Scientists’ salary data highlight US$18,000 gender pay gap

Female PhD recipients in the United States expect to earn less than male colleagues.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Woman working on computer development

Women have made important inroads in some areas of engineering and computer science over the years.Credit: Getty

Male researchers who gained PhDs in 2017, with jobs lined up, expect to earn median annual salaries of US$88,000, compared with $70,000 for women, the US National Science Foundation’s annual census has found.

Almost 50,000 recipients of research-related PhDs, from 428 institutions, responded to the Doctorate Recipients from US Universities survey. The results were published in December. Recipients of professional degrees, such as doctorates in medicine or pharmacy, were not included.

Much of that gap can be explained by the outsized proportion of men in higher-paying fields such as mathematics and computer science, the two scientific fields offering the largest salaries, the census found. Men accounted for about 75% of doctoral degrees in those fields (a proportion that has barely changed since 2007), and expected to earn $113,000, compared with $99,000 for women.

Lower-paying disciplines showed more equity: in the social sciences, for example, men expected to earn $66,000, compared with $62,000 for women. Men didn’t always come out on top: women in chemistry expected to earn $85,000, $5,000 more than their male counterparts. According to the census, about 75% of recipients in engineering are male, down slightly from 79% in 2007. In the lower-paid fields of psychology and the social sciences, women outnumbered men by 59% to 41%.

Shrinking the gap

Women have made important inroads in some areas of engineering and computer science over the past 30 years, says Denise Wilson, a computer engineer and education researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle. “A lot of women who go into software and app development are doing well,” she says. “As more and more fields in engineering become focused on medicine and health care, that’s also going to contribute to a shrinking of the gender gap.”

In some cases, gender imbalances can be slow to change, Wilson says, because women tend to feel isolated and unsupported in male-dominated groups. “You tend not to see healthy and nurturing environments when women are in small numbers.”

The census also pointed to worrying employment trends affecting both men and women. Only about 61% of doctoral recipients had jobs lined up, compared with 72% in 2007. “It’s a sign of a bad job market,” says Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It’s pretty scary to get a degree and not know what you’re doing.” At the same time, the percentage of those continuing their training with a postdoctoral position rose from 28% in 1997 to 39% in 2017.

In most sectors outside academia, any drop in employability would encourage people to find a different career path, Freeman says, but the supply of students who are willing to pursue science PhDs shows no signs of dwindling. The number of recipients of research-based PhDs identified by the National Science Foundation has increased by 7% since 2012 and by nearly 70% since 1987.

Freeman notes that people from other countries drive much of the demand for US science degrees. The census found that nearly 30% of PhD recipients held temporary visas to live and study in the country, a proportion that is practically unchanged since 2012. “We have some of the best universities in the world, so we should be attracting these people,” he says.

Nature 565, 527 (2019)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00220-y

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 04 February 2019: This story has been updated to include Richard Freeman's full name and affiliation.

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