Playing the paying field

Gender expectations blur the lines between career paths and gender segregation.

Aditi Pradeep

If you’ve seen a campus protest or listened to the president during his 2012 campaign, you’ve heard that women get paid a measly 77 cents to a man’s dollar. However, this statistic doesn’t tell the whole story, especially in terms of college-aged women.

The problem with this comparison is that, in a second-wave feminism sort of way, it implies a sexist narrative. The mind goes to a woman working the same position as a man but simply making less. However, estimates from the Census Bureau show that with adjustments for full-time status, women earned 87 percent of what men made.

The rest of the difference is complicated but can start with traditionally low-paying majors women choose in college. Even women that graduate with typically high-paying degrees more often than not opt for a less lucrative career.

Two professors researching gender segregation studied more than 1,200 women and men who graduated from elite MBA programs. They concluded that women were more likely to seek jobs with higher degrees of life satisfaction and higher percentages of female employees. The research demonstrated that women perceived gender roles in male-centric work environments, such as investment banking, which caused them not to apply.

The important takeaway here is women chose a less-lucrative career path based on personal and ethical values — and this extends to degrees. As NPR’s Lisa Chow pointed out last month, women make up a majority of the least-lucrative majors.

Chow gave up an estimated $3 or $4 million in order to pursue mass communication, despite her MBA.

The problem of women earning less has two sides. Many women choose less-lucrative majors and career paths, in part due to professional gratification. But women are also avoiding male-centric positions, such as science, technology, engineering and math fields. The median starting salary for an engineering major ($55,000) versus an arts major ($30,000) begins to explain a gendered difference in income.

Women who choose the “arts” path may prefer raising a family over a larger paycheck. They may value emotional gratification regardless of money.

The choices these women made raise a question with a blurry answer:  Are women choosing lower-income paths because of gender expectations or simply out of desire?

I was always heavily pressured to declare a traditionally lucrative major. My parents deemed STEM majors superior over a humanities degree.

My experience in communications classes gave me insight into the gender makeup of various majors. While pursuing STEM courses, I witnessed a larger male-to-female ratio.

Parental pressures have weighed heavily throughout my undergraduate experience. My interests have always been more creative. When I chose to switch my major to communications, I went with my instincts and passions. I never made a list of pros and cons inwhich I ranked the importance of the thickness of my paycheck.

In an interview with Chow, economist Anthony Carnevale said oftentimes passion for work trumps money and skills.

Ultimately, the field a student excels in and becomes passionate about is the best fit for them.