Is philosophy more lucrative or just more male?

Lots of philosophers, me included, have been sharing on social media this good news story from Forbes about the financial benefits of a humanities degree.

I pulled out information on bachelor’s degrees in art, drama, English, French, history, philosophy, and political science. Overall, this is a group that many would predict is destined to produce underemployed graduates, struggling to pay off their student loans, and perhaps happy to work as Starbucks baristas. However, conventional wisdom is wrong. In reality these degrees all produce expected lifetime earning increments far in excess of the cost of college tuition, even at expensive private colleges.

And being philosophers, we’re also busy noting that the best financial results from humanities degrees comes from philosophy. As with GRE scores, among the humanities, we’re number 1.

But not so fast.

It occurred to me that philosophy is also the most male of these disciplines. There are lots more women than men in English and lots more men than women in philosophy. Philosophy’s greater financial benefit may just be a secondary effect of being the discipline with the fewest women in a world in which women are paid less than men. Just a thought.

11 thoughts on “Is philosophy more lucrative or just more male?

  1. I bet you’re right that gender accounts for much of the difference in earnings though this would seem very easy to check if the data-set were available (though I suppose none of us have access to it). We could see if rough correlations hold up between each specific humanities discipline, statistics on gender for that discipline, and average salary.*

    *I’d prefer noting the proportion of tenured/tenure-track vs. non-tenure track labor in there as well.

  2. If used the US Department of Education categories, it should be easy (but a little time-consuming) to get a preliminary answer to this question.

    PayScale list of major-salary data:
    USDE major-gender data:

    Get those data into any standard stats package (this is the tedious part — I don’t see a link to download the PayScale data, which means someone would have to convert it into Excel or whatever by hand, then match up the USDE data by hand as well), and you can calculate the correlation coefficient, build a regression model, etc.

  3. I didn’t attempt to cross-reference the data for all the majors, but I took the time to do it for the six majors mentioned in the Forbes article. I took the table from the Forbes article, added in the number of degrees earned by men from here.

    With a sample of six, the power of detecting an effect is extremely low, so I decided to compare (Art, Drama, English, French) vs. (History, Philosophy), since that breakdown revealed a fairly sizable difference between genders. (% men: Art: 39%, Drama: 37%, English: 32%, French: 22%, History: 60%, Philosophy: 63%).

    Early career salary doesn’t really show a difference ($37,825 vs. $40,700), t(4) = -1.48, p = .21; however, mid-career salary does show a difference ($61,325 vs. $74,650), t(4) = -2.89, p = .04; and lifetime earnings gain also shows a difference as well ($383,375 vs. $598,350), t(4) = -2.87, p = .045.

    My calculations are only rough ones — ideally, it would be nice to get the raw, person-level data with their gender, major, and how much they earn, and run a multi-level model to compare majors. But I don’t have that data unfortunately. However, this at least provides some empirical evidence to support the idea that higher salary is associated with the proportion of men in a humanities discipline. Of course, it could be that the higher earning potential is more likely to attract men to the field, or some third variable correlated with both, but the two at least show some evidence of being correlated within the humanities.

  4. The PayScale data was actually easy to extract, so I went ahead and collected the data, built a chart, and calculated the R^2:

    The data suggest a modest relationship between gender and starting salary, though for various reasons we should be very hesitant to take this as evidence of causal relationships. Individual-level data — maybe someone at the APA could approach the company, and see what it would take to get anonymized, individual-level data? — would be much more useful.

    Specifically, philosophy is quite a bit lower than you would predict based on our gender ratio alone. (About $10,000 lower, which makes us similar to fields that are around 65% women.)

