The insidious gender pay gap in the office actually begins at university

Early roots.
Early roots.
Image: Reuters/Mike Segar
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The prodigious difference between men’s and women’s salaries in the US—one of the worst gender pay gaps in the world—has a root long before anyone even enters the workforce.

It all hinges upon choice of college major, according to a new research report from career website Glassdoor, which examined 46,934 resumes shared by Americans who graduated between 2010 and 2017. Researchers looked at people’s academic majors, post-college jobs, and the estimated median pay for those jobs; they found that the college majors leading to high-paying roles in technology and engineering are heavily male-dominated, while the majors that lead to low-paying roles in liberal arts and social sciences draw mostly women.

Courtesy of Glassdoor
Courtesy of Glassdoor

That may sound like a self-selection issue: Women just choose less lucrative career paths than men. Case closed. But the Glassdoor report found that even with the same college major, men and women tend to end up on different career tracks, resulting in an 11.5% gender pay gap on average in the first five years of same-major graduates’ careers.

For example, among biology majors, the top post-college female jobs are lab technician, sales associate, and pharmacy technician. Meanwhile, male bio majors end up as lab techs, data analysts, and managers—jobs that pay a lot more.

Glassdoor’s research offers no answers as to why even a woman with a “male” (i.e., high-paying) college major would still go on to make less money than her male counterpart. Further research might reveal the root cause. Maybe there’s a hiring bias on companies’ end; perhaps, as noted by Harvard Business Review, it’s a behavior problem on the part of job-seekers, with men feeling pressured to seek out the highest-paying jobs possible and women encouraged to think more about other factors such as family life and flexibility. Likely, it’s a bit of both.

In any case, one thing the report shows is that the gender wage gap is a pipeline issue. Closing it requires making changes that affect workers long before they even start looking for work.