International Women’s Day always offers a good opportunity to reflect on how far we have come and how far we still have to go when it comes to equality between the sexes.
In fact, there is a positive story to be told when it comes to women’s place in higher education. The higher education participation level for young women has now reached 56.6%, compared to only 44.1% for young men. We have previously written about this gap and underachievement by young men in higher education. While this topic garners a great deal of controversy, it is one we must seek to address in striving for equality.
However just looking at participation levels does not show the full picture. There are still significant gender differences between subjects, for example women are much less likely to study most STEM subjects.
Given women’s high levels of participation in higher education, we might expect female graduates to have greater opportunities when they go into the workplace. However last week’s report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, looking at lifetime returns from higher education looking at graduate earnings, showed the picture to be more complex. 85% of women gain ‘positive net lifetime returns’ from higher education, compared to only around three quarters of men. On average, a university education leads to an increase in net earnings of about 20%. But the difference between male graduates and female graduates is stark: the estimated gain to the exchequer of individuals attending HE is around £110k per student for men and £30k per student for women.
There remain a variety of explanations for the gender pay gap: women taking time out to have children, occupations which receive lower pay often being dominated by women and, in some cases, companies continuing to pay women less for the same work. This highlights the difficulty with assuming the influence universities can have on their Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) data: Cranfield University, where the student body is 74% male, may have very different earnings data to Bishops Grossteste, where the student body is 80% female. It also shows the risks of using LEO data to classify which courses are ‘low quality/value’. There may be courses which appear to offer poor returns when looking at averages, but in which women still see higher salary returns than non-graduates. That is without considering the wider benefits offered beyond earnings.
Looking at these averages alone still doesn’t provide a full picture. We know when other characteristics intersect with gender, such as ethnicity, sexual orientation and disability, the gap grows even wider. Similarly, this does not even start to look at the gender differences seen in university staff, where women make up 55% of the total staff population, but only 29% of Vice-Chancellors and 37% of senior leadership teams. The gender pay gap of staff in universities is 15.9%, compared to the median level of 9.7% in other sectors.
We have made great steps in the proportion of women now entering higher education and achieving academically. It is clear, even if only looking at the economic returns, that it is valuable for women to go on to higher education. But it is also clear that the labour market they go on to enter still has a long way to go in terms of equality, even when looking at universities own labour force.
The below table takes the latest HESA staff and student data, to show the gender make up of universities across the UK.
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