Do only women choose quality of life over high salary?

Some information came my way recently that got me thinking again about why women are paid less than men, on average, in the United States. See the PayScale aggregate hourly wage and average salary data for an example of the difference.

I read the full American Association of University Women's (AAUW) study of the gender pay gap, "Behind the Pay Gap." While one can argue about whether the study actually finds evidence of apples to apples discrimination – that women are paid less when they do exactly the same job, with exactly the same qualifications as men – it is clear as day that men and women in the US choose very different education and career paths, and these lead to very different salaries.

More info came in the form of comments from readers. One comment from a reader explained why going to Iraq makes sense for a guy trying to make a living as a truck driver. Other comments were by women on why they switched jobs in our article on changing careers. The stark difference in the relationship between work, money, and satisfaction expressed was telling.

This got me wondering, do only women evaluate quality of life, or true "total compensation", when deciding on a job? Are guys stuck on a treadmill with only one measure of success, total wages earned?

Are you maximizing your annual salary or living a balanced life? Find out with the PayScale salary calculator.

Quality of life vs. maximum salary

There are three obvious differences between American men and women in the AAUW study, all of which hint at women preferring quality of live over money:

  1. Boys do not go to college
  2. Women do not choose majors or careers to maximize income
  3. Women are more likely to leave the workforce to care for children

In this article, I’ll look at the first point.

Boys do not go to college

Want to increase your boy’s chance of going to college 50%? Get him a sex change. While 40% of men now go to 4-year colleges, 60% of women go.

If there were an AAUM (American Association of University Men), they would be railing against the “college gap.” Only 2/3rds as many men as women go to college. Oh, and the women get better grades when they get there too, averaging about 0.1 points higher GPAs.

This is a recent phenomenon. In 1960, men were the clear majority in higher education. Remember that cute phrase “co-ed”, which meant female student? Now colleges are struggling to find men, not women, to keep there schools “co-educational.”

This extends to higher levels beyond bachelors degrees. AAUW noted women were more likely to get masters degrees. Women are now 50% of medical students, and 50% of law students. These percentages have risen from single digits since the 1960’s. The trends say women will soon be 60% of these schools as well.

What does going to college have to do with quality of life?

As someone who flipped burgers, paved roads, and sorted cucumbers, it is obvious to me that the typical job for college graduates has a higher “quality of life” than what one can get straight out of high school.

Often the only higher paying jobs without a college education require tough physical work, and that can lead to health issues later in life. As Anne, another reader, commented, “Long term investing in brains buys a softer life…”

While women are not choosing the highest paying majors, by choosing college they are choosing higher pay for less demanding work. For example, here is an unweighted average US annual salaries, for men who have come to and reported their education as well as pay:

Degree US Average Male Salary Pay Gap Degree Gap
Doctors of Medicine (MD) $188,300 79% 22%
Degrees no higher than Juris Doctor (Law) $102,300 75% 40%
Degrees no higher than Doctorate (PhD) $99,400 70% 42%
Degrees no higher than Master of Business Administration $99,300 69% 42%
Degrees no higher than Masters (not MBA) $77,900 71% 53%
Degrees no higher than Bachelors $65,600 70% 63%
Degrees no higher than some college coursework with no degree $50,300 72% 82%
Degrees no higher than Associates $48,100 83% 86%
Degrees no higher than GED or High School Diploma $41,400 78% 100%

I have also given two ratios:

  • Pay Gap: Percentage of men’s pay that women (all experiences, all jobs) make with the same degree. The 70% for bachelors is in line with 69% from the AAUW for women 10 years after college.
  • Degree Gap: This is how much less male high school graduates make than each higher degree. For example, law grads make 2.5X as much as high school grads on average, while MDs make nearly 5X as much.

Note: while the PayScale data represents a broad swath of American worker (roughly 3%), it is not a scientifically chosen random sample.

By going to college, the typical woman is taking the “softer” lifestyle, and higher income ($45.5K vs. $41.5K) , than the typical man who goes to work straight out of high school. This is true, even if the women are not picking the highest paying majors and careers.

Do you have the data you need to negotiate your next raise, or even pick a high paying career? The PayScale Salary Calculator is a quick and easy way to explore possible careers. When you want powerful salary data, with comparisons customized for your exact position, be sure to build a complete profile by taking PayScale’s full salary survey.


Dr. Al Lee