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New report finds focus on graduate pay as an indicator of institutional quality is sexist in its implications and effects

  • 12 November 2020

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a new report looking at the gender pay gap between graduates. The report, Mind the (Graduate Gender Pay) Gap by Bethan Cornell, Rachel Hewitt and Bahram Bekhradnia, looks at how the graduate gender pay gap changes over time and uses new and existing data and literature to try and understand its persistence. 

The report finds:

  • The overall graduate gender pay gap is not accounted for by subject of study, type of university attended, prior attainment, social background or ethnicity. Men appear to be more willing to be geographically mobile, which is likely to enhance their career prospects, but it is unlikely that increasing the mobility of women would significantly reduce the difference in pay.
  • Men appear to be more focused on their career search than women: they begin their career planning earlier during their time at university, make more applications and are less likely to give up once they have begun an application. They also display more confidence – perhaps overconfidence – and are more speculative in the jobs they apply for.
  • On the other hand, women are more likely to be offered a job once interviewed and are less likely to be unemployed on leaving university. This may in part be because they are more efficient in their job seeking; but it could equally reflect the fact that they are less ambitious in the jobs they apply for.
  • Women are more likely to work in part-time employment, both during and immediately after their degree than men; whereas men are more likely to undertake an internship during their degree, possibly providing them with an advantage when applying for jobs.
  • There are differences in attitudes to employment. For a higher proportion of men than women, a high salary is the mark of a good job. On the other hand, women are more likely to look for job security, work-life balance, a good company culture and a job which enables them to contribute to a cause they believe is meaningful.
  • Men and women are equally satisfied in their work, despite women being less well paid on average.
  • Women expect less pay than men.

The report makes a series of recommendations, such as:

  • higher education institutions should promote information about the graduate gender pay gap, so students are empowered in their career planning to make the best decisions for their circumstances;
  • universities should make particular efforts to help female students undertake internships; 
  • Russell Group and specialist institutions should investigate the reasons for the especially large disparity between the earnings of male and female graduates from their institutions and take appropriate action to address that;
  • employers’ organisations should alert their members to the findings of this report, and in particular the possibility of unconscious bias in recruitment practices and encourage them where possible to undertake name-blind recruitment;
  • employers, working within current equal opportunities legislation, should make particular efforts to provide internship and networking opportunities for women; and that
  • the relative pay of male and female graduates should be included among the indicators of ranking bodies.

We also recommend that, given the gendered impact, the Government, ranking compilers and others should not use comparative earnings as a measure of the worth of programmes or the quality of institutions.

Bethan Cornell, former PhD Intern at HEPI, current PhD student at King’s College London and co-author of the report, said:

At the time of writing this report I was also a female PhD student, searching for jobs. I cannot stress enough how much working on this project, and the conclusions we made, completely changed my attitude to job hunting.  

Learning about the graduate gender pay gap and the possible reasons behind it has been utterly empowering and has totally altered my approach to my own career. Seeing the difference in confidence levels and values between the average male and female graduates has assured me that I have the right to be ambitious in terms of pay and that I should be more assertive in applying for higher-paid roles. While writing the report, I made a successful application to a well-paid role that I definitely would not have even considered applying to before starting this research.

By the time this press release is being read I will have left HEPI and started my new career. I am living proof that disseminating facts to students enables them to make better informed choices and, if we want to address inequities in society, then we must make sure everyone concerned is clear on the facts.

Rachel Hewitt, HEPI’s Director of Policy and Advocacy and co-author of the report said:

This report clearly highlights how pervasive the graduate gender pay gap is. Higher education provides women with an earnings premium compared to their non-graduate counterparts but, as this new analysis shows, female graduates still consistently earn less than male graduates. There are some areas of particular concern, such as the large pay gap between male and female graduates of Russell Group universities. However, even among groups where the gap is smaller, such as among graduates of post-92 universities, the gender pay gap persists. 

This report should be seen as a call for action, for employers to ensure their hiring and renumeration policies are fair, for universities to help students overcome gendered differences and for Government to ensure its evaluation of universities does not rely on data with underlying gender biases. We should be clear, particularly to the significant number of young women who now enter higher education, that the graduate gender pay gap is unacceptable and work together to combat it.

Bahram Bekhradnia, HEPI’s President and Founder and co-author of the report, said:

Although the principal reasons for the lower pay of women graduates are to do with the different subjects that men and women study, the fact is that even within a subject, women on average earn less than men. Nor can the pay gap be explained away by any of the other things we looked at – ethnicity, for example, where a pay gap exists in all ethnic groups, nor university attended – where we found that the largest pay gap exists between male and female graduates of Russell Group institutions, but that eliminating that difference would nevertheless leave the overall pay gap intact.

We also found that men and women have different values and expectations from employment. To the extent that women’s more values- and lifestyle-based judgements affect the jobs that they take on graduation, then that is fair enough, and indeed perhaps men could take a leaf out of women’s books and learn from their more nuanced and rounded approach. But decisions taken about employment on graduation will play out throughout a career, and it is essential that choices are made in the full knowledge of their consequences for pay, seniority and other aspects of employment in the long term. And we did not, of course, look at the educational and societal influences and constraints on the attitudes and choices made respectively by men and women.

The critical conclusion arising from this study is that to make judgements about the value of universities and their programmes on the basis of the salaries earned by graduates is badly misguided and is ultimately sexist in its implications and effects. That is a message to the Government and to others who might be inclined to such a view.

Notes for Editors

The Higher Education Policy Institute was established in 2002 to help shape the higher education debate with evidence. It is the UK’s only independent think tank devoted to higher education. HEPI is a non-partisan charity funded by higher education institutions and other organisations that wish to see a vibrant policy debate.

HEPI’s previous work on gender in higher education includes Boys to Men: The underachievement of young men in higher education – and how to start tackling itMale and female participation and progression in Higher Education and Male and female participation and progression in Higher Education: further analysis.

As well as being a PhD student, Bethan also works for the Department for Education. This work was undertaken during Bethan’s time at HEPI, before she joined the Civil Service. Therefore, it is in no way associated with, or reflects the views of, the Department for Education. 

1 comment

  1. John bird says:

    Surprise, surprise……and racist, to be sure

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