Perceived Gender Bias Leads More Women to Pursue Lower-Paying Fields, Study Shows

The perception of gender bias plays a significant role in many women’s choice of a major and career path, according to a new study published in the American Educational Research Journal in which researchers compared students’ perceptions of certain majors with government data regarding young peoples’ career choices.

A variety of factors influence students’ choice of major, including their affinity for the topic as well as their career plans, but the study’s findings show that the potential for gender bias in a given profession also plays a major role in this decision for women. This notion is demonstrated by the large gender gap in majors and disciplines believed to perpetuate bias against women. In addition, these fields, researchers discovered, tend to be the most lucrative.

The results of this study illuminate the ongoing discussion about the shortage of women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM): According to the nonprofit organization Catalyst, women comprise only 35 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients in STEM. This underrepresentation not only thwarts innovation, but also helps exacerbate the gender pay gap, as STEM jobs are often some of the highest paying.

However, STEM fields aren’t the only ones suffering from the underrepresentation of women. According to The Hechinger Report, women hold 55 percent of the nation’s middle-skill jobs — those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree — but they tend to choose middle-skill jobs that pay significantly less than those held by men; the median wage for women in such positions is $27,864 compared to $44,191 for men, according to data from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

Some experts attribute these disparities to more women pursuing careers in lower-paying professions such as cosmetology or child care versus more lucrative, male-dominated ones like welding or automotive repair — fields in which they may believe they are more likely to experience workplace harassment. Mary Alice McCarthy, director of the Center on Education and Skills at the New America Foundation, suggests that socialization may play a prominent role in women’s career planning, with women still viewing themselves as caregivers rather than providers, leading them to place less value than men on earning a high salary.

These factors and others are leading to what some are calling “occupational segregation” — a notion that is supported by recent data from the U.S. Department of Education: In the last academic year, women earned 95 percent of cosmetology certificates while men earned 94 percent of welding certificates.

Collectively, these data indicate that male-dominated fields need to work to proactively combat perceptions of gender bias in order to attract more women, says Colleen Ganley, one of the study’s authors and a psychology professor at Florida State University.