The Gender Pay Gap and the Career Paths of Humanities Majors

This post also appears in the Humanities Indicators Data Forum.

The Humanities Indicators has published two new reports documenting the effect of gender on the occupations and earnings of humanities majors. The new reports mark a significant addition to the indicators, especially when they are read in relation to one another and to findings from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) on the gender pay gap and from the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce on employment and earnings of college graduates.

It is worth recalling the data sources that have made it possible to develop these correlations among gender, earnings, occupation, and major field of baccalaureate study: the American Community Survey (ACS) and the Current Population Survey (CPS), both administered by the United States Census Bureau. The current public discussion of the economic value of different college majors stems from a question the Census Bureau added to the ACS in 2009, asking respondents about the major of anyone with a bachelor’s degree living in the households canvassed by the ACS; before 2009, occupations and earnings could be analyzed by level of educational attainment but not by undergraduate field of study. The AAUW’s data on the gender pay gap come from the CPS; administered monthly for the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the CPS is the nation’s primary source of information about the labor force, employment, and earnings.

What do these two additions to the Humanities Indicators tell us? The first, on gender and occupations, shows that women proceed from a bachelor’s degree to lower-paid careers in precollegiate education at twice the rate men do and that men are 40% more likely to be in higher-paid management occupations than women. The second, on gender and earnings, shows that, among twenty-four-year-olds to thirty-four-year-olds (or “less experienced workers,” in the reports’ transposition of chronological age into a proxy for postbaccalaureate time in the labor force), women earned $2,000 less than men; this pay gap grows to $17,000 for those between thirty-five and fifty-four (“more experienced workers”). That is, the women in the 24–34 age group earned 4.8% less than the men, or, as this report expresses it following the convention of using the larger (in this case female) population as the base, the men earned 5.0% more than the women. (Presenting the gap both ways may facilitate comparisons, since in most discussions the dollar figure for men serves as the base for calculating the gap in percentage terms.) And among the more experienced workers, in the 35–54 age group, the men with a terminal bachelor’s degree earned 32.7% more than the women; put the other way, the women earned 24.6% less than the men, or 75% of what the men earned. These findings point us to perennial questions about the direction of causality. Do the women earn less because they enter socially valuable but lower-paid professions like teaching? Or are socially valuable occupations like teaching lower paying because women predominately make careers in them?

The imbalances in occupations persist for humanities graduates who go on to earn advanced degrees. These reports show that women who earn an advanced degree after earning a humanities bachelor’s degree continue to be employed in precollegiate teaching at twice the rate of men (18.2% of the women compared with 9.2% of the men). The men who hold an advanced degree are 1.7 times more likely to be in legal occupations than the women (17.4% of the men compared with 10.1% of the women). Among holders of advanced degrees in the humanities in the 35–54 age group, the women earn $18,000 less than the men, or earn about 80% of what the men earn.

The AAUW’s fall 2015 report, The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap, notes that “in 2014 women working full-time in the United States typically were paid just 79 percent of what men were paid” (3). The Humanities Indicators data on the pay gap, based on a subpopulation disaggregated by both level of education and chronological age as a proxy for level of experience, appear to align with that 79.0% figure, which is based on pay to all women working full-time, regardless of their level of experience or education. The Humanities Indicators data likewise seem aligned with the gender pay gap for graduates in all age groups with terminal bachelor’s degrees in humanities and liberal arts—$7,000—that the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce cites in What’s It Worth? The Economic Value of College Majors (2011), the first of its series of reports on earnings of college graduates, broken out by disciplines (136). In percentage terms, a $7,000 gender pay gap corresponds with women earning 86.0% of what men earn. That 86.0% figure makes sense in relation to the figures from the Humanities Indicators and the 79.0% figure from the AAUW report, given that the Georgetown Center reports lump together less and more experienced members of the workforce but exclude those who hold degrees beyond the BA. The two new Humanities Indicators reports let us see how disparities in occupations and earnings that the Georgetown Center studies have documented between the humanities and other fields also appear within the humanities. All these reports prompt important questions about the way gender inflects the choices individuals make at critical junctures of their lives and the degree to which personal agency or the power of social roles and institutions holds sway in motivating and determining what end up being called our personal choices.

Visitors to the Humanities Indicators may find themselves wondering whether to adopt the optimistic view that the gender pay gap for more recent college graduates will stay small and even be made to shrink under conditions where policy and practice are advancing toward increasing equity. Or should one instead take the pessimistic view that the gap will gradually increase for these younger members of the workforce, repeating the earnings disparities characteristic of their elders, most of whom presumably earned their bachelor’s degrees decades ago? And if the gender pay gap contracts, will it do so because median earnings for women catch up to men’s even as median earnings for men increase? Or will the gap contract because median earnings for men continue to deteriorate?

The ACS data have allowed analysts to reveal correlations among major field of baccalaureate study, occupation, and earnings. But how directly applicable are these reports to students who are working toward a bachelor’s degree now? The findings about the career paths and earnings histories of more experienced workers who earned degrees two, three, or more decades ago reach us today, but does the information we receive reveal more about conditions prevailing today or, like light from a distant star, about those prevailing at the point in the past when the majors were completed and the degrees conferred?

The release of these new reports creates an occasion to consider how the ACS data and the series of Georgetown Center reports based on them have focused public attention on earnings as a measure of the relative educational value of different fields of study, sometimes the leading or even sole measure considered worth attention. On the positive side, the Humanities Indicators reports and the Georgetown Center reports all show that graduates who take bachelor’s degrees in the humanities find employment, often in occupations whose social value needs to be reemphasized, not denigrated. The lower earnings these occupations have historically yielded should not be allowed to define their relative worth or the worth of the fields of study that characteristically serve as pathways to them. A capacious view of these data on occupations, earnings, gender, and college majors will push beyond their face value and lead us to ask important questions about how the social and economic arrangements behind them have come about. The links among gender, field of study, occupation, and earnings have powerful implications for public policy and broader social change that will create better, more equitable arrangements.

David Laurence

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