Women represent most of the country’s college-educated workforce, a milestone that has been decades in the making. And yet, their earnings still trail those of men.

One potential explanation is gender disparities across high-paying and low-paying college majors. Nearly 4 in 5 (78%) of graduates with the 20 highest-paying bachelor’s degrees are men, while only 1 in 5 (22 percent) are women, according to new Bankrate research. Men still dominate undergraduate majors with the highest earning potential, such as engineering and computer science, while women continue to overrepresent majors that typically lead to lower salaries, such as early childhood education and social work.

For this study, Bankrate looked at the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2021) to analyze the median salaries of American workers based on the subject of their bachelor’s degrees, as well as the gender differences across more than 150 college majors.

Economists and sociologists say the significant gender differences in many college majors — particularly in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors — play a role in maintaining the overall gender wage gap. Still, a STEM degree does not insure against the gender wage gap. Even when women study STEM fields and earn similar qualifications, Pew Research shows they are still paid less than their male counterparts once they enter the workforce.

This reveals a troubling reality: Despite women’s educational progress in male-dominated majors and growing representation in the college-educated workforce, their salaries continue to lag behind men’s for reasons beyond their control.

“We are told in order to be successful, you have to be educated. Then, you’re going to get a good job, and you’ll be able to take care of your household. But it feels as if women can’t win, because even though we do exactly what we’re told, the ending isn’t as happy as we’d envisioned. Part of the reason is women continue to sort into particular fields, whether it’s by choice or by design.”

— Dr. Nicole SmithResearch Professor and Chief Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Key takeaways

  • Nearly 4 in 5 (78%) of graduates with the 20 highest-paying bachelor’s degrees are men, while only 1 in 5 (22%) are women, according to a new Bankrate study.
  • Of the 20 highest-earning majors, the only ones not heavily dominated by men are pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration (56% women vs. 44% men), and health and medical preparatory programs (46% women vs. 54% men).
  • Of the 20 most common majors for women, only those with a nursing degree earn a median salary higher than $60,000. The lowest-earning major of women’s 20 most common majors is early childhood education at $43,000 annually. Early childhood education also has the highest percentage of female degree holders.

Men are the overwhelming majority in lucrative college degrees

Majors in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — lead to the highest salaries, but the stubborn gap between men and women in STEM is evident in college and continues in the workplace.

Seventy-eight percent of college graduates with the 20 highest-paying bachelor’s degrees are men, all of which are in STEM with median salaries ranging between $85,000 and $110,000, a Bankrate’s analysis of Census data found. Women comprise less than a quarter (22 percent) of college graduates with the 20 highest-paying bachelor’s degrees.

Top 20 college degrees with the highest median salaries

Rank College major Percentage of male degree holders Percentage of female degree holders Median salary
Source: Bankrate analysis of 2021 American Community Survey data via IPUMS
1 Electrical Engineering 85% 15% $110,000
2 Computer Engineering 81% 19% $104,000
3 Pharmacy, Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Administration 44% 56% $100,000
4 Chemical Engineering 70% 30% $100,000
5 Computer Science 78% 22% $100,000
6 Aerospace Engineering 89% 11% $100,000
7 Materials Engineering and Materials Science 77% 23% $98,500
8 Engineering Mechanics, Physics, and Science 84% 16% $95,000
9 Mechanical Engineering 89% 11% $95,000
10 Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering 72% 28% $90,000
11 Physics 81% 19% $90,000
12 Electrical Engineering Technology 84% 16% $90,000
13 Petroleum Engineering 85% 15% $90,000
14 General Engineering 85% 15% $90,000
15 Management Information Systems and Statistics 68% 32% $89,000
16 Civil Engineering 81% 19% $89,000
17 Health and Medical Preparatory Programs 54% 46% $87,000
18 Applied Mathematics 67% 33% $85,000
19 Economics 69% 31% $85,000
20 Transportation Sciences and Technologies 89% 11% $85,000

Engineering and computer science — two of the most lucrative STEM fields — are both heavily male-dominated. Only 15 percent of electrical engineering degree holders and 19 percent of computer engineering degree holders are women, though there are more women than ever majoring in fields traditionally dominated by men and taking up careers in STEM. Census Bureau data shows 27 percent of STEM workers are women as of 2019, compared to 8 percent in 1970.

Of the 20 highest-earning majors, the only ones not heavily dominated by men are pharmacy, pharmaceutical sciences, and administration (56 percent women vs. 44 percent men), and health and medical preparatory programs (46 women vs. 54 percent men).

