We Need to Address the Gender Pay Gap for College Women

The gender pay gap has stayed the same since 2004. College-educated women face an even larger pay gap. What can women do about the wage gap?
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  • Today, the average woman earns 80-84 cents for every dollar earned by a man.
  • Women with college degrees make 74 cents for every dollar earned by equally educated men.
  • The choice of major and occupation explains only part of the gender pay gap.
  • The gender pay gap has stayed the same since 2004.

According to the Pew Research Center, women earned 84 cents for every dollar men earned in 2020. Payscale reports that the average woman made 82 cents per dollar earned by a man in 2021. And a 2018 Georgetown University study found the figure to be 81 cents.

Regardless of the specific number, the conclusion is the same: The gender pay gap is a major problem for women, especially Black, Indigenous, and Latina women.

The wage gap between men and women is even worse for college graduates. Compared to every dollar earned by men with bachelor's degrees, women college graduates make just 74 cents.

Exploring the Gender Pay Gap

The gender pay gap shrank over the last few decades of the 20th century. According to the Pew Research Center, women made 64 cents for every dollar men earned in 1980. Why exactly did the gender pay gap start to close? As more women earned college degrees, their income increased. Women also started working in more diverse, higher-earning fields than they did in 1980.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), however, the wage gap has remained at 80-83 cents since 2004. What does that mean for women? Over a lifetime of work, women miss out on a huge amount of money. In the case of full-time workers with bachelor's degrees, men earn around $81,350, while women earn around $60,070, according to the United States Census Bureau. That gap adds up to more than $850,000 in lost wages over a 40-year working career.

What Keeps the Wage Disparity in Place?

Accounting for college graduates' majors, industries, levels of experience, and other elements narrows the wage gap. But, according to the 2018 Georgetown report mentioned above, the gender pay gap still exists after considering those factors.

In college, women do tend to choose majors that offer lower earning potential. But even in high-paying fields, women proportionally work in lower-paid specialties. The Georgetown study reports that in 2018, women made up 32% of environmental engineering majors, one of the lowest-paid engineering specialties. In contrast, just 17% of students in the highest-paying engineering major, petroleum engineering, were women.

Similarly, within high-paying fields, women disproportionately work in low-paying roles.

As of 2018, women made up 44% of lawyers, but 85% of paralegals and legal assistants. Women made up 43% of physicians and surgeons, but 89% of registered nurses. And women held only 27% of CEO jobs.
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However, the choice of major and occupation explains only part of the gender pay gap. Pay discrimination plays a major role in wage disparities. Men and women with the same qualifications in the same fields still earn different wages. Even after accounting for education, field, and job title, women made 92 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to the 2018 Georgetown University report.

Human resources consultant Lisa Schott, who has over 20 years of experience, said companies can do their part by making job postings clear and accurate, eliminating salary history questions from applications, conducting internal pay analyses to determine gaps and create plans to address those gaps, and surveying employees about pay to ensure salary structures are competitive.

"The key has been transparency and communication with employees," Schott said. "Keeping abreast of the external market is a must to stay on top of issues."

Gender Pay Gap By the Numbers

Among full-time, year-round workers, women earned a median annual income of nearly $10,000 less than men in 2020, according to the BLS. In addition to a gender pay gap, women of color also face a racial pay gap.

As the following chart shows, Black women earned less than Black men, and Hispanic or Latina women earn less than Hispanic or Latino men in 2020. Black and Latina women also earned less than white women. While white women reported a median annual income of around $47,000 in 2020, Black or African American women earned under $40,000, and Latina women earned under $37,000. White women also earned more than Black or Latino men.

How Social and Cultural Barriers Block Access for Women

Many explain the gender pay gap by claiming that women simply choose to earn less. The decision to pursue a particular major or career path might seem personal. However, social and cultural forces encourage women to move into lower-paying fields, while discouraging them from pursuing higher-paid occupations.

Traditional views about women's societal roles may steer women into particular fields. According to the Pew Research Center, the largest occupations for women in 2020 included nurses, teachers, and administrative assistants. These supportive, caregiving roles fit the stereotypical view of women's strengths. Fields dominated by men can foster exclusionary pressures. A lack of women faculty members in STEM majors, particularly women of color, means fewer mentorship opportunities for students who are also women.

Women also still take on more caregiving responsibilities than men, shaping their career prospects. When considering career paths, women may feel pressure to choose a flexible field so they have time to care for their children or future dependents. According to the Pew Research Center, one in five mothers reported losing out on a promotion or important assignment in 2019.

Society expects women to drop work in favor of unpaid service. As sociologist Jessica Calarco explained, "Other countries have social safety nets. The U.S. has women."

What's Narrowing the Gender Wage Gap?

How have women narrowed the gender wage gap? In 1964, women made up 39% of college students, according to the Georgetown report. By 2018, that number shot up to 57%. Women's educational gains have helped narrow the wage gap.

