Education in professional schools shows a similar self-selection. Women receive only 37 percent of MBAs. Women who finish medical school gravitate toward family practice over higher-paying surgery; freshly minted female lawyers tend to choose public-interest law over a corporate practice.
Why don’t more women act like Sabino and choose the more lucrative majors? Educated women, after all, show the work ethic to succeed in college and beyond, and presumably they appreciate money as much as men do. The answer may lie in a fault line that runs through the U.S. education system from pre-K to Ph.D.: a mismatch between qualities that the schools reward versus those that the real world will prize.
Girls outperform boys in school from the start, not only because of superior communication and interpersonal skills but also because of a greater willingness to follow rules, line up quietly, and listen. Interpersonal skills count for a lot in today’s job market. But obedience doesn’t. A quick-shifting, globally competitive economy rewards assertiveness and innovation over sitting still or knowing which bubbles to fill in on a standardized test. Women need boldness to strike into male-dominated majors.
Camille Sabino has the best of both worlds. With two older brothers, she’s comfortable in a boys’ club atmosphere, and her immigrant parents evidently instilled an iron self-confidence. “I haven’t found anything that’s really difficult being the only girl in my classes,” she said. “I think in some ways it’s even easier. I know a lot of technical stuff, but I’m also good at managing and communicating with people. When I’m working with a couple of boys in a class project, I tend to be the one who makes sure everything is going well.” She isn’t afraid to call herself ambitious and has sought out female professors as mentors. A survey by Catalyst, the women’s professional organization, found that women with mentors saw their salaries rise 27 percent higher than women without.
Mentoring and planning ahead, Berkeley’s Mason noted, can matter as much as structural changes—such as part-time career tracks and paternity leave—in helping women leverage their educational success into economic success. “I’d like to see Life Planning 101 as a college course,” she said. “Young women are unaware of how difficult it becomes fitting childbirth into your career plans. But … if you think in advance, it becomes easier.”
The writer is a senior writer at Fast Company magazine and the author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.