This study explains why men end up choosing higher-earning majors in college

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We know men are already at a salary advantage over women from the moment they enter the job market. According to PayScale, men ages 20 to 24 years earn $32,448 annually (on average) compared to women in the same age group who make $29,016 annually. And this pay gap continues as Ladders reported earlier this year. But apparently this issue starts way before graduation day.

A new study, which appears online in the journal Sociology of Education, found something called “the logics of major choice” may be leading women to choose different majors from men, despite ultimately wanting the same thing ( a high-paying job).

“Even when women place great emphasis on earning, other preferences may ultimately win out for them, ” said assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University Natasha Quadlin, in a release.

One major factor: a field that’s a good fit.

The study

Quadline utilized data from the Pathways through College Study, which surveyed 2,720 students from three higher education institutions that had programs set up to attract and retain STEM majors.

Each student was asked during their first term to rate on a scale from 1 to 5 how important four considerations were to them when selecting a major: money earned, career options, engaging classes, and helping others.

Students later reported which major they selected. Quadlin also used federal data to examine the earnings associated with each major.

“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,” Quadlin said.

A field that fits

Other times, men and women show other preferences for their major – such as helping people. Still, according to the research,  men end up choosing the higher-earning majors. For example, men chose majors where they could “help” like biology (a pre-med major) because doctors helped people. But women who wanted to help others typically chose nursing.

“Nursing is a relatively high-paying job, but it generally doesn’t pay as much as doctors can earn,” Quadlin can.

So why do men and women choose such different majors, even when they have the same goal – say, wanting to help others?

“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. Some women have been conditioned that becoming a doctor just isn’t attainable for them, but being a nurse is possible.

In the real world, men being doctors and women being nurses is called “occupational segregation” – women clustering in lower-paying careers and men in more lucrative professions.

In another example, “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.” Therefore, telling women that STEM careers are a way to help people or a way to make a lot of money isn’t a way to attract them to the field.

“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.”

The study was supported by the Pathways through College Research Network, funded by the National Science Foundation.

Other research

But according to recent research published in October from Carolyn Sloane, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, and Erik Hurst and Dan Black, professors at the University of Chicago, said while the pay gap remains, women are slowly moving towards higher-paying majors.

“College major choice has strong predictive power in explaining gender wage gaps, independent of occupation choice,” they wrote.