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29 November 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:01pm

Women with degrees are more likely to be out of work than men with no qualifications

Women who go to university get a bigger pay boost than men – but only because women who don’t suffer such a large pay penalty compared to men.

By Bex Bailey

Degree or no degree, women can’t win when it comes to pay. Closing the gender pay gap will take more than increasing the numbers going to university. Throwing gender stereotypes out of the window by helping more women into male-dominated apprenticeships and supporting more men to take on the childcare would be a start.

We learned yesterday that women who go to university get a bigger pay boost than men – not because women graduates earn more than men (in fact, quite the opposite), but because women who don’t go to university suffer such a large pay penalty compared to men who don’t. If anything, the Department for Education statistics show just how little women get paid, despite their qualifications.

This is in line with Young Women’s Trust research, which found that young women with degrees are as likely to end up economically inactive (out of work and not able to start work immediately) as men with no qualifications.

Women graduates are out of work in higher numbers than men due to having children or caring for another family member; or because the high cost of childcare combined with a lack of flexible working options shuts them out of many workplaces.

Those women who do find work or an apprenticeship instead of going to university are more likely to be in lower-paid sectors such as retail, beauty and care. Meanwhile, we know that men doing apprenticeships earn on average £1,000 a year more than women, because they are often in better-paid sectors like construction and engineering. The women who do make it onto a building site or industrial plant are often the only one in their class and tell of sexist comments and harassment, with many unable to complete their training.

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Even the women who go to university, while they tend to significantly improve their prospects by doing so, find themselves worse off than men who study the same subject. Department for Education data shows that women graduates of all subjects still face a gender pay gap within five years of completing their degree.

As a result, young women say they are increasingly struggling to make ends meet and falling into debt, with little hope that we will have equality in the workplace any time soon. While gender stereotypes continue to limit their options, this is no surprise.

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The fact that women earn more by going to university than they would otherwise suggests that this is their best option after school. In reality, however, it is just the least worst option in a society where women’s choices remain more limited than men’s.

To genuinely put women on a par with men, it’s time we opened up other routes to young women, such as helping them into male-dominated apprenticeships like construction and engineering. Men, too, say they would like to take a bigger role in childcare. Sharing care more equally would help to expand women’s options, not least by reducing the extent to which employers see them as a liability due to their increased risk of taking maternity leave.

We’re too quick to kid ourselves about the progress we have made towards women’s workplace equality. The reality is that stereotypes are still deeply entrenched. It’s not that the solutions are hard; it’s that the will is, sadly, not there.

If employers won’t step up, Government should, and its apprenticeship reforms are the perfect opportunity to do it.

Bex Bailey is media manager at the Young Women’s Trust charity.