Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce on Tuesday published a new set of “rules” for working women seeking equal pay, and rule No. 1 is somewhat of a stunner: Get one more degree than a male counterpart to achieve his same earnings.
A whole additional degree.
A woman with a bachelor’s degree earns $61,000 per year on average, roughly equivalent to that of a man with an associate’s degree. The same rule holds true for women with master’s degrees compared to men with bachelor’s degrees and for each successive level of educational attainment. Over a lifetime, women with bachelor’s degrees in business earn $1.1 million less than men with bachelor’s degrees in business. In fact, men earn more than women within every industry.
For years, women have been pursuing education as an avenue toward equal pay, consciously or not. In the 1970s, women surpassed men in earning associate’s degrees. In 1980, women took the lead in bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and by the 2000s, more women earned doctoral degrees than men. And that progress helped close the gender pay gap, which currently stands at 19 cents, by some 7%. So why, with their higher-ed dominance, have women not closed the divide even more; how does their pay remain an entire diploma behind men’s?
“Part of it is self-inflicted,” Nicole Smith, the Georgetown Center’s chief economist who co-authored the report, told Fortune, pointing to women’s choice of occupation in a given field as a leading culprit. “If you really like medicine, you should be a surgeon. You don’t have to be a nurse,” Smith says. She admits that might not be the feel-good, follow-your-passion advice that everyone wants to hear, but it’s a message that needs saying. “It’s not only about money, but money matters. Guys care about money,” she says.
Indeed, the study found that even when women enter higher-paying fields, they are more likely to gravitate toward lower-paying occupations compared to men, so much so that 27% of earning differences between men and women are due to such decisions.
But not all of the gender pay gap can be explained away so easily.
The study considered factors that contribute to the gender pay gap, flagging education, race, unions status, labor force experience, industry category, and—yes—occupational category as important drivers. But even then, about 8 cents of the 19 cents gender pay gap remained unresolved.
“When social scientists control for every measurable employment factor that could help explain the disparity, women still earn only 92% of what men earn for doing the same job,” the study says.
Finding a reason for that remaining gap “is far more complex than personal choice,” the study says. It points to the discriminatory tradition of undervaluing women’s work, women’s disproportionate share of caregiving obligations, lack of child care, and women’s salary negotiating tactics as possible causes, the last of which led to another “rule” for working women (you can read the full list here): “Negotiate your first paycheck well, as it will impact your lifetime earnings. The gender wage gap increases with age, peaking by the early 50s.”