As College Gender Gap Widens, Gender Pay Gap Slowly Shrinks

As College Gender Gap Widens, Gender Pay Gap Slowly Shrinks

September 27, 2021

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The number of male college students has been waning worldwide for forty years. Men now make up around 40% of college students in the U.S., cementing the female majority in higher education.

The college gender gap widened significantly in the last two years alone. According to National Student Clearinghouse data, male student enrollment fell by over three times that of female students since 2019.

Despite outnumbering men in higher education, women still make less than men after graduation. In 1963, the year the Equal Pay Act was signed, women made 59 cents to every dollar earned by men.

In the nearly sixty years since, the wage gap has narrowed — but by an average of less than half a cent per year. At this rate, the Institute for Women's Policy Research estimated that women won't receive equal pay for nearly 40 more years. The World Economic Forum projects it will take at least 65 more years.

According to Census Bureau data, the gender pay gap narrowed more significantly last year, by a full cent. However, women faced a higher termination rate than men last year. Many women who lost work due to pandemic closures left low-wage jobs, which had the effect of raising reported earnings for women. Since February 2020, more than 1.6 million women have left the workforce without returning.

College Doesn't Pay Off for Women as Much as Men

It's true around the globe: More women attend college or university than men. Yet men make more money than women.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that in 2020, 52% of women aged 25 to 34 in its 38 member countries had a tertiary qualification — a certificate or degree beyond high school — compared to 39% of men. The OECD expects that 57% of women will enter tertiary education for the first time before they turn 25, compared with 45% of men.

Despite the large share of women with college degrees, the OECD finds that the "gender gap in earnings persists … On average across OECD countries, tertiary-educated women working full time only earn 76% of the earnings of their male peers."

Some of the gender pay gap may be explained by having children. More women than men leave the workforce after they have kids, with short- and long-term impacts on their income. Men also tend to select STEM degrees, which have the highest average market returns, while women hold more degrees in the humanities and creative arts. That said, female students outnumber male students in commerce, management, mathematics, medicine, and science.

Even when women select into high-income, male-dominated industries like STEM, they still tend to earn less than their male counterparts. The difference in income is strongly linked to promotions.

Men and women start their careers at similar job levels, but women are significantly less likely than men to move into management- and executive-level roles. The gender pay gap only increases over the course of an entire career.

While women outnumber men on campuses, graduate at a higher rate, and hold more of the bachelor's degrees in the U.S., women who make academia their career go on to experience even more dramatic gender pay gaps.

Around seven years post-Ph.D., when professors are typically offered tenure, the pay gap between male and female academic scientists grows to about 4%. By mid-career, the difference is around 7%. Twenty-four years post-Ph.D., the gap grows to about 9%.

Despite colleges' diversity and equity goals, the disproportionate promotion of male academics is not shrinking along with the gender gap. From 1995 to 2003, the odds of women holding tenure-track positions in academia trailed men by about 15%. From 2006 to 2017, women's odds trailed men's by about 28%.


Feature Image: Ishii Koji / DigitalVision / Getty Images

Women must tackle unique obstacles in STEM careers. Learn about the factors that contribute to the lack of women — especially women of color — in STEM. If colleges work to boost educational outcomes for people of color, their livelihoods and society as a whole will benefit, according to a new report. Enrollment declines continue to plague colleges and universities across the U.S., with students of color disproportionately affected.