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The huge issue students don't learn about: The college major gap

You’re probably familiar with the wage gap, but what you might not be as familiar with is the gender gap that exists within college majors, according to Glassdoor.
by Emily Moore /
Image: New Report: Half Of Recent College Graduates Under- Or Unemployed
Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images
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You’re probably already familiar with the wage gap: the trend of women earning about 76 cents per dollar men earn. But what you might not be as familiar with is the gender gap that exists within college majors, a significant driver of the wage gap according to Glassdoor research.

A 2017 Glassdoor study authored by Glassdoor Chief Economist Dr. Andrew Chamberlain and Senior Data Analyst Jyotsna Jayaraman found that men and women systematically sort themselves into different majors — “high-paying roles in tech and engineering are male-dominated, while majors that lead to lower-paying roles in social sciences and liberal arts tend to be female-dominated,” the study reveals.

In fact, nine of the 10 highest-paying majors are male-dominated, while six of the 10 lowest-paying majors are female-dominated. The result? Men and women are set up for different career paths and salaries from the moment they enter the labor market full-time.

“Choice of college major can have a dramatic impact on jobs and pay later on. Our results suggest that gender imbalances among college majors are an important and often overlooked driver of the gender pay gap,” the study says.

A more complex problem than meets the eye

Upon hearing this information, it might be easy to simply ask, “Why don’t women just choose higher-paying majors?” But the reality is a bit more complex than that — Glassdoor’s study points to several broad factors that have an impact on which career paths men and women choose.

One problem is often the educational preparedness of the student entering into college. “A 2017 study published in the academic journal Labour Economics found that differences in college preparation account for many gender disparities by major, including ‘two-thirds of the gap in science, half of the gap in humanities, and almost half of the gap in engineering,’” Glassdoor’s report says.

Other reasons may include the need to seek parental approval and differences in workplace preferences — but another significant reason documented by many studies is the fact that women don’t always feel comfortable or welcome in STEM environments. A study by the University of Washington found that “gender gaps in belief about one’s abilities, and a masculine culture that discourages women from participating” were two major factors that explain gender disparities within the STEM fields.

“Stereotypes of the fields that are incompatible with how many women perceive themselves, negative stereotypes about women’s abilities and a dearth of role models” all “decrease women’s interest in a field by signaling that they do not belong there,” the study continues.

Another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that science faculty were more likely to view men “as significantly more competent and hireable” than identical female applicants and offer “a higher starting salary and ... more career mentoring to the male applicant.” Even starting from the very beginning of education, research has found that the unconscious bias of primary school teachers can have a significant impact on whether or not girls continue to study math and science.

So what now?

My point in writing this is not to pressure all women into studying a field they are uninterested in — as a former English and Spanish major myself, I can’t imagine myself taking a different path — but it’s critical that anyone interested in the field not be discouraged due to implicit bias, preconceived notions, or a socially-rooted doubt in their own capabilities. The good news, though, is that there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic.

Over the years, the number of organizations have undertaken initiatives specifically designed to encourage women in STEM — including the American Association of University Women, Girls Who Code, and even the Girl Scouts of America, to name just a few. Similarly, the increasing media attention on the gender pay gap has brought awareness of the issue to a new level, with many companies now pledging their commitment to equal pay and celebrities raising awareness about the issue.

But still, there is much work to be done. For employers, an increased focus on mentorship, fostering inclusive communities, and focusing on skills acquired versus college major could all help balance out the gender inequality that comes as a result of the college major gap. For educators, encouraging a budding interest in STEM fields at an early age and being mindful of how implicit bias creeps into the classroom (and then avoiding it) is essential. And for individuals, advocating for yourself and doing your due diligence when it comes to researching your major is essential.

There is no easy fix when it comes to the gender pay gap — but education on the root causes and taking action rather than remaining complacent will bring us that much closer.

This article originally appeared on Glassdoor.

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