Report: Women Outperform Men in Educational Attainment, But Still Earn Less

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Over time, women have increasingly turned to higher education as a way to combat the gender wage gap. But even though women hold a larger share of bachelor's degrees than men today, the gap persists, leading some to obtain—and pay—for additional degrees to reach equal pay, according to a report released today by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce.

In the report, authors Anthony Carnevale and Nicole Smith found that even when comparing women and men with equal levels of education—who studied the same majors in college and are now working in the same occupation—women still earn 92 cents for every dollar a man earns. A woman with a bachelor's degree, the report found, earns about the same as a man with an associate's degree: $61,000. Likewise, women with master's degrees earn about the same as men with bachelor's degrees.

Still, women's increased educational attainment has helped narrow the gap. According to the report, women outperform men in educational attainment overall, making up the majority of associate, bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees. And while women earned 57 cents on the dollar in 1975, they now earn 81 cents on the dollar.

"Women's earnings still lag their exceptional educational progress," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center, in a statement. "At the heart of the gender wage gap is discrimination in pay for the same sets of qualifications and experience."

Not only have more women been turning to education to improve their wages, but they also have been drawn to higher-paying majors and fields. Today, 17 percent of engineering majors are women, for example, compared to 1 percent in 1970. But even when women enter into higher-paying majors, they tend to choose lower-earning sub-majors, such as biological and life sciences, or human resources for those who major in business.

Despite the growth in higher-paying majors, women remain concentrated in lower-earning majors, the report found, such as education and psychology. It's particularly important in that situation, the report said, for women studying liberal arts to obtain a graduate degree in order to maintain middle class earnings.

Earning additional degrees can also take its toll on women financially. According to the College Board, 44 percent of master's degree recipients in 2011-12 had more than $40,000 in cumulative debt. By comparison, just 18 percent of bachelor's degree recipients had more than $40,000 in cumulative debt in 2011-12. Overall, graduate degree recipients said most of their debt came from graduate school—71 percent compared with 29 percent from undergraduate studies. And graduate degree recipients with more cumulative debt accrued more in graduate school. Of the 11 percent of graduate degree recipients with $120,000 or more in cumulative debt, for example, 80 percent of their debt came from graduate studies.

"Critics of initiatives to close the gender wage gap, or those who deny that it is a legitimate problem, say these wage inequalities are due to individual choice, job tenure, and hours worked," the report said. "The answer to the conundrum is far more complex than personal choice. Though a large part of the wage gap is explained by occupation and industry choices, these choices are further in uenced by choices of high school courses and college majors, which in turn have significant cultural and social origins."

One of the social and cultural factors impacting women's earnings is the burden of motherhood without paid maternity leave, and the lack of access to affordable child care, the report said.

"To place all the blame of pay differences on women's career choices fails to recognize the social structure that determines value. Young girls and young women do not make choices in a vacuum about what to study and where to work. They make them under the influence of peers, family members, and adults who tell them, through words and actions, the subjects, majors, and careers that are acceptable for them to choose," the report said.

"... Solving the gender wage gap will require more than just new laws. It will require a new cultural approach. ... Women should not have to surrender their careers (and high earnings) when they decide to start a family," the report continued. "Solving the earnings disparity will also require people to alter the cultural norms and stereotypes that they communicate to young girls. The stories we tell and the people we admire should not limit young girls' horizons; rather, they should fill young girls with hope for what is possible."


Publication Date: 2/27/2018

David S | 2/27/2018 3:6:05 PM

I'm so tired of the "wage inequalities are due to individual choice" excuse for the gender wage gap. If most engineers were women and most elementary school teachers were men, which do you think would pay better then?

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