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Why Women (Like Me) Choose Lower-Paying Jobs

The other day, I was interviewing an economist who studies the effect college majors have on peoples' income. He was telling me that women often make decisions that lead them to earn less than they otherwise might.

Women are overrepresented among majors that don't pay very well (psychology, art, comparative literature), and underrepresented in lots of lucrative majors (most fields in engineering).

And even when they choose high-paying majors, women often don't choose high-paying jobs. For example, math is a pretty lucrative major, and more than 40 percent of math majors are women. But women who major in math are much more likely than men to go into lower-paying professions, like teaching.

Percentage of women graduating in the highest paying and lowest paying majors.

A chart of women's majors

Midway through the conversation, I realized that the economist — Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University — was basically talking about me. I described my situation to Carnevale: I majored in applied math. I have an MBA. And I'm working as a reporter at NPR.

"Oh, you left a lot of money on the table," he told me. "You left probably as much as $3 [million] to $4 million on the table."

A typical journalist's lifetime earnings will be somewhere in the $2 million range. Not bad! But someone with math skills and an MBA could get a management job and make $5 million or $6 million over the course of a career.

Working on this story, I started seeing versions of myself all around me. Rhea Faniel, a college career counselor, told me she had a degree in accounting and started her career in the corporate world. She was making good money, moving up in her company. One day, her boss came to her and said he wanted to groom her to be a director.

"I knew what that entailed," she says. "Taking up more responsibility, taking up other classes and training, and here I was, I was five months pregnant. He didn't even know it."

Faniel thanked her boss but told him she was more focused on having a baby. Her focus on her family eventually led her to leave the corporate world. Other women, she says, are put off by companies with male-dominated cultures.

But I chose a lower-paying field before marriage or kids. I never felt excluded in a male-dominated workplace. So what's my excuse? I love my job.

"You're doing something that I suspect you need to do," Carnevale says. Oftentimes, he says, passion for work trumps money and skills.

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