21/12/2015 18:22 GMT | Updated 18/12/2016 05:12 GMT

Gender Pay Gap - Or Is It an Opportunity Gap?

This week Lord Freud used statistics to suggest that "The gender pay gap has 'disappeared' for young women" (reported in Huffington Post - 16th December). I am beginning to wonder if we should "disappear" the phrase "gender pay gap" as while he is correctly citing one set of statistics the use of the phrase "gender pay gap" in political and public debate is becoming increasingly confusing and, more seriously, very misleading.

The gender pay gap (GPG) figures for young people quoted by Lord Freud and others are now understood by many, and often conveyed by the media, to suggest that young women have the same level of opportunity to earn as much as men. However the GPG figures tell us only about whether the average woman, when she is already in work, is securing the same levels of pay as the average man, and less about whether women have equality of opportunity to find and sustain work in the same way as men and whether equal numbers of women have the possibility to earn as much as men.

The GPG is based only on those IN work. It does not reflect the number of people who are not in work and earning nothing. Nearly 2 million young people aged 18-34 are out of work and approximately 57% of these are young women.

So overall aged 18-34 approximately:

• 861,000 young men not working

• 1,126,436 young women not working

It would be very interesting to know how the GPG calculation would be affected if you included these young people who are earning nothing and possibly drawing benefits. It is very likely that it would show that the gender pay gap is more significant than it appears.

These figures of workless young people include those aged 18-24 described as NEET (not in education, employment or training) of whom 435,000 are young women and 360,000 are young men. This difference, or even larger, has existed for 14 years. And despite common assumptions, young women aren't out of work from choice. According to a Young Women's Trust poll conducted by ComRes, 95% of NEET young women