Majors by Gender: Is It Bias or the Major that Determines Future Pay?

The discussion of pay differences across gender is a hot topic. We addressed this topic recently in a project with the New York Times Economix Blog, as well as in our own blog post. In these studies, we controlled for compensable factors (experience, education, specialty, company size, etc.) across men and women and find the gender wage gap to be 94%, which is much narrower than the oft quoted 77 cents to the dollar.

One reason the National Committee on Pay Equity finds a pay gap of 77% is they don't control for major or job choice and instead compare differences in the national median salaries of men and women.

However, as we have discussed in previous blog posts (here and here), choice of degree type and college major play a large role in determining national pay differences across men and women. Simply put, women tend to choose majors that pay a lower national median pay.

Are you curious whether you are paid what you're worth given the major you chose? Find out with a free PayScale Salary Report.

Common Majors by Gender

In a previous blog post we looked at the percentage of men and women who chose Engineering and Education as their major in response to the American Association of University Women's (AAUW) study of the gender pay gap. They found Engineering (median pay of $75,000/year) to be male dominated, while Education (median pay of $42,000/year) is dominated by female majors. Therefore, differences in major choice can greatly affect the national pay gap.

In an updated research project, we determined 15 common majors for men, 15 common majors for women and 15 common majors with roughly equal numbers of men and women graduates. Similar to AAUW, we find women tend to major in various Design/Art majors, Education, Nursing, and Public Relations, while men tend to major in Engineering, Finance, Computer Science, and Economics. Majors common to both include Accounting, Journalism, Biology, History, English and Mathematics.

Below are two tables detailing the common majors for each gender, the ratio of the specific gender, and the national median pay for those with the major who hold a bachelor's degree and no higher degrees. (Note: The pay is NOT gender specific).

Common Majors for Women

Percent Female

National Median Pay

Fashion Design

95%

$38,900

Interior Design

90%

$37,800

Elementary Education

88%

$35,800

Social Work

88%

$36,100

Nursing

88%

$61,200

Occupational Therapy

86%

$70,600

French

84%

$46,500

Art History

83%

$42,700

Medical Technology

79%

$54,200

Food and Nutrition

78%

$48,000

Spanish

78%

$39,600

Health Care Administration

76%

$47,500

Public Relations

74%

$39,700

Human Resources

72%

$45,300

Psychology

72%

$40,700

 

Common Majors for Men

Percent Male

National Median Pay

Construction Management

93%

$60,100

Mechanical Engineering

92%

$70,400

Electrical Engineering

91%

$78,500

Physics

89%

$68,100

Aerospace Engineering

87%

$67,700

Civil Engineering

85%

$63,900

Computer Science

85%

$69,700

Landscape Architecture

79%

$51,900

Agriculture

77%

$50,400

Chemical Engineering

76%

$81,400

Geology

76%

$60,400

Economics

72%

$60,000

Geography

72%

$48,100

Sports Management

70%

$39,800

Finance

70%

$55,000

 

As the above tables show, men are more likely to choose majors that lead to higher incomes. Only two majors common for women pay a national median pay over $60,000 (Nursing and Occupational Therapy), while 10 of the 15 common majors for men pay at least $60,000. The average pay across all of the common majors for men is $61,700, which is 35% higher than the average pay across the common female majors ($45,600).

Therefore, as women tend to choose majors that lead to lower income, examining national median pay differences for all jobs across genders may just be reflecting these differing major choices. The above pay figures show that women commonly choose majors that come with lower salaries, thus leading (in part) to a lower national median pay for women.

Gender Gap in Pay by Major: Do Men Still Earn More?

As we see above, women commonly choose majors that lead to lower national median pay, which partially explains the gender wage gap. In fact Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, a sociologist at Ohio State University, found the choice of major explained 19 percent of the income gap between college-educated students. However, both of these studies simply discuss the propensity to join a lower-paid major and its associated affect on the pay gap.

What if we look at gender-specific pay by major? Will we still observe a wage gap between men and women within a major? In other words, do female Education majors earn the same, less, or more than male Education majors?

Similar to looking at gender-specific pay by jobs, we examine both median national pay and median national controlled pay across genders. In the latter, we control for outside factors that influence pay within a major (e.g. job choice, experience, company type, etc.). The controlled pay differences allow us to perform a more apples-to-apples comparison of men and women within a major, since we have taken into account all the legitimate (none gender bias) reason one person may be paid more than another.

