New college students have lots of important decisions to make, from what activities to get involved in and classes to take, to how to decorate dorm rooms. But here’s one decision that students—and particularly college women—should make very carefully: picking a college major. That’s a decision that will impact their future job prospects and earning potential.
According to PayScale’s College Salary Report, Petroleum Engineering is the highest paying major followed by Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In fact, some type of engineering major held six of the top 20 spots for highest earning potential. Women’s Studies is ranked 695th and Gender Studies is ranked 772nd.
The National Center for Education Statistics found that in the 2016-2017 school year, women earned 17 percent of Bachelor’s degrees in Petroleum Engineering, while they made up 92 percent of Women’s Studies majors. Women made up just 20 percent of Bachelor’s degrees conferred in engineering and engineering technologies. But they made up 78 percent of Psychology majors, which is ranked 584th in terms of earnings.
Women pursuing lower paying majors contributes to the so-called “77 cent wage gap.” But that’s not always a reality that female students want to hear.
During a speech I gave at the University of Pittsburgh a few years ago, I discussed equal pay and the infamous statistic used in the narrative that women get paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. The Bureau of Labor Statistics creates that data point by comparing median weekly earnings of women and men in full-time wage and salary jobs. In 2018, women earned 81.1 percent. But the statistic doesn’t compare two people in the same job or people who make the same labor choices, such as hours worked or college major. Women’s choices in majors and their decisions to spend less hours at work contribute to why they earn less.
During the speech I asked the students to share their majors. One female student said Gender Studies. The student next to her looked the other way. I asked if she was rejecting my question, and she said yes. She can reject my question, but she can’t reject the fact that different majors have different earning potential.
During the Question and Answer session, another Gender Studies major said she didn’t think it was fair that women were “led” to lower paying majors. When asked if she was empowered enough to choose Gender Studies herself, she said she was. But she didn’t think other people were.
That’s a terribly disempowering message for women. The patriarchy isn’t making women choose low-paying majors. College women are smart enough to choose their majors, even lower paying majors if that’s what they prefer. They should just understand the trade-offs and be willing to live with the consequences. After all, earning potential isn’t the only factor that is important to most people when it comes to jobs. Fulfillment matters too.
As college women select their majors this fall, they would be wise to include in their decision-making process not just factors such as class times and professors, but what the job prospects are upon graduation and in the years that follow. A young woman might decide she cares more about other factors, which is fine, but she should make the trade-offs knowingly.