“Research shows that as men become more concentrated in majors, we then as a society tend to place more value on that field. It’s mutually reinforcing in that whatever men end up choosing and whatever men are highly concentrated in, those are the fields that are going to be seen as desirable and the most highly compensated.”

— Natasha QuadlinAssociate Professor of Sociology and Faculty Fellow at the California Center for Population Research at UCLA

Women continue to dominate in college degrees that lead to lower pay

Women are still disproportionately concentrated in some of the lowest-earning fields.

On the list of women’s 20 most common majors, nursing (No. 5), social work (No. 8) and general education (No. 20) rank far above their positions on the men’s list. While these majors can lead to well-paid jobs, median salaries start at $43,000 and peak at $70,000. The peak median salary among men’s 20 most common degrees is $110,000, a nearly 60 percent difference from the peak median salary among women’s 20 most common degrees.

Top 20 bachelor’s degrees with the highest percentages of female degree holders

Rank College major Percentage of female degree holders Percentage of male degree holders Median salary
Source: Bankrate analysis of 2021 American Community Survey data via IPUMSx
1 Early Childhood Education 96% 4% $43,000
2 Communication Disorders Sciences and Services 93% 7% $57,000
3 Family and Consumer Sciences 90% 10% $45,000
4 Elementary Education 90% 10% $48,400
5 Nursing 89% 11% $70,000
6 Special Needs Education 88% 12% $50,000
7 Medical Assisting Services 87% 13% $53,000
8 Social Work 87% 13% $48,000
9 Nutrition Sciences 85% 15% $52,000
10 Miscellaneous Health Medical Professions 83% 17% $50,000
11 Art History and Criticism 82% 18% $50,000
12 Human Services and Community Organization 80% 20% $45,000
13 Educational Psychology 80% 20% $60,000
14 Language and Drama Education 80% 20% $50,000
15 Teacher Education: Multiple Levels 80% 20% $50,000
16 Health and Medical Administrative Services 78% 22% $52,000
17 Counseling Psychology 77% 23% $50,000
18 Community and Public Health 75% 25% $48,100
19 Visual and Performing Arts 75% 25% $35,000
20 General Education 74% 26% $50,000

Quadlin says women tend to sort into specific majors due to stereotypes, socioeconomic challenges and expectations about what roles women should play in society, which influences labor market outcomes and the gender pay gap. In 2022, women with at least a bachelor’s degree earned 79 cents for every dollar earned by men who were college graduates, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of median hourly earnings of full- and part-time workers ages 25 and older.

The reasons why women sort into lower-paying fields are complex and shaped by many forces beyond women’s control. Labor economist Carolyn Sloane says women are more likely to wind up in majors that offer more flexibility because caregiving responsibilities tend to fall on women disproportionately. Additionally, because STEM fields are stereotypically associated with men, women may underestimate their likelihood of success, she adds. Pew Research finds women are also more likely to experience discrimination or hostility once they enter male-dominated jobs, which can push women out of those fields at higher rates.

“You find that women often leave STEM jobs because it’s difficult to survive in that environment,” Smith says. “Women don’t feel comfortable and make decisions later on to exit STEM.”

A 2020 analysis by the Census Bureau found men earn more than women in nearly all industries, but the size of the wage gap varies significantly from industry to industry. For example, the analysis found jobs in finance, rental and leasing had the largest gender pay gaps, and jobs in construction had the smallest gender pay gaps:

Industry Female-to-male earnings ratio
Source: U.S. Census Bureau 2020 analysis of median hourly wages of full-time, year-round workers
Finance, rental and leasing 70 cents for $1
Professional, management services 76 cents for $1
Manufacturing 79 cents for $1
Retail trade 81 cents for $1
Information 81 cents for $1
Education, health care and social 82 cents for $1
Public administration 82 cents for $1
Arts, accommodation and food 85 cents for $1
Transportation and utilities 86 cents for $1
Agriculture and mining 88 cents for $1
Other services 88 cents for $1
Wholesale trade 90 cents for $1
Construction 91 cents for $1

Sloane also says women are more likely to move into lower-paying jobs even when they have similar educational backgrounds to men. In education, for example, men are twice as likely to move into management roles and women are twice as likely to go into administrative support roles, according to Sloane’s research published by the American Economic Association.

