DEPT. OF MAJOR DECISIONS
You're Not Earning as Much as the Guys? Here's Why.
Ah, graduation -- that time of optimism, of looking to the future and its possibilities. Of dreaming big.
For girls now finishing high school, the future has never looked brighter. Many will go on to college; women comprised 55 percent of college students in 2005. They'll be equal to the men at their schools, paying the same tuition and taking the same classes. They'll be the student equivalents of stem cells, capable of becoming anything. That's certainly what Pace University sophomore Liz Funk believes. The 20-year-old already has a contract from a major publisher for a book about overachieving girls, and she can't imagine that she'll ever earn less than a future husband will.
But unless today's women make some changes, that's exactly what may happen. This goes beyond that conventional salary-disparity culprit, workplace discrimination, that was the subject of a Supreme Court ruling last week. If Funk and her female classmates don't prosper as much as their male colleagues do, it will probably be because they didn't dream rich enough dreams in choosing their major.
As they head into the working world, most of this year's female college grads will never be equal to their male colleagues again. Last month, the American Association of University Women reported that in the first year after graduating, women working full-time make 20 percent less on average than their male classmates.
That's certainly the fate of one young graduate from Tulane University. Laden with honors and boasting killer GRE scores, she is hoping to get hired as an intern in psychology, at a salary of about $30,000 a year. Her more business-oriented classmates -- mostly male, as she recalls -- are already making more than twice that.
The conventional wisdom assumes that employers are discriminating against young women, despite the laws against it. And some of the disparity -- about 5 percent -- does appear to be at least partly discrimination. But most of it isn't. Somewhere during their four years in the college womb, women develop into candidates for the world of work with 15 percent less market value than men.
Why does this happen? It's not as though the women are 15 percent dumber. After all, they enter college with better grades and graduate with better grades. Nor is it self-inflicted, driven by women who opt out to care for children or pick up socks. Most of the competing workers are single and childless and have no gaps in their nascent résumés.
In fact, what the AAUW report reveals is that, at almost every step of the way, women could make decisions that would keep them even with their male classmates. But they don't.
The biggest decision any student keeping an eye on the bottom line can make is the choice of a major. According to the AAUW report, women who major in education make 60 percent of what female engineers make in their first year of work. But far more women still choose education over engineering.
Despite the talk of discrimination, the same disparity holds true for the guys. (A male accounting trainee just out of the University of Albany is making close to six figures, while another young man I know, who has a degree in anthropology and political science from Brandeis, is hoping it won't be too cold in Boston this winter so he can live on his $20,000 internship salary.) But here's a difference: Unlike the female Tulane psych grad, the Brandeis guy is thinking about his longterm income and going to law school.
Even within the same major, students can prepare for the jobs that pay better, if they care to. Teaching math (which many women choose) pays less than working for a computer company or going into business. And there is the choice of employer. Even when men and women pick the same majors and go into the same fields, the woman who chooses local government or nonprofit sectors starts out at a lower pay level than the guy sporting the next mortarboard who decides to get into the market economy or take a federal job. Liz Funk, to her credit, has already figured out that she'd be better off working as a staff writer at a magazine, earning benefits, than trying to make it out of college as a freelancer. But she's an exception.
The situation in the first year out of college is bad enough, but the decisions women make in college set in motion a process that will accelerate until, 10 years after graduating, they are making only 69 percent of what men make. That's because, if women earn less from the outset, it's an easy choice as to who will bear the responsibility for child care and housekeeping when the time comes to start a family.