Majors and Careers: Women vs. Men, Engineering vs. Teaching, High Pay vs. Total Compensation

By Dr. Al Lee

In a previous post, I asked the question, do only women choose quality of life over high salary? In other words, do women evaluate quality of life, or true "total compensation," when deciding on a job, while guys are stuck on a treadmill with only one measure of success, total wages earned?

I found three obvious differences between American men and women in the AAUW study, "Behind the Pay Gap," all of which hint at women preferring quality of life over money:

  1. Men 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

I covered the first point in the previous post. In this post, let's look at what the AAUW study has to say about differences in choice of majors and careers between men and women.

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Of course, everything discussed here is “on average”, “typically”, and “for the most part.” Women and men in the US are very diverse; it is easy to find individuals who do not make the “typical” choices.

For example, I started college as an engineering student, one of the highest paid majors, but switched to physics after one term. The reason? Engineering courses were at 8:30 am, and physics courses were at 10:30 am. I chose “quality of life” (sleeping in) over higher income.

When I admitted I was a lazy student to one of my co-workers at PayScale, she could not understand why I majored in physics. Physics seems like a hard way to earn a college degree for a slacker. In truth, physics is not such a hard major, as long as you don’t mind getting bad grades.

Physics is as unpopular with female students as engineering; less than 20% of majors are female. When I taught at Duke, I tried to figure out why. The only answer I could find was that women are not willing to be told they are stupid on a daily basis. For me, that was no big deal.

While I can speculate about the psycho-social influences that determine college majors, the hard facts from the AAUW study are that male and female students continue to choose different majors, and those choices directly affect future income.

As the AAUW says, “Choice of major emerges as the leading difference between women and men in their education and training…Students who graduated in female-dominated majors tend to get jobs that pay less than do students who graduated in male-dominated majors.”

A large fraction of 20% difference between male and female graduate salaries can be traced to the fields of education and engineering, so let’s look at them as a microcosm of the choices male and female students make.

According to the AAUW study, as of 2000, the percentages of all male and female students who major in each field are:

  • Education: 13% of women, 4% of men
  • Engineering: 2% of women, 12% of men

Why does this gender difference matter? The typical major (male or female) in education is paid on average 40% less than the typical engineering major. This pay difference is true both one year and ten years after graduation.

This 40% difference in pay, and similar pay differences related to major and career choices in other fields, is much more important than the 5% less female education majors make than male education majors, or female engineering majors make than male engineering majors, in explaining the 20% pay gap between male and female college graduates.

While the 5% could be due to illegal gender discrimination, the 40% is caused by male and female students making different choices for majors. The choice of major determines a student’s career path and future income.

If we want to equalize male and female income, the biggest “problem” to fix is the gender segregation by major. More men need to major in education (bringing down their incomes) and more women need to major in engineering.

The question is, who is making the wrong choice, the male or female students? If the only measure of success is income, then clearly women are making the wrong choice.

I happen to know a fair number of teachers and engineers. I am not so sure, if “total compensation” is considered, that the men are making the right choice.

Many of my engineering colleagues would love 10 weeks a years of vacation, and are lucky to get 3 weeks. My teaching friends get a minimum of 10 weeks. Whose “total compensation” is better:

  • the engineering major earning $75,000/year (AAUW average 10 years after college), but with little time off to enjoy the money, or
  • the education major earning $42,000/year, and spending months traveling the world each year?

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Dr. Al Lee