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Women College Students Feel Highest‑Paying Fields Aren’t Realistic for Them to Pursue: Study

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Dec 9, 2019

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Image Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Among male and female college students who report the same motivation for selecting a major, women typically choose less-high earning fields than men, according to a new study published in the journal Sociology of Education. The lead researcher said the finding suggests women’s interests compete with what’s ‘realistic’ for them in a way that men’s do not, which has implications for high-paid fields that also struggle with equal gender representation, such as STEM.

Among male and female students who reported choosing a major because of its potential for high earnings, male students still chose comparatively higher-paying majors. And the gap persisted between male and female students who reported choosing a major for different reasons. For instance, the researcher — who used data from 2,720 U.S. college students from three U.S. universities that each had programs aimed at recruiting STEM majors — found that male students who said they wanted to pursue a major that would allow them to help people were more likely than women to choose biology, a pre-med degree; women, on the other hand, who expressed the same motivation were more likely to choose nursing — still a relatively high-paying field, but not as high-paying as a medical degree.

“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,” study author and sociologist Natasha Quadlin, PhD, of The Ohio State University, said in a statement. Indeed, some fields long dominated by men are known to be less open to and supportive of women, which may factor into women’s major selection in a way that it doesn’t for men.


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“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,” Quadlin said.

In fact, the conclusion holds implications for increasing the diversity of STEM fields specifically, as STEM has some of the highest-paying fields as well as some of the most gender unequal.

“You may not be able to attract women to high-paying STEM careers just by telling them it is a way to make a lot of money or a way to help other people,” she added. “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 finding holds relevance in India where the country’s premier STEM institutions, the IITs, have struggled to attract female enrollment, despite female students increasingly achieving qualification in JEE (Advanced) marks. Efforts to date have been aimed at adding extra seats in certain branches, fostering interest in STEM among middle-school girls, and counseling female high school students and families through the admission process, and they have seen some success. But post-university women working in STEM fields report inequality and sexism at the professional level that could be one of the ‘realistic’ considerations younger women take into account when aiming for a high-paying field of study.

The result is stagnant inequality at the university major level, continued underrepresentation of women in STEM at the professional level, and further loss of women in STEM from persistent sexism in certain fields.

“In India, we don’t doubt that women can study science, excel in it and do a PhD. What we doubt is whether they can have a career in science because of family commitments,” Professor Rohini Godbole, PhD, a Padma Shri awardee who works at the Centre for High Energy Physics, IISC, Bangalore, told The Swaddle earlier this year.

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Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor and has been living and writing in Mumbai since 2010. She is passionate about women’s rights, everyone’s health, and caffeine.

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