In spite of that, women typically need a degree one level higher than a man's to equal his earnings. For example, women with bachelor's degrees earn around the same as men with associate degrees. Women with master's degrees earn about as much as men with bachelor's degrees. In fact, women who earn a bachelor's degree in business will make an average of $1.1 million less than men with the same degree and major over their lifetime.

The emphasis on high-skill jobs has also helped women narrow the wage gap, according to Pew. In 1980, women with high-skill jobs earned 67% what men earned in those same roles. In 2018, women earned 85 cents to a man's dollar. The growing number of women in higher-skilled jobs narrowed the wage gap overall by around 2 cents in 2018.

7 Things Women Can Do to Close the Gender Wage Gap

Many factors that contribute to the wage gap are outside of any individual's control. Women cannot single-handedly challenge gender bias or pay discrimination. But women can take several steps to protect themselves from the gender wage gap.

  1. Research wages: Trends in the majors and occupations women choose explain part of the gap. Gain a good understanding of the competitive salaries in your field.
  2. Negotiate higher salaries: Emphasize your education and skills you've learned through work experience. Men with bachelor's degrees see their wages increase 87% throughout their careers, according to the 2018 Georgetown study. In contrast, women with bachelor's degrees only see a 51% increase.
  3. Consider changing employers: Research companies in your field where you can benefit from mentorship by other women. Look for employers who have eliminated salary history questions from applications.
  4. Rehearse and ask for raises: According to Schott, you should take 24 hours to think about a job offer and rehearse your ask. Additionally, consider asking for additional benefits beyond salary. If you're asking for a raise at your current job, clearly and accurately convey how you are fulfilling your responsibilities. "Have the confidence to ask. If you don't ask, you won't receive," Schott said.
  5. Advocate for salary equity: Encourage your employer to conduct internal pay analyses to ensure salary structures are competitive.
  6. Promote policies that help women: Women take on more caregiving responsibilities than men, which contributes to the gender wage gap. If possible, advocate for paid leave at your workplace so this has less of an impact on women's careers.
  7. Discuss salaries with coworkers: Pay transparency means underpaid workers can band together to fight against unfair compensation practices. The National Labor Relations Act guarantees your right to discuss pay with colleagues.
Learn about the disparities women in academics face and how to honor them during Women's History Month.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Gender Pay Gap

What prompts wage differences?

Several factors explain wage differences, including a worker's education level, industry, job title, experience, and location. For example, professionals with college degrees tend to earn more than those without degrees. However, even considering these factors, men and women earn different pay for the same work.

According to a 2018 study from Georgetown University, women with equal qualifications make 92 cents for every dollar men make. In every industry, and even in the same jobs, women tend to earn less than men. This wage difference is known as the gender pay gap.

What is wage discrimination?

Wage discrimination means that a company is paying someone less because of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or another protected identity category. For example, paying an equally qualified woman less than a man for the same work qualifies as wage discrimination. Paying Black women less than white women for the same work also counts as wage discrimination.

Also known as pay discrimination or compensation discrimination, this form of discrimination violates the law. Wage discrimination violates employment protections, such as the Equal Pay Act. Victims of wage discrimination can contact an employment lawyer to discuss their legal options.

What is wage inequality?

Wage inequality, sometimes called income inequality, refers to the unequal wages earned by workers across the country. Wage gaps qualify as a form of wage inequality. The difference in average pay between men and women — or the gender wage gap — contributes to unequal earnings.

Similarly, Black and Hispanic workers earn lower average wages than white workers. These wage gaps vary depending on education level, occupation, and even age. For example, workers ages 25-34 report the smallest gender wage gap. In 2020, young women made 93 cents for every dollar earned by young men, according to the Pew Research Center.

What are the effects of the gender pay gap?

The gender pay gap lowers women's annual and lifetime wages. Trends in choices of college major and occupation among men and women do play a role in the existence of this gap. But even women with the same degrees and majors as men in their fields earn less than men due to the pay gap.

For example, a woman with a bachelor's degree in business earns an average of $1.1 million less over the course of her career than a man with the same degree and major, according to the 2018 Georgetown study. The gender pay gap particularly hurts Black, Indigenous, and Latina women. A lower salary early in one's career can cause depressed wages for decades, which also hurts women who are the heads of their household.

With Advice From

Portrait of Lisa Schott, PHR

Lisa Schott, PHR

Lisa Schott has over 20 years of human resources leadership in education, healthcare, and nonprofits. Her work includes successfully partnering with boards to recruit for CEO, CFO, superintendent, and other positions. She holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Houston and a PHR from the Human Resources Certification Institute in Washington, D.C. She is a certified Six Sigma Change Agent.

Lisa served on the board of the American Society of Healthcare Human Resources Administration where she received an Outstanding Leader Award. She is on the board of the Center For Pursuit, a Houston-based nonprofit serving individuals with IDD, where she advised the University of Texas School of Nursing on integrating disability content into its nursing education.

She's presented on HR topics at national conferences, including Unidos US — an organization dedicated to Latino/a issues. She has also been featured in various national publications, including Health Leaders Magazine and Hospitals & Health Networks.