Do women earn less because they choose the wrong degrees?

Oct 07, 2021

Women earn less because they choose the wrong degrees, study finds” a headline in the Telegraph stated the other day.

It made many people angry.

Because what many people heard was:

“The gender pay gap is women’s own damn fault!”


That’s not what it said.

The article in the Telegraph was based on this piece by The Institute for Fiscal Studies. It talks about when it comes to the gender pay gap there is a lot of focus on the role of unequal childcare responsibilities. If you become a mum then BOOM suddenly your earnings suffer. It’s all those caring responsibilities (that still fall disproportionally on women) that do it.

Okay, says the Institute for Fiscal Studies, BUT if it was all about MOTHERHOOD then WHY are women paid less than similarly-qualified men even BEFORE they have had any children?!

THAT’S the question the authors try to answer.

One of the things they point out is that men are more likely to study subjects at university that lead to higher paid jobs.

  • Guys will do engineering, computing and economics.

  • Girls will do nursing, psychology and creative arts.

The fact that engineering, computing and economics often pay more helps to explain why many young men earn more.

However, this is only true for a few years.

By the time people turn 30 the subject they choose to study only explains a fifth of the gender pay gap. Because by then all the other stuff (discrimination! caring responsibilities! sexist managers!) have come into FULL FORCE .

What I’m trying to say is that there’s no reason to get OUTRAGED by studies like these. Of course one of the ways sexism manifests itself in the economy is through the choices women make.

How else would it manifest itself?

Saying that the degrees women choose matters is not the same thing as BLAMING the gender pay gap on women. Or saying that unless you do engineering you are a BAD feminist.

BUT we also need to know our history. And it shows us that these things are complicated

Take my mother as an example:

In her early 20s she worked at an art gallery.

(“BAD CHOICE IF YOU WANT TO MAKE A LOT OF MONEY” the economist shouts.)

Then in her early 30s she had a baby.


My mum decided to retrain. She wanted a stable career that would hopefully offer flexible hours.

(“OH NO, this is so TYPICAL of women!” the economist now sighs.)

My mother went to university to study computer science!

(“WHAT?” now the economist is confused!).

Because what the economist (very often) doesn’t know is that back then (we are talking early 1980s) computer science was considered to be a completely natural choice for a woman like my  mother. It was not very high status. It was not very highly paid, and it had a “female” history (the first programmers were women).

Computing is one of the examples of how status and pay often follows men in the economy.

Not the other way around.

My point is that these things are complicated. Which means that we need to be able to do several things at once.

- Yes young women need to be asked the question “how much money do you want to make?”more. It’s not about NOT choosing degrees that are lower paid. It’s about being more aware of what it can mean financially.

- But we also need to ask ourselves the bigger questions about value. Why does it for example in general pay more to work with numbers than with people? Does this make any sense?

Women don’t choose “the wrong degrees” like the Telegraph stated.

But they certainly choose differently.

And we should ask ourselves why.

Happy Friday!


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