For example, as we will see below, female math majors earn 79% of what male majors earn. However, that is nearly all explained by different choices of job after graduation and career paths (including time off for child rearing), so women's controlled median pay (taking these factors into account), is 98% of men's.

Controlling allows us to perform an "apples to apples" comparison of men and women: all differences in responsibility, experience, education, etc., are taken into account, so that the controlled female median pay represents exactly the same set of qualifications as the controlled male median pay.

Regardless of the type of pay, women generally earn less than men, but the size of the gap greatly diminishes when we control for outside factors. We report three comparisons:

  • Starting Median Pay (< 5 years of experience): The typical female starting worker earns pay that is 93% of the typical male starting worker. This is not controlled for legitimate outside factors
  • National Median Pay (all years of experience): The typical female worker earns pay that is 86% of the typical male worker. This is not controlled for legitimate outside factors.
  • Controlled Median Pay: The typical female worker earns pay that is 98% of the typical male worker. This is controlled for all legitimate outside factors.

Note that half of employees in each group in the US earn less than the median pay, and half earn more.

On average, the pay gap almost disappears across majors when controlling for outside factors. This is also true when looking at specific majors as well.

Below are three tables displaying the difference in female and male starting median pay, national median pay, and controlled median pay across a subset of common majors.

Starting Median Pay by Gender (Uncontrolled)

Major

Female Starting Median Pay

Male Starting
Median Pay

Ratio of Female to Male Starting Median Pay

Accounting

$42,600

$48,000

89%

Aerospace Engineering

$60,200

$59,200

102%

Biology

$36,500

$41,500

88%

Chemistry

$40,200

$44,700

90%

Civil Engineering

$53,400

$54,300

98%

Communications

$37,200

$41,300

90%

Computer Science

$49,100

$54,900

89%

Criminal Justice

$32,600

$39,400

83%

Economics

$47,400

$50,400

94%

Electrical Engineering

$57,500

$59,000

97%

Elementary Education

$32,000

$35,100

91%

English

$35,900

$40,900

88%

History

$34,600

$38,500

90%

Journalism

$36,100

$36,400

99%

Marketing

$39,500

$44,800

88%

Mathematics

$44,400

$49,900

89%

Mechanical Engineering

$58,500

$58,300

100%

Nursing

$53,700

$56,200

96%

Occupational Therapy

$62,100

$61,500

101%

Sociology

$35,400

$38,900

91%

 

When they are just starting out, women who major in Aerospace Engineering, Occupational Therapy, Mechanical Engineering, Journalism and Civil Engineering earn typical pay that is roughly the same, if not more, than male typical pay.

The largest pay gap in the majors above is for the Criminal Justice major. This may be related to the common jobs chosen by Criminal Justice majors and how they differ across gender. Two common jobs for male Criminal Justice majors are Police or Sheriff's Patrol Officers (Starting Median Pay: $44,200) and Probation Officers or Correctional Treatment Specialists (Starting Median Pay: $34,000). In comparison, two common jobs for female Criminal Justice majors are Paralegals (Starting Median Pay: $37,400) and Legal Assistants (Starting Median Pay: $30,400).

National Median Pay by Gender (Uncontrolled)

Major

Female National Median Pay

Male National
Median Pay

Ratio of Female to Male National Median Pay

Accounting

$51,400

$65,200

79%

Aerospace Engineering

$67,900

$67,700

100%

Biology

$42,000

$53,000

79%

Chemistry

$48,400

$63,300

76%

Civil Engineering

$57,900

$65,000

89%

Communications

$42,000

$51,800

81%

Computer Science

$62,100

$70,100

89%

Criminal Justice

$35,400

$47,500

75%

Economics

$53,800

$62,500

86%

Electrical Engineering

$69,800

$78,800

89%

Elementary Education

$35,700

$39,300

91%

English

$42,200

$51,300

82%

History

$40,100

$46,900

86%

Journalism

$41,000

$46,400

88%

Marketing

$44,600

$55,700

80%

Mathematics

$52,800

$67,100

79%

Mechanical Engineering

$67,500

$72,900

93%

Nursing

$61,400

$64,800

95%

Occupational Therapy

$69,200

$70,500

98%

Sociology

$39,000

$46,100

85%

 

The wage gap by major spreads wider when looking at national median pay figures compared to starting pay figures. This may tie into several outside factors now playing a larger role. These include job choice, employer type, company size, years of experience, location, etc. Now only Aerospace Engineering and Occupational Therapy majors earn roughly the same pay across genders.

