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Why Are Female Students Choosing to Study Courses With a Lower Earning Potential?

Why Are Female Students Choosing to Study Courses with a Lower Earning Potential?  main image

Of the most recent applicants for UK university courses with an October 15, 2020 deadline, women made up 55 percent of the 68,680 applicants, according to a recent UCAS publication. Despite this, women still have an overall lower earning potential than men. 

In their study, LSE found “that women tend to choose courses that are as academically selective as men, but with lower associated earnings”. 

Why is this? It’s at least partly down to the university subjects women choose to study -- at least according to the recent study by Ohio State University.

Which subjects do women choose to study? 

Data from the the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), of the 2018 to 2019 group of UK students enrolling in higher education, shows that there is evident gender division amongst the subjects studied by men and women. Women tend to stick to the more traditionally “feminine” subjects, such as nursing and education, while avoiding the traditionally male-dominated subjects, such as mathematics and science.

‘STEM’ subjects were amongst those revealed to have the lowest proportion of female students. Computer science courses, for example, only contained 18 percent female students, engineering and technology contained only 19 percent female students, and mathematical sciences contained a modest 37 percent female students. Studying these subjects at undergraduate degree level generally lead to higher paying jobs.

Conversely, the subjects with the highest percentage of female students were generally subjects which tended to have a lower earning potential. The most popular subjects for women to study were those allied to medicine, such as nursing and nutrition, which had an impressive 79 percent female students. The second most popular subject amongst women was education with (78 percent female students) and veterinary science (also 78 percent), followed by languages (67 percent).

Why don’t women study subjects with a higher earning potential?

Women put off STEM subjects

The issue of the lack of female representation in STEM subjects has been debated and discussed in great detail by universities, the media and individuals.


The lack of strong female role models in STEM jobs is often blamed for putting women off studying STEM subjects, mainly due to it reinforcing the perception that women will feel isolated and excluded in these typically male-dominated environments.

There is also a general misconception about what careers in STEM subjects are actually like – whether this is through careers advisors, parents or just through the stereotype of STEM subjects. Universities also need to do more to showcase the diversity available in engineering, mathematical and scientific careers.

You can find out more about what universities are doing to help with this issue here. 

Secondary school influences  

LSE’s study also reveals that subjects studied in secondary school may play a large part in choice of subject at university: “[factors] such as peers, parental sorting, and information provided by the school are the likely key drivers for improving student-to-course match”.

It’s often argued that universities should do more to reach out to students before they get to university. Indeed, a lot of careers are already ruled out by the time students get to university, due to the subject choices made in high school meaning they do not have the relevant qualifications needed to apply for certain courses.

Different interests and personal preferences

The findings from a Ohio State University study show that men and women prioritised different preferences – with men prioritising economic returns over other factors.

The study found that even when men and women shared the same preferences, such as helping people, men were still more likely to choose to train as a doctor rather than as a nurse. On this, Natasha Quadlin, a sociologist from Ohio State University, said that the reason may be because “men and women may have very different ideas about the types of fields and careers that are open and available to them.”

Settling for lower wages after graduation 

It has also been found that women frequently accept lower salaries than their male colleagues for the same roles, which may play quite a large part in their graduate earning potential.

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Written by Chloe Lane
A Content Writer for TopUniversities.com, Chloe has a bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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