Are Women Insuring Themselves Against Low-Paid Jobs?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Nanette Fondas, a contributor to The Atlantic, writes in to the hello@ address about the concept of women picking certain college majors and professionals as a way of insuring against low-wage jobs (the bolding is my own):

There is an intriguing, unreported piece to this puzzle. As you’ve written, part of the gap is explained by occupational choice; for example, some people choose creative, lower-paying jobs, while others choose dangerous, higher paying work.

But what explains such occupational choices and the gender differences therein? Yes, some choices originate in cultural conditioning and socialization, combined with an emerging understanding that long, uninterrupted hours of work cannot be combined well with child-rearing for women or men.

A paper by Georgetown University economist Mary Ann Bronson adds another insight. Her research shows that, while women today outpace men in college attainment, women still systematically choose majors that lead to lower paying jobs. The reason is fascinating. Since women draw from a lower wage distribution to begin with (because of the gender wage gap), a woman is more likely to use her college degree as insurance against the real possibility of landing in a low-paying occupation, particularly if she fails to go to college at all. She’s insuring against very low income, especially if she is the sole household earner because of divorce.

Bronson’s study subtlety considers class as well as gender, something writers have called for but rarely produced. It also offers a peek into the different psychological mindset of women who aren’t gunning for the top echelon (like those investment bankers and lawyers working tremendously long hours, described by Marianne Bertrand) but rather avoiding a fall to the bottom.

This is another interesting way of thinking about the choices women make, namely that of picking majors that lead to jobs with greater flexibility but also getting a degree to avoid being at the bottom when they face the “sticky floor”—what economists call the pattern of women’s wages holding steady as their careers progress while men’s wages keep increasing.

But this behavior, of education insuring against lower wages, highlights another problematic recommendation: that women might be able to educate themselves out of the gender pay gap. It’s still true that getting a college degree means a much higher paycheck (for both men and women), but women are now getting college degrees at a higher rate than men yet still their pay lags behind men at every education level. In fact, the earnings gap is the widest at the highest level of education.