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Women are more likely to be underemployed in their first job, a fact that may shed light on both the gender pay gap and the glass ceiling.

Nearly half of all female college graduates (47%) enter the workforce in jobs for which they are overqualified, according to new research by Burning Glass Technologies and the Strada Institute on the Future of Work. By comparison, 37% of male college graduates are underemployed. This imposes a heavy financial cost. We found underemployed people in general made roughly $10,000 per year less than those who were appropriately employed.

In our research, we examined one possible reason: that women choose majors with a higher risk of underemployment. Other researchers have argued that women dominate in social sciences and the liberal arts, which overall pay less than STEM careers.

In fact, we found that women were more likely to be underemployed than men regardless of their major. True, STEM majors were more likely to be appropriately employed than other majors. But women STEM majors were more likely to be underemployed than male STEM graduates.

In only one major—engineering—were men and women at equal risk of underemployment, at 19% each. In every other major, women were more likely to be underemployed by a factor of from 2% to 8%.

MajorProbability of being underemployed in first job and five years later (Females)Probability of being underemployed in first job and five years later (Males)Gender gap
Engineering19%19%0%
Computer and Information Sciences, and Support Services22%20%-2%
Communication, Journalism, and Related Programs25%22%-3%
Social Sciences31%24%-7%
Mathematics and Statistics32%25%-7%
Foreign Languages, Literature, and Linguistics28%25%-3%
English Language and Literature/Letters30%26%-4%
Physical Sciences32%27%-5%
Business, Management, Marketing, and Related Support Services34%27%-7%
Visual and Performing Arts34%28%-6%
Public Administration and Social Service Professions39%31%-8%
Psychology39%31%-8%
Education38%31%-7%
Biological and Biomedical Sciences39%32%-7%
Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies, and Humanities41%34%-7%
Health Professionals and Related Programs39%35%-4%
Natural Resources and Conservation41%36%-7%
Family and Consumer Sciences/Human Sciences40%38%-2%
Parks, Recreation, Leisure, and Fitness Studies50%43%-7%
Homeland Security, Law Enforcement, Firefighting, and Related Protective Services50%47%-3%

Once in the workforce, women and men recover from underemployment at roughly comparable rates. The likelihood of remaining underemployed after five years is at 63% for men and 66% for women. Likewise, of this group, 72% of men and 74% of women are still underemployed at the 10-year mark.

Few people of either gender, once underemployed, climb back out again. But because more women are underemployed at the start, more women are caught in this trap.

This gender disadvantage in the first job is a stark contrast to the performance of women in higher education. Women are more likely to attend college and more likely to graduate than men, according to federal statistics. Logically, it would make sense for women to outperform men in early employment, rather than the other way around. One possibility is that “old boy networks” such as fraternities and sports teams, still give men an advantage in the early job hunt.

The data also undercuts the assumption that women lag economically because of the work-life trade-offs they make to raise children or care for aging parents. Those factors may well hamper women’s ability to get ahead, but something is also holding them back at the beginning of their careers, where fewer have family obligations.

Something is going wrong for women at the crucial transition between school and work. Further research will be needed to identify exactly what that is, but even now it’s clear that higher education needs to do more to connect students in general, and women in particular, to the job market. Other Burning Glass research has shown that just a few specific skills can be the difference between solid jobs and underemployment for many college graduates. This research lays down a challenge to higher education to make sure that first transition into the workforce really works for women.

Get the full report on The Permanent Detour: Underemployment’s Long-Term Effects on the Careers of College Grads.

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