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Women lead at half time, but men’s salaries overtake them in the long run

UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant explores gendered patterns in subject choices and earnings and asks how HE can support women's education
This article is more than 2 years old

Clare Marchant is chief executive of UCAS.

Take a longer, deeper view of the variance in men and women going to university.

 In a speech for Dods’ Women in Education event, I talked about how the perennial debate on the differing rates of young men and women entering higher education often neglects a couple of key points. I don’t think many would argue that there should be a material difference in the overall numbers of young men and women going onto higher education, but what about the subjects and types of courses they’re studying and the opportunities they go onto pursue? Entry to higher education isn’t the only measure of someone’s success. It undoubtedly opens doors for students, but those doors can be very different.

Is it easier for men?

I was part of the first generation of my family to go to university. I studied History (keep that subject in mind for a few moments) and Politics at Hull, and was lucky enough to have parents, a teacher and a careers adviser, who knew the value of education. These are clearly two academic subjects. However, the softer skills, often not part of the metrics that measure an institution’s performance, are aspects of my day-to-day life which I find invaluable. The sense of team is at the core of what we’re trying to achieve at UCAS. Being able to balance workload and making time for yourself (running is an essential part of my life outside of UCAS!) and others is crucial to being able to healthily juggle the demands of leading an independent organisation.

The headline differences in male and female progression to higher education are quite well known across the sector. Young women are much more likely to go to university than men, and the gap is continuing to grow. Last year, over 38 per cent of 18-year-old women were accepted onto a course, compared to just 28 per cent of men. While women across all POLAR4 quintiles apply in significantly greater numbers that men, the proportion of men accepted (from those that apply) in each group slightly exceeds that of women. So, on that basis, is it easier for men to get into university? Of course, it’s not that clear-cut and to view a single stat in isolation will inevitably lead to blindspots, as we recently highlighted with David Best’s blog on the Multiple Equality Measure.

Typical timeline

Looking across the typical educational timeline, we see a general pattern. In 2018, Key Stage 2 SATS results show the gender gap beginning, already with an 8 percentage points difference – as 68 per cent of girls reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared to 60 per cent of boys. At A levels, evidence is mixed. More females take them than men, but median grades are BBB for women, down to BBC for men – but at the top end, the gap reverses, as more men get three A*s than women.

And then onto degree outcomes, where 81 per cent of women graduate with a 1st or 2:1, compared to 76 per cent of men. The proportion of male graduates gaining a first or 2:1 is lower regardless of their A levels, with differences ranging from three percentage points for graduates with A*A*A* to seven percentage points for graduates with AAB.

Subject level analysis is where the differences are most stark, and where the link to a student’s future income can be most pronounced. Nursing, teaching, psychology, English and agriculture/veterinary have the highest proportion of female applications – four in every five applications come from women, and even higher for nursing. Parity across gender comes for history, communications, biology, business and physics courses. Whereas computer science, engineering, economics, maths and architecture are dominated by men.

Different doors

I started with the idea that the doors opened after graduation can be very different. The gender pay gap is quite pronounced across all sectors, with men typically earning more. Linking average earnings from five years after graduation to those subjects studied gives us a thought provoking picture. The biggest disparity in average earnings in favour of men is for those with computer science degrees – they earn over a third more. The average earnings after five years for computer scientists are £22,545 for women and £30,240 for men, a near £8,000 difference! Not far behind are veterinary and agriculture students – despite this being an incredibly popular subject with women.

The smallest disparity comes for English, history, creative, maths, and communications students – a mixture of subjects based on their gender split of applications, but all with men having higher incomes than women. However, what’s most surprising is that only two subject areas see women earn more on average – economics and communications. And remember, economics is not all popular with young women at undergraduate level.

What can we do? Encourage students to start thinking early and reinforce that everyone’s path is different. It’s obviously worth pointing out that salary alone may not be a determining factor for some students when they choose their degree subject, for many reasons. Our insight, based on 45,000 current applicants’ views, also shows that women can make decisions differently – for example 72 per cent of women think it is extremely important or important to be able to gain work experience on their course, compared to around 66 per cent of men.

Gendered preferences

Some research (from the USA) has shown that girls are attracted into “helping professions” or creative subjects, with others have found that most girls have dismissed engineering by their 14th birthday. It doesn’t take too much imagination to know that engineers, in many sectors, help people – we need to teach that to young girls, or even better, encourage them to discover it themselves.

As an end-to-end education sector from reception to post-graduation, we need to work together and shine a light on the opportunities that exist for all students regardless of their gender (and watch this space as we have some exciting news on the horizon on how students choose to identify during the application).

Timely, bespoke and relevant information for students needs to be easily accessible so they can make the right choice for them. Our dynamic new hub, currently in a beta trial, launches in the autumn and will deliver that to students in one place, in a way not seen before. We are fantastically placed to provide this to all students, so they can easily consider their options and potential futures (and not just undergraduate courses) before applying.

I can’t claim to have all the answers, though we’ve been clear on how we are tackling the gender pay gap at UCAS in our annual report. I want to ensure we continue to support progress across the sector, collaborating with others, on initiatives such as the gender action plan in Scotland where we’ve committed to the development of a Scottish-specific Multiple Equality Measure.

By harnessing the power of data and insight, and making an impact in our individual influencing roles, including UCAS giving parents, teachers and advisers everything they need to support their students, more women will aim high and take the next step on the right path for them.

2 responses to “Women lead at half time, but men’s salaries overtake them in the long run

  1. Interesting article. In my view there are a number of other societal factors which impact on women’s earnings and indicate that leaving university also means leaving the level playing field:

    Why are salaries lower in ‘female’ caring professions? Are these really worth less than ‘male’ jobs?
    Somehow young women still seem to have lower expectations of starting salaries which may impact on their salary negotiations.
    Women have children and that impacts on their careers far more than it does on their partners’ careers.
    Women often return to work part-time after maternity leave which can hinder career progression.

    I think it’s much more complex than saying ‘chose x field for a higher salary’

  2. There are lots of ways to address this issue. The Scottish Government’s Gender Action Plan is making it compulsory for Scottish Universities to ensure that every subject has at the very least a 75:25 gender split e.g. that 25% of all entrants to nursing are men and 25% of Physics undergraduates are women. This should have an impact on the number of men in traditionally female occupations with a concomitant rise in salaries across the board. But the real challenge is to change perceptions of types of work so that they are no longer dominated by gender and that starts in nursery school if not before. It also needs to be addressed in the way that subjects are taught at school with an expectation that young people will be offered examples which appeal to all in the teaching of for example, Languages or Chemistry. Finally, it would be interesting to see research done into why women are less likely to apply for the better paid positions or ask for the pay increases which presumably create the inequality between the sexes (men ask, women don’t).
    If we knew that, we could all takes steps to advocate more convincingly for change to end the unjustifiable inequality.

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