For girls, a major bummer

One more reason for the wage gap: What young women choose to study in college

Topics: Broadsheet, Gender,

Does the path toward unequal pay for men and women begin as early as college? Ohio State University sociologist Donna Bobbitt-Zeher presented a paper at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting on Sunday that suggests it might. According to Inside Higher Ed, “When controlling for all available factors, Bobbitt-Zeher found that the choice of major explained 19 percent of the income gap between college-educated men and women for the high school class of 1999, nearly twice as much of an impact as could be documented for the class that graduated 20 years earlier.”

Unsurprisingly, the research showed that women are still more likely to major in education, social sciences and the arts, while men are more likely to choose majors generally associated with more lucrative career paths: business, math, natural sciences and engineering. But what Bobbitt-Zeher found was that, even as more women than ever are majoring in science and engineering, the traditionally female-oriented fields are becoming even more so — i.e., as more women major in those subjects, men start avoiding them. And as people who work in the “caring professions” have long known, the more a field becomes “feminized,” the less it’s valued.

Veronica I. Arreola, director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Women in Science and Engineering Program, says it’s not just a matter of humanities vs. science, or education vs. business, either. In an e-mail, Arreola told me, “The same gap is often seen within engineering itself. Bioengineering has been growing to the point where we could see a 50/50 split of women and men majoring, and there have been some reports of salary staying flat or going down. Engineering fields where women are less than 20 percent pay more.” Arreola says more study is needed to conclusively determine a cause for this pattern, but the implication is chilling: Once women break into a field in noteworthy numbers, its value goes down.

So even if a girl works to overcome the early conditioning that would steer her away from math and science, even if she chooses a “masculine” major, even if she excels in school, and even if she negotiates for a paycheck identical to the one her male colleague is getting, she might still be underpaid, just because … too many other women did all the same things?

Maybe not exactly. One possible explanation for the average pay going down in fields with more women is that the ladies aren’t negotiating their salaries as assertively as men do — but then, why is that again? Well, there were those studies that showed, as Harvard public policy professor Hannah Riley Bowles put it, “[M]en were always less willing to work with a woman who had attempted to negotiate than with a woman who did not. They always preferred to work with a woman who stayed mum. But it made no difference to the men whether a guy had chosen to negotiate or not.” So if men are doing the hiring, women might be less willing to push for a higher salary, for fear of not getting the job at all or being penalized in other ways once they do, while men are free to ask for more with no consequences. And even so, the gender difference in negotiation techniques can’t entirely account for the pay gap between traditionally male and traditionally female fields that require similar training and skill. Says Arreola, “This is why we need legislation such as the fair pay act that will ensure pay equity by comparing gendered careers such as pharmacists and nurses.”

We also need to encourage both young women and young men to redress the gender divide in such professions in the first place. During her presentation, Bobbitt-Zeher “noted that efforts by many in higher education to recruit more female students into science programs should help, but she said that these efforts may also need a push by, for example, increasing efforts to hire more women as faculty members in these departments.” Arreola agrees that visibility of women in a given field is an important factor — sadly, in part because the ongoing gender imbalance in childcare plays a role in women’s choices even long before they become mothers. “In my years of working with young women on their career choices, I’ve seen that they are looking to the future and thus to the time when they will have a family. They are equating a high number of women in a field as ‘family-friendly.’ We may not be telling girls and young women what to major in, but they are taking in all the information they have available to them and making decisions based on that.” And unfortunately, the best information they have isn’t always that great — a lot of young women make the “family-friendly” assumption about nursing, she says, only to learn it’s an extremely difficult career to balance with family life. Pharmacy, with regular hours and few emergencies, might actually be a far better choice for someone looking to raise children. Says Arreola, “That is why we still need to talk to young women about a wide variety of career options and expose them to role models, so they can make a well informed decision.”

Indeed, that would be a good thing. But I still can’t help thinking there are just so many things that need to change before we can achieve pay equity, it’s going to require a massive societal shift, not just scattered programs to empower young women. We can provide young women with more role models, but that doesn’t change the lack of support they get in pursuing spatially oriented play as early as preschool, or the persistent belief that girls just aren’t as good at math, no matter how many studies prove the opposite. We can encourage women to go into male-dominated professions, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ll be penalized for negotiating for higher pay like men. We’ve already succeeded in getting more women into college, only to watch men flee from majors with increasing percentages of women, as if those subjects were infested with cooties. We can legislate equal pay for equal work, but not yet for equivalent work. And 18-year-old young women are still choosing majors based on the expectation that they’ll one day be primarily responsible for childcare. So if you’re one of those people who can ask with a straight face whether feminism is still necessary, please consider all that and get back to me. 

Kate Harding is the co-author of "Lessons From the Fatosphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body" and has been a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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