The Bankrate promise
At Bankrate we strive to help you make smarter financial decisions. While we adhere to strict , this post may contain references to products from our partners. Here's an explanation for .
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: gender disparities across high-paying and low-paying college majors. Nearly 4 in 5 (78%) of those who hold the 20 most lucrative bachelor’s degrees are men, while only 22% 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 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.
It 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.
“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
- Nearly 4 in 5 (78%) of those who hold the 20 highest-paying bachelor’s degrees are men, while only 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 women 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.
Bankrate’s analysis of ACS data found men represent 78 percent of bachelor’s degree holders among the 20 highest-paying college degrees, which are all in STEM and lead to median salaries ranging between $85,000 and $110,000.
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|
|3||Pharmacy, Pharmaceutical Sciences, and Administration||44%||56%||$100,000|
|7||Materials Engineering and Materials Science||77%||23%||$98,500|
|8||Engineering Mechanics, Physics, and Science||84%||16%||$95,000|
|10||Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering||72%||28%||$90,000|
|12||Electrical Engineering Technology||84%||16%||$90,000|
|15||Management Information Systems and Statistics||68%||32%||$89,000|
|17||Health and Medical Preparatory Programs||54%||46%||$87,000|
|20||Transportation Sciences and Technologies||89%||11%||$85,000|
Engineering and computer science — two of the most lucrative STEM fields — remain heavily male-dominated. Only 15 percent of electrical engineering degree holders and 19 percent of computer engineering degree holders are women, though more women than ever are majoring in fields traditionally dominated by men and taking up careers in STEM. For example, 27 percent of STEM workers are women as of 2019, compared to 8 percent in 1970, according to U.S. Census data.
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 women 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|
|6||Special Needs Education||88%||12%||$50,000|
|7||Medical Assisting Services||87%||13%||$53,000|
|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|
|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|
|18||Community and Public Health||75%||25%||$48,100|
|19||Visual and Performing Arts||75%||25%||$35,000|
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 is no fault of their own — but it does influence 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||Women vs. men 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, in comparison 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 not enough career mobility, in comparison 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.
Consider what college major is right for you
A college degree can be a jumping-off point to increasing your employment opportunities and earnings potential, but not all college majors are created equal. Computer science and engineering top all the pay rankings, but salaries within specific majors can vary greatly. While earning an engineering degree while paying in-state tuition is almost certainly a good investment, you shouldn’t write off a fine arts degree if that interests you.
“STEM isn’t the only way to get paid well,” says Cady North, CFP and founder and CEO of North Financial Advisors. “There are a lot of women in law, in communications, project management and business strategy where salaries tend to be really good.”
Our study also didn’t account for certain factors that may influence the college major decision, such as the selectivity of colleges or how much workers spent on their degrees. Regardless of major, research by economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows earning a bachelor’s degree pays off in the long run — even after years of rising tuition and out-of-pocket costs. According to the study, the average college graduate with a bachelor’s degree earns nearly 75 percent more or a premium of over $30,000, compared with an average worker with a high school diploma.
How parents can talk to their kids about the financial implications of different majors
Many 18-year-olds aren’t sure about what they want to do, and that’s okay. But if you’re about to send your teenager off to college, it’s important they understand the earning potential of the major they want to study and the different careers it could lead to, especially with college education costs rising. More than 2 in 5 (or 44 percent) Americans say students are not educated enough about the financial implications before borrowing to fund their education, a recent Bankrate survey found.
“Parents really need to realize that the world that the younger folks are operating in is not the same that they operated in,” says Anna N’Jie-Konte, CFP and president and director of financial planning for Re-Envision Wealth. “Understand that kids are going to have to be a lot more resourceful and a lot more marketable in terms of their skill set.”
N’Jie-Konte recommends talking through potential scenarios with different college paths and the potential earnings associated with those. Tools, such as The College Scoreboard, can simplify the process by allowing you to compare college costs and explore the earnings and debt typically associated with various college majors across thousands of colleges.
“Talk about the practicalities of all of the decisions they’re making,” she says. “For example, what are the implications of choosing an undergrad literature or an English major? That’s great for writing skills, but they’ll have to think about internships and things like that to make them marketable.”
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 a 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. N’Jie-Konte 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 what you’ll say, 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 up the pie,” 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 allows you to have 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 vs. 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.