Is the Gender pay-gap 'baked in from the point of graduation?'

Young women have to contend with tougher prospects after university.

by Arun Kakar
Last Updated: 21 Nov 2017

After the depressing news earlier this month that the gender pay gap hasn’t budged in three years and could take a century to close, employers are feeling the pressure to do something about it. But not all the signs point to progress. The mean gender pay gap currently stands level at 14%, but worryingly it’s widening for women in their 20s, from 1.1% in 2011 to 5.5% in 2017, according to the Fawcett Society.

Your 20s is when your gender is least likely to impact your pay: most of the headline pay gap stems from an under-representation of women in senior roles, which can in part be attributed to historic sexism, and to the ‘motherhood penalty’ that kicks in around 30. But clearly this isn’t the whole picture.

The problem could start as early as university. According to a recent CIPD report on the graduate employment gap, there is a ‘clear gender pay disparity for recent graduates.’

Combining the salary band data from broad subject areas at the UK’s top ten universities, the report found that ‘even if a woman achieves a degree from one of the UK’s top higher education institutions, there is still a considerable gender pay penalty on entering the labour market.’

No matter the subject taken, or university attended, women are paid less than their male peers for all but three subject areas (computer science, mathematical science and engineering and technology).  The worst  offenders included law, where 28% of male graduates were earning £30,000 or more compared to 14% of females, and veterinary sciences, where 54% of male graduates were earning £30,000 or more against just 39% of women.

Why is this the case? Factors such as overt sexism or unconscious bias amongst hiring managers will play a major role, but it could also be more subtle things, such as lower salary expectations amongst women. 

Graduate recruitment website Milkround conducted research earlier this year which found that over a third of female graduates expected a starting salary of £20,000. ‘Nearly 85% of female graduates do not know their own value, which may have a knock-on effect in their future earnings,’ said Milkround head of Marketing Francesca Parkinson. Milkround claims that employers can help graduates feel confident that they can get the salary they deserve if they ‘accurately recognise their value and actively work to erase the gender pay gap.’

Employers have been making an effort to change things, whether through their own accord or otherwise. Much of the focus has been on boardroom quotas (driven by government pressure) and pay transparency (driven by legislation – from April, companies with 250 or more employees need to disclose their gender pay and bonus gaps).  These are steps in the right direction, but more still needs to be done.

‘Pay transparency alone will not change the gender stereotypes that too often determine the types of roles men and women apply for and the industries they work in,’ said Dr Carole Easton, chief executive of the Young Women’s Trust. ‘There also needs to be improved careers advice, greater use of positive action by employers to encourage women to apply for roles in sectors where they are under-represented, more part-time and flexible working opportunities and an unwavering commitment from employers to understanding and addressing the reasons which explain why women are still losing out.’

It’s also a matter of companies keeping in mind the smaller, subtler aspects of their recruitment processes. 'Something as simple as tweaking the language in a job advert could have a big impact.' adds Kevin Green, CEO of the Recruitment and Employment confederation.  

‘If we are going to eliminate the gender pay gap then employers need to ensure they are paying fairly right across their organisation from day one, including among recent graduates,’ said Lizzie Crowley, skills advisor at  CIPD.  The gender pay gap clearly is not going to fix itself: it’s a problem that needs to be addressed from the moment employment begins as much as at any other stage. 

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