Different for girls?

20 Apr

A recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report on graduate incomes and social mobility has caused a bit of a stir. Researchers had access to data which meant they could link information on students’ institution of study and subject choice, and their subsequent earnings for up to ten years. The headline findings were that those from the wealthiest backgrounds earn significantly more than students from poorer families, even when they had studied for similar degrees in similar places; and that economics and medicine were the subjects with the highest-earning graduates. Less prominently reported were some marked gender differences in outcomes.

Given our unequal society and uneven education provision, it may not come as a shock that students from higher-income backgrounds end up earning more (10% more at median income levels after taking subject studied and institution attended into account).  But men’s earning advantage over similarly-educated women is striking, especially since the student population has been majority female for some time now.

While men’s median earnings ten years on were £30,000, women’s were £27,000 – this compares to figures for non-graduates of £22,000 and £18,000 respectively.  Therefore, graduating as a woman means gaining a slightly larger premium on average, but at lower earnings levels than is the case for men.  So studying may lift women a little further above others with fewer qualifications, but it does not necessarily put them on a par with similar male graduates, nor does the advantage grow at the same rate at the top of the income scale as occurs for men.  Men from the wealthiest backgrounds earn about 20% more than men from less well-off backgrounds in the top 10% of each group; for women the equivalent gap is 14%, indicating that being an advantaged male carries the biggest labour force premium of all.

If you take the two subjects with the highest earners of all, medicine and economics, the advantage of being a man becomes clear.  The two subjects have different profiles in terms of who studies them – the majority of medical students have been female for some time now, while under one third of economics students are women.  But no matter what the gender balance of students, the IFS results show that men earn more.  And the difference between men and women at the highest levels of income in each subject is clear.

Economics has the highest rewards at the highest levels, with the top 10% of women earning upwards of £94,000 – but the top 10% of men are earning at least £121,000; roughly 12% of male economics graduates will earn £100,000 or more, compared to 9% of women.

In medicine, women earn around £69,000 to make the top 10%, while for men the equivalent figure is £85,000. In a subject where most graduates are female, this difference seems worthy of attention.  Perhaps choice of speciality also has a role in the differential, as women remain rare in some high-status areas such as surgery.

Most of the media discussion of the IFS findings has been devoted to the stalled social mobility indicated by the persistent earning advantage enjoyed by students from the wealthiest backgrounds.  But even the most advantaged women in Britain are not earning the same as their male counterparts.  This raises the question of other underlying differences between men and women in progress from school to the labour market.   Men are more likely to study economics and STEM subjects, and women more likely to opt for arts subjects.  The study found that creative arts degrees had the lowest earners of all, and these courses are 55% female on intake.

But the example of medicine shows that even where women study a high status subject in high numbers, they are not reaping the same rewards as men. Ten years on, many erstwhile students will have become parents, and some may be looking after their own parents.  The impact of caring work is still experienced predominantly by women, and this is likely to play a part in the differences in earnings between male and female graduates, no matter what their field.  Alongside discussions of higher education’s role in improving social mobility, perhaps we should be talking more about the role of effective policies for shared parental leave and flexible working options.

It has been pointed out during the current junior doctors’ pay dispute that doctors working part-time (80% of whom are female) will lose out under the new contract proposals, which remove pay increments and reduce maternity pay and ‘on-call’ rates for those working less than full-time equivalent.  No wonder there has been anger that the government equality impact document reads “Any indirect adverse effect on women is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate end.”  While doctors have benefited from some pay equalisation up to now, the graduate earnings data suggests that women doctors are less likely to progress to the top rates of pay than man, even in the system as it is.

And a survey of women in the finance sector (a likely destination for top-earning economists) reported this week that two thirds of women felt that being female put them at a professional disadvantage, and that they would not recommend their career to their daughters. If this is how women at the top of the highest earning professions feel, what about the rest of us? Since women graduates consistently earn less than men – and male non-graduates also earn more than females, it seems that we cannot continue to believe that gender equality has basically been achieved.  The figures suggest that it is still true that it pays to be a man, and that even at the top, it really is different for girls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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