Overcoming Underemployment: Bridging the Gender Gap

Published on Mar 25, 2023

Updated on May 19, 2023

Written by Scott Bittle

This Women’s History Month,  women represent nearly six in 10 of all U.S. college undergraduates. But when it comes to getting the jobs that should come with those degrees, women are still behind. 

Women are more likely to be underemployed–working in jobs beneath their qualifications–than men. Nearly half of women college graduates (47%) were underemployed in their first job, compared to 37% of men, according to a 2018 study using Lightcast career profiles data

A first job isn’t–and shouldn’t–be indicative of a whole career. But the research shows college graduates who start off in jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree tend to stay underemployed. More than seven in 10 of those underemployed in their first job are still underemployed 10 years after graduation.

Women and men tend to escape underemployment at about the same rate. But a slow start has a disproportionate impact on women. For women, a bad first job is more likely to turn into a disappointing career.

Visualization comparing male and female graduates' underemployment rates over ten years

Many theories have been proposed to explain the long-standing pay gap between men and women.

One concern has been the lower number of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) occupations, and the related belief that women are more likely to go into other, lower-paying fields. But Lightcast research showed in The Permanent Detour report that while women in STEM majors are less likely to be underemployed than other majors, they’re still more likely to be underemployed than male STEM majors. Nearly one-third of women with math degrees (32%) were underemployed compared to 25% of men. 

In fact, in every major except engineering, women graduates were more likely to be underemployed than men.

Gender gap in undermployment comparing majors

There is even a similar trajectory among adult learners, who go back to school later in life, usually to improve their career prospects. There’s no doubt adult learning pays off: a Lightcast analysis of 125 million career profiles released last year found that the average person who went back to school saw an 140% larger increase in average annual salary than those who did not, as well as 22% greater upward mobility.

Yet while women see gains from adult education, they don’t see average salary gains as large as men. Women are also somewhat less likely to pursue adult education than men (47% of adult learners are women, while 53% are men).

But there is also an opportunity here: in certain fields, women adult learners see greater mobility gains than men.

Top upwardly mobile majors for women

The big takeaway here is that students can avoid underemployment, and higher education can assist students in avoiding it.  With the right skills, the career value of almost any major rises. With the right career counseling, graduates can make sure they’re well-prepared for a first job. With the right information, adult learners can choose education that truly accomplishes their goals.

So the school-to-work transition is a vital point for both students and higher education. It’s been said that life is a marathon, not a sprint. If so, men and women need to have an equal starting line to ensure a successful race for everyone.