43 percentage points, designers' dropped  by34 percentage points, housekeepers' dropped by 21 percentage points, and biologists' dropped by 18 percentage points.

Conversely, as more men enter a field, the pay and prestige can increase. One example is computer science and programming. A 2001 paper noted that women tended to dominate the early days of IT, and programming was seen as a largely menial task. As time went on, however, the profession became increasingly male dominated, which in turn corresponded with an increase in both compensation and prestige.

On this particular topic, one thing of note is that this shift has not happened in Malaysia, where computer science and IT work is still generally associated with women. 

"There are large numbers of women in computer science, and computer science is not perceived as "masculine." Rather, it is deemed as providing suitable jobs and good careers for women. This reflects an understanding of gender where femininities are constructed by association to office work, commonly recognized as a woman-friendly space because it is seen as more safe and protected than, for example, construction sites and factories. The findings suggest that gender and computer science may be more diversely coproduced than commonly believed in Western research," said the study abstract. 

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