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One of the most important decisions a student can make is picking a major. Economists will say there's a lot of money at stake in that decision, yet women in particular are choosing majors and professions that don't maximize their future earnings.

Lisa Chow of NPR's Planet Money Team investigates a phenomenon that sounded awfully familiar to her.

LISA CHOW, BYLINE: So I'm talking to this economist, and he tells me women are making a lot of bad decisions. They're choosing the wrong majors, majors like psychology, art and comparative literature that earn little money. And even when they choose the right major, they don't take advantage of it. For example, more than 40 percent of math majors are women. A typical undergraduate math major makes almost 70 grand a year. But women math majors are much more likely to go into lower-paying professions, like teaching.

Then, it hits me: He's describing me. So I ask the Georgetown University economist Anthony Carnevale...

...I want to know to how much money I'm potentially leaving on the table. So I majored in Applied Math. I have an MBA.

ANTHONY CARNEVALE: Oh, you left a lot of money on the table. You left probably as much as three to $4 million on the table.

CHOW: Three to $4 million?

CARNEVALE: Yes.

CHOW: Carnevale explains to me that a typical journalist's lifetime earnings will be somewhere in the $2 million range - not bad money. But someone who ends up using their math skills in business or medicine and their MBA to become the boss, will typically make in the $5 million range over a career. Carnevale did a study on the economic value of different majors. And if you look at the top 10 majors with the highest earnings - they're mostly different types of engineering degrees - you'll find that men totally dominate. There was only one major - pharmaceutical sciences - where there were more women.

The opposite was true for the 10 majors with the lowest earnings, which were mostly in social services and the arts. There, women dominated, with one exception: theology and religious vocation.

Carnevale says those higher-earning majors attract a certain type of personality.

CARNEVALE: You have to have a very high appetite for what psychologists call realism. That is hands-on manipulation of the world. You have to have a very high value on working alone, individual achievement. Women, commonly, and most men have many more interests and values than that, and that's what steers them away, in the end.

CHOW: Now, that still doesn't explain me. I enjoyed my applied math degree, but still went into a lower-paying field. And working on this story, I started to see versions of myself all around me. I was interviewing a college career counselor in New York, Rhea Faniel.

What did you major in?

RHEA FANIEL: Accounting.

CHOW: Which is kind of more technical, right?

FANIEL: Mm-hmm.

CHOW: And yet you are doing counseling.

FANIEL: Mm-hmm.

CHOW: So you basically fit that stereotype, as well.

FANIEL: OK. I think you have to look at the role of women in the United States. And the bottom line is beyond their work, they're trying to manage children, homework schedules, a home. It's stressful.

CHOW: Faniel told me in her first job out of college in the 1980s, she was making good money, moving up in her company. One day, her boss came to her and said they wanted to groom her to be a director.

FANIEL: And I remember sitting there, and I hadn't told him yet. I was, like, I knew what that entailed: 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.

CHOW: Faniel thanked her boss, but told him she was more focused on having a baby right now. So, family responsibilities could explain why some women are leaving money on the table. Faniel also believes companies that hire lots of engineering majors, oftentimes, their cultures are still male-dominated, and might not be right for all women.

FANIEL: They could want to be an engineer, but if the environment isn't conducive to them doing their work, growing and feeling apart of the team, women will leave.

CHOW: Now, in my case, I choose a lower-paying field before marriage, kids or the chance to feel excluded in a male-dominated workplace. So what's my excuse? The economist Carnevale says oftentimes passions trump money and skills.

CARNEVALE: You're doing something that I suspect you need to do. The urge to speak, it seems to me, is something that's pretty fundamental - although, if I were your dad, I would have given you a very hard time about the math and going into communications.

CHOW: Thankfully, my dad didn't.

Lisa Chow, NPR News.

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