Female students are more inclined to select a major with lower earnings prospects than their male counterparts, a new study finds. This is true even in cases when both female and male students prioritize income potential in their choice of a major.
Why is this the case?
Natasha Quadlin, an assistant professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, attributes this dichotomy to the “gendered logics of major choice.”
“Even when women place great emphasis on earnings, other preferences may ultimately win out for them,” Quadlin said in a statement.
In her study, Quadlin analyzed data from a survey of 2,720 students from three higher education institutions with incentive programs for attracting and retaining STEM majors.
During their first term, each student in the survey had to rate on a 1-5 scale the importance of four factors — income potential, career options, engaging classes, and helping other people — when choosing their major.
All the students subsequently disclosed their choice of major.
In addition, Quadlin analyzed federal job data to check the earnings associated with each major and found a pattern.
“The pattern was clear: The majors men choose are associated with significantly higher earning than the majors women choose – regardless of men’s and women’s major preferences,” she said in a statement.
And men selected majors that have higher earnings potential even when both women and men had the same priority behind their selection — whether it’s income potential, career options, engaging classes or helping people.
As an example, women who prioritize helping people were more likely to choose nursing while men with the same priority were more likely to select biology, a pre-med major.
“Nursing is a relatively high-paying job, but it generally doesn’t pay as much as doctors can earn,” Quadlin said in a statement.
Why are women more likely to choose nursing still? The explanation may lie in what women and men think are realistic jobs for them, according to Quadlin.
“There’s research that suggests men and women have very different ideas about what types of careers and fields are open and available to them,” she said in a statement.
“Some STEM careers that pay the most may not be as receptive to women as they are to men, so women adjust what majors they select.”
To attract women to high-paying STEM careers, it may not be enough to inform them “it is a way to make a lot of money or a way to help other people,” she explained.
“Instead, we may have more to do with changing the culture around STEM so that women feel the field is more open and receptive to them,” she added.
It’s worth noting that, even today, women still only make 79 cents for every dollar that men make, and occupational segregation is one of the reasons why.
Susan Chu is a writer and editor who likes to write about trends in higher education.