Controlled Median Pay by Gender (National)

Major

Female Controlled Median Pay

Male Controlled
Median Pay

Ratio of Female to Male Controlled Median Pay

Accounting

$56,900

$59,300

96%

Aerospace Engineering

$65,800

$67,400

98%

Biology

$45,800

$46,800

98%

Chemistry

$57,600

$58,400

99%

Civil Engineering

$62,800

$64,900

97%

Communications

$44,000

$45,500

97%

Computer Science

$67,700

$69,800

97%

Criminal Justice

$39,200

$41,400

95%

Economics

$60,200

$61,700

98%

Electrical Engineering

$78,400

$80,800

97%

Elementary Education

$36,000

$35,500

101%

English

$43,400

$43,600

100%

History

$42,800

$43,700

98%

Journalism

$41,600

$42,600

98%

Marketing

$48,000

$49,500

97%

Mathematics

$61,400

$62,800

98%

Mechanical Engineering

$73,300

$74,400

99%

Nursing

$61,000

$63,400

96%

Occupational Therapy

$69,400

$72,100

96%

Sociology

$39,800

$40,300

99%

 

Once we control for outside factors the wage gap between men and women shrinks considerably. Now women earn typical pay that is on average 98% of the typical pay for men by major. Occasionally, women may even earn more. Therefore, when looking at gender-specific pay by major for a controlled sample, the wage gap all but disappears.

The above data goes to show that major choice is a key reason for the gender wage gap of 77 cents to the dollar. In other words, women tend to choose majors (and thus jobs) that pay less on average. However, these majors pay less to both men and women.

No one definitively knows why women tend to choose lower paying majors, although some research has been done on the topic, including this piece from the economists at the New York Federal Reserve. Their key finding is that men tend to care more about money and income potential when choosing a major, while women place a higher importance on non-pecuniary aspects (e.g. work schedule, enjoying coursework, gaining parents' approval, etc.).

To address the gender pay gap, we now have to turn our focus from "equal pay for equal work," to erasing the explicit or implicit biases that cause women to cluster in lower paying majors and jobs, and men to cluster in more dangerous jobs and majors they don't actually like just for the money.

What type of pay can you expect with your education? Be prepared with accurate salary expectations in your next job interview or review. For powerful salary data and comparisons customized for your exact position or job offer, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale's Full Salary Survey.

Regards,

Katie Bardaro
Research Analyst, PayScale, Inc.

Have you heard about Congressional efforts to close the gender pay gap? Check out Paycheck Fairness Act: I Want My Million Bucks!

 

2 Comments

  1. 2 Chris 06 Aug
    A reply to Haley: The context of the argument presented above is simply stating that men and women make different choices as a whole about the jobs they take based on their educational interests and backgrounds. When it comes to a controlled comparison, there's not a big difference in income. Though, no one is saying that even a small difference shouldn't be a topic of discussion or advancement. For you, and many women, it's much more cultural to deal with people who undermine your ability based on your sex. I think the point of this article is to show that it's not a systematic repression against gender, but one that might be the result of differences in interests. Thought we'd all love that perfect platonic environment where everyone were truly equal, it will take a long time to normalize gender differences and remove cultural bias. Employers are people, people have flaws, so therefore employers have flaws. In the context of the discussion, the question about gender gap in income, you may have to deal with prejudice a little while longer even if you are paid the same as a man. Because in the end, even with equality, people will still find reasons to dislike you if they are so inclined.
  2. 1 Haley 03 Apr

    This is pretty interesting. I won't pretend I'm not skeptical. As a female software engineer/CS student I encounter a lot of nasty and demeaning comments explicitly and specifically about my gender, and even though I'm a 4.0 student within the subject my classmates often come up to me unprovoked to ask me if I need "help." I've been called "sweetheart," or "cutie" by my boss. Denying a person's experience can be very frustrating and condescending. You're essentially saying that a person is imagining it. I sometimes wish I could make my father or friends who deny it experience what it's like themselves. 

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