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Female graduates earn less than males – true, but not the full picture

‘Female graduates paid less than male graduates!’ screamed yesterday’s headlines. ‘Even if they have the same qualifications!’ Today is International Women’s Day, so let’s look beyond the gloomy press coverage to get the wider picture.

The report that all the fuss is about is the Graduate Market Trends/Futuretrack study, compiled for the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU). It looked at the salaries of recent graduates (those who had applied to university in 2005/2006), and found that in the lower earning brackets (particularly £15,000–£17,999 and £21,000–£23,999) there tended to be a higher percentage of female than male graduates. In all of the higher earning brackets (from £24,000–£26,999 and upwards) there was a higher percentage of male than female graduates.

Differences between male and female earnings remained when looking at graduates who’d studied the same subject, and when considering those working in the same industry sector (apart from not-for-profit).

So should we assume that employers are discriminating against women? Or that female graduates are letting themselves down by failing to haggle for a better starting salary or applying to jobs that are ‘beneath’ them? Actually, no.

Different choices, different salaries

Let’s start with the assumption that differing male and female salaries in the same industry sector (eg finance, law) mean something is wrong. These sectors are in fact vast, with a huge variety of graduate employers and starting salaries – and often, men and women make different choices as to where to apply. In finance, for example, women more typically select careers in retail banking (which come with lower salaries) than in investment banking. Family law is more popular with women than men, and is often one of the lower paid options. Without a much more fine-grained analysis of salaries by specific job role, it’s impossible to say whether gender differences in graduate salary come down to anything more than personal choice.

‘Degree subject’ does not equal ‘career path’

Likewise, gender pay differences for graduates with the same degree subject shouldn’t be cause for panic. There’s a lazy assumption that choice of degree channels graduates neatly into a particular career. But while some jobs require a particular qualification (eg medicine), graduates from most subjects go in a whole host of different career directions, many of which bear little relation to their studies. Again, personal choice plays a huge part.

Women’s unemployment is lower than men’s

Hidden away in the Graduate Market Trends/Futuretrack report is the comment: ‘Men appeared to have a higher likelihood of unemployment, have had at least one spell and longer durations of unemployment, than women.’ No figures are given. However, a report published in 2010 by the Higher Education Policy Institute found that 17.2% of young male graduates were unemployed in December 2009, compared with 11.2% for female graduates. An Office for National Statistics Statistical Bulletin from February 2013 found that from October to December 2012 the unemployment rate for 18–24 year olds (both graduates and non-graduates) was 18.6% for men and 16.1% for women.

Could it be that, far from struggling in the employment game, women are in fact outperforming men? How would average male and female salaries look if the statistics included all graduates, employed and unemployed – would the extra unemployed male graduates earning nothing drag down the male average to below the female average? Are female graduates typically more pragmatic than male graduates, choosing ‘just get on with it’ and accept a job with a so-so salary rather than sitting around waiting for a higher one? Are they less likely to price themselves out of a job by trying to demand too high a salary?

The message for International Women’s Day? If you're a female graduate job hunter, don’t let the headlines about salaries depress you. You have plenty of choices about which jobs to apply for – and accept – and you’re free to use them, whether or not you want to chase the pound signs.

Liz Adams is a managing editor at TARGETjobs, specialising in engineering, technology and investment banking graduate careers.