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Why we must address the graduate gender pay gap

  • 1 December 2020
  • By Caroline Hunt

This blog was kindly contributed by Caroline Hunt, Equal Education Spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party.

During my first year at university I interviewed for a relief receptionist job at a local GP surgery. My mother had been made redundant and my father was unable to work due to ill health, so money was tight, and I needed a regular job. This job seemed like a great fit because the hours were varied and flexible, allowing me to fit it around my studies. Until then I’d been on the temping treadmill, so I’d never had the opportunity to be interviewed – you just got sent somewhere and hoped for the best. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the interview, but it certainly wasn’t what unfolded.

I was interviewed by the two practice managers – a man and a woman, both in their forties. The first question the man asked was about my title. I had always used the title Ms. because it just seemed silly to me that women had to broadcast their marital status to the world while men did not. Scanning through my application, he commented: “Ms. Eh? So are you a lesbian or a feminist?” I smiled politely because I really needed the job and we moved on.

The rest of the interview seemed to go well and I was confident they would offer me the job. Just as we were finishing up, he asked me again about my personal life and I explained that I was planning to move in with my boyfriend and a few other students in my second year of university. He clarified that they did not want to give the job to “someone who’s going to get pregnant at the drop of a hat.” I had to sit there and assure him about my reproductive intentions, all the while smiling and pretending it was OK. At no point did the woman sitting next to him, his equal in the job, correct or even look uncomfortable about his line of questioning.

I was reminded of this story when I read the excellent HEPI report on the graduate gender pay gap, published two weeks ago. The report finds that even when you control for other factors such as race or socio-economic status, which intersect with gender and magnify discrimination, the pay gap still persists. I’ve no doubt many of my own privileges helped me get that interview (white, privately educated), yet still my uterus set off alarm bells with the employers. The LEO dataset shows that the 7% gender pay gap that exists right off the bat from graduation, just extends further and further each year, leaving women behind in terms of not just earnings, but building pensions for the future, getting on the housing ladder and building up the savings that can grant them independence.

Another key finding from the report is that men appear more focused on their career search than women. It’s true that I had no intention of working in the NHS or medicine generally; I just desperately needed a job to support myself. I lived with four men in my second year of university and only one of them had a job similar to me. He was black and working-class. The three white men all lived off a combination of parental support, student loans, credit cards and extra loans. They could accumulate debt and “focus on their career” because they were confident they would land well-paying jobs after university.

This is also in tune with the report’s findings that women are more likely to work part time in low skilled jobs than men during university, whereas men are more likely to get internships. Admittedly I lived with film students who, rather than getting internships, spent their spare time making schlock horror movies in the back garden, but it did mean they had a portfolio of work to build on when they left university.

The finding that for men a good job is one that pays well, whereas for women it’s one that provides security, work life balance and contributes to society also rings true. My father passed away just before I finished my degree and so I decided to move back in with my mother at the end of university and help support her. Needing flexibility, job security and a feeling of well being, I went into work as a GPs receptionist near where she lived and continued in that role for the next two years before doing anything even closely related to my degree in politics.

When women feel they are the only ones with a caring responsibility, they prioritise the needs of their family and the immediacy of low paid flexible work, over long-term career development. The societal pressures on everyone, regardless of gender, mean that in general terms men take risks, apply for higher paid jobs that they are less qualified for, and women play it safe, applying for jobs that will guarantee them at least some income and provide the flexibility for carrying out caring roles. As long as these societal norms are ingrained, then gender inequality will persist. 

It doesn’t have to be this way and the recommendations for HEPI provide a blueprint for overcoming the graduate pay gap. If my university had offered sessions on career guidance or pointed us towards internships, I might have given the matter some thought. If they had informed us about the pay gap, I may have questioned my choices, and if my male colleagues had been asked to stop and think if all they should care about is a big salary, then some of them might have had much better mental health over the next two decades.  

At the Women’s Equality Party, WE don’t believe that the gender pay gap is inevitable. Large scale structural change can make a difference. The recommendations of this report should be implemented, but wider social and economic change is also needed – where men take on caring roles and responsibilities in equal share to women and women are seen as more than a ticking time bomb of reproduction but valuable important members of the workforce who are worth investing time and money in.

The global pandemic has made these gender inequalities even more stark, with women more likely to take on the caring roles in the home and more likely to be made redundant. It is more important, now than ever, that we tackle gender equality and not let inequality slide further into our society.

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