When more women enter a field, pay goes down—meaning women don’t earn less by choice

Since the 1960s, women have sharply outpaced men when it comes to earning college degrees, with women earning nearly 60 percent of all higher education degrees in the 2009-2010 academic year. And that trend doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

Accordingly, you’d think that highly educated women entering high-paying fields of work (many of them dominated by men) would start earning the increased pay that comes with these jobs. But a new study from researchers at Cornell University found that, as women come to take over certain fields formerly dominated by men, the average pay for the same jobs drops off precipitously.

In other words, women’s work is simply considered less valuable.

These findings fly in the face of the theory that women are more likely to pursue lower paying jobs like teaching and nursing, and thus set themselves up to earn less. For instance, custodians (who are mostly male) outearn housekeepers and maids (who are mostly female) by 22 percent despite the fact that the similar job descriptions. Or take the field of recreation work, which includes working in national parks and leading summer camps. This field was once dominated by men, but since it became more dominated by women, average pay has dropped a stunning 57 percent.

“It’s not that women are always picking lesser things in terms of skill and importance,” sociologist Paula England tells The New York Times. “It’s just that the employers are deciding to pay it less.”

So, how can we fix a problem that is so pervasive? As the Times points out, changing company policy, like increasing minimum wage and providing comprehensive paid family leave, can make it much easier for women to earn and in the process narrow the gender pay gap. Here’s hoping policy catches up—and soon.