Major and occupation choices explain part of the gender pay gap, but not all of it. More and more women are relying on education to help close the gender gap, but a 2018 report co-authored by Smith says women need to get one more degree than men to earn the same salary.

“Women have to do a lot more to ensure equality,” she adds.

Experts say other factors that are hard to measure, such as gender discrimination, also contribute to the gender pay gap. According to Smith, a woman with the same education, field and job title as her male counterpart still earns 92 cents for every dollar a man earns.

Lower wages and not enough career mobility may be contributing to feelings of financial insecurity for many women. A Bankrate survey from July revealed that 64 percent of women with college degrees (including 4 year and post-graduate) don’t feel financially secure compared to 57 percent of men with college degrees. Forty-one percent of college-educated women (including 4-year and post-graduate) who don’t feel financially secure blame low pay and insufficient career mobility, compared to 29 percent of college-educated men who don’t feel financially secure. Also, more than 1 in 5 college-educated women (21 percent) don’t believe they’ll ever achieve financial security, compared to 16 percent of college-educated men.

3 ways women can ensure their investment in college education pays off

Despite educational gains and progress in the workforce in recent decades, women still earn less than men. While it’s a systemic issue shaped by many forces beyond their control, women are often forced to take equal pay into their own hands and find creative ways to ensure their investment in college pays off. Here are three expert-approved ways women can financially empower themselves:

1. Be transparent with peers about salary

Knowledge is power, and knowing what others in your occupation are getting paid can be a powerful tool to increase your earnings potential.

It starts with research. Anna N’Jie-Konte, CFP and president and director of financial planning for Re-Envision Wealth, suggests researching salary data of workers with similar experience in your industry and geographical location through online platforms, such as Glassdoor or Payscale, and talking to external recruiters in your field.

“I’m a huge fan of talking to external recruiters because they always know what someone with your experience level should expect in terms of income,” N’Jie-Konte says.

Additionally, consider practicing salary transparency with coworkers and other professionals in your industry with similar experience to determine if you’re getting paid fairly.

“There’s a huge amount of value there,” North says. “It’s women helping women.”

2. Always negotiate

The most effective way to get paid more is to switch jobs and use different companies to leverage a higher salary — not to negotiate with your existing employer, North says.

Negotiating is a powerful tool, and it can be the most effective way to ensure you’re earning more or getting incentives that you value in a new job right away. But it can also be a “double-edged sword” for women, North says.

“Studies show that when women negotiate, they aren’t received as well as men are,” she says. “But you can’t not negotiate, so it’s something that you do have to practice and work on.”

The more you practice and plan your words, the more confident you’ll feel when negotiating. Always back your points up with data or proof, and bring up the most important things for you in a job. It’s not just about salary. You may prefer flexibility in working location or the ability to change teams every now and then, so it’s important to do some self-studying ahead of time. North points out it’s all about your mindset, too. Think about aspects of a negotiation that make sure everybody wins, she says.

“I always tell people it’s about expanding the pie, not splitting it up,” North says. “Don’t go into it thinking if you win in a negotiation, somebody else is losing.”

3. Make a financial plan and stick to it

Your finances are like your health — you want to consistently have a pulse on them to make sure they’re healthy and you’re on track to meeting your goals. It’s especially important for women, who trail behind their male counterparts in earnings, to do the foundational work and build a financial plan early in their careers.

That means building an emergency fund that covers three to six months’ worth of expenses, spending less than you earn and investing for your future self, North says. Besides regularly contributing to a tax-advantaged retirement account, North recommends women save 20 percent of their take-home pay as a financial cushion.

“It’s even more important for women to think about their future selves because they’re more likely to leave the workforce at a certain time to care for loved ones or kids,” North says. “Think about investing outside of retirement and building wealth in a way that gives you options and opportunities. It’s one of the best gifts you can give your future self.”

Where all college majors rank

Bankrate created this list by ranking college majors based on their median salaries. The No. 1 college major has the highest median salary, and No. 151 has the lowest median salary. Additionally, we included the percentage of men and women who hold degrees in that field.

  • Bankrate looked at the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, based on interviews of more than 2 million Americans. Bankrate extracted the 2021 data from IPUMS USA, the clearinghouse of census data hosted by the University of Minnesota. Bankrate analyzed bachelor’s degree holders between the ages of 18 and 77 who were in the labor force and either employed or seeking work. We looked at the 151 majors reported by at least 250 people in the 2021 ACS. To construct our analysis, Bankrate examined median income and percentage of men vs. women who hold degrees in that field.