Here’s some good news for female workers: There is a way for you to earn salaries that, on average, are roughly equal to your male colleagues. The bad news? You’ll need to earn an additional academic degree to do so.
That’s one of the main takeaways of a new wage gap report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, which finds that at every education level women have to earn one additional degree in order reach average salaries in line with men’s averages.
Women with an associate’s degree, for example, earn an average salary of $43,000—close to (though still lower than) the $47,000 earned by men with just a high school diploma. Women with a bachelor’s degree earn $61,000 on average, just slightly above the $59,000 for men with associate’s degrees. And finally, women with a master’s degree or higher bring in an average $83,000 a year—while men need only a bachelor’s degree to report average earnings of $87,000.
There's another gap that kicks in among higher pay brackets: While workers on the lower-end of the pay spectrum are fairly evenly split between men and women, nearly three-quarters of Americans who earn more than $100,000 are men, according to the report.
The country has made serious strides in narrowing the gender wage gap in the past few decades. Yet a gap persists, despite the fact that women have earned more college degrees at every level than men for several years.
The authors say it can be easy to dismiss that persistent gap as the result of individual choices: women’s choice of major or job, or decision to work part-time, for example. It is true that women disproportionately choose to major in less lucrative fields, such as education or psychology, and that women work on average 37 hours to men’s 40 hours a week.
And labor force experience, industry, union status, and occupation do explain much of the gender wage gap. But previous research, which the Georgetown CEW report cites, has found women still only earn 92 cents for every dollar earned by men for doing the same job.
In other words, of the 19-cent pay gap between men and women, 41% —or 8 cents—has “no obvious measurable rationale,” according to the report. That leaves reasons including discrimination, societal beliefs about difference in each gender’s abilities, and subconscious biases around salary negotiation as possible explanations.
Even within female-dominated fields, men earn more. Women represent 96% of early childhood education majors, yet men in that major have a 40% earning premium. And women make up more than three-quarters of health and medical administrative services majors, but men who majored in that field have average earnings of $82,000 to women’s $55,000.
The reverse is almost never true. In fact, the higher-paying, male dominated majors where women have made the most inroads often have the largest pay gaps.
Take engineering: Women make up 32% of environmental engineering majors, one of the highest shares within all the engineering specialties. Yet men in that field have average salaries of $93,000 to women’s $62,000, a 50% earnings premium. On the other hand, female majors in mechanical engineering are rare—less than 10%—yet the pay gap there is just $9,000.
Another example is in business-related fields. Fifty-eight percent of accounting majors are women, yet they earn 38% less than men. In the major with the smallest earnings gap—operations logistics and e-commerce—women constitute less than a third of all majors.
The report authors estimate that for bachelor's degree holders, the pay gap adds up to more than $1 million in less pay for women over the course of a career. For those with a graduate degree, the disparity widens to $1.6 million.