  5. The Canadian statistics on this are interesting, even rather puzzling. Philosophy appears to be the only major tracked by Statistics Canada for which median salaries are higher for women than for men (ages 26-35). In the top 20% of salaries, however, men with philosophy BAs earn more. Hard to compare to the US situation, not least because our statistics do not show philosophy outperforming other humanities majors (except art). I wonder how things are in the UK. Canadian data (based on the 2006 census) is available through the “University Payoff” calculator here:

  6. Thanks for taking the time to compile that, Dan! I played around with it a little further and found some interesting patterns:

    I split up the data (roughly) by humanities vs. non-humanities. It looks like gender is not a strong predictor of starting salary for the humanities in particular (R^2 < .001; a 1% increase in women predicts a decrease of only $5), but it shows a stronger relationship with mid-career salary (R^2 = .12; a 1% increase predicts a decrease of $165). These two relationships are, however, in both cases much stronger for non-humanities careers (1% increase in women predicts decrease of $270 in starting salary, $529 in mid-career salary).

    Also, given that petroleum engineering is a clear outlier, I ran the same analyses excluding that data point, which leads to a stronger overall relationship. It's the same basic pattern, but a little less extreme (1% increase in women predicts decrease of $227 in starting salary, $466 in mid-career salary).

    All in all, this suggests that the relationship between gender ratios and salary is there, but seems largely driven by fields outside the humanities.

  7. In lieu of statistical analysis, here’s something quick and crude. Sam’s suggestion (as I understand it) is that male humanities students earn about the same whatever the major, and female humanities students likewise; philosophy is higher than others because it’s more male than others.

    OK, so English is (% women = 68, lifetime earnings = 445K), and Philosophy is (% women = 29, lifetime earnings = 659K). On the hypothesis that lifetime earnings in Humanities depend only on gender, it’s possible to solve for the lifetime male and female Humanities earnings; after a little linear algebra, the answer is: male 818K, female 269K, or women at around 30% of men. That’s so radically larger than the 75%-80% numbers quoted for the population in general as to sound implausible.

    Conversely, suppose the Humanities earnings gap is: women earn 80% of men, i.e. around the same as the population at large, and constant across majors. Then women in Philosophy would have lifetime earnings of 560K, and women in English would have lifetime earnings of 412K (and men 25% more in both cases).

    Without controlling for gender differences, philosophers earn 48% more than English majors; controlling in this crude way, they earn 35% more. So gender mix would be a factor, but not the main driver.

  8. Jeff Hughes: The USDE data I’m using are for Bachelor’s degrees awarded in AY 2010-11. People who are in the middle of their careers presumably graduated decades ago, and I know some fields (biology, computer science) have seen significant swings in their gender ratios over the past 30 years. There are also reasons to question the validity of PayScale’s list of majors: apparent overlap between majors (which leads to double counting), missing popular majors such as gender studies, including unpopular majors such as sports management.

    In addition, PayScale’s data don’t seem to include any of the support factors / confounders we would want to look at to actually test an interesting causal hypothesis. (That probably includes PayScale’s own causal claims.) The more I think about it, the more I think that these data don’t actually tell us much.

  9. Hard to compare data sets (e.g., Payscale and NCES) because they may not be the same populations, the data is gathered very differently, and thus, without some pretty good methods for insuring that there’s consistency in comparison, I’m not sure what can be safely predicted or known from the different data sets. Also, as far as salaries, a major and gender — it seems that the effect of gender on a salary could be more a function of career chosen rather than major per se. Petroleum engineering majors probably all, or at least most, go into petroleum engineering careers, so maybe in that case the UG major is a good proxy for the career. But, most undergrad philosophy majors don’t go on to become philosophers. Maybe undergrad philosophy majors end up in careers that tend to pay more than other humanities majors. Or, maybe they end up in careers in which there are more men. Maybe it’s the career(s) that make(s) a difference. Or, maybe when a philosophy major or another humanities major end up in the same career, the philosophy major tends to make a little more money. Or, maybe for any humanities major, in the same career the male humanities major will make more than the female. Or, maybe it’s something more complicated. Also, in a lot of data (although not payscale) philosophy majors are lumped together with religious studies majors. NCES in collecting data distinguishes between philosophy and religious studies majors, but other US data collectors (e..g, NSF; American Community Survey) do not. Anyway, I wonder if maybe the data so far is not rigorously enough collected and sorted for reliable inferences to be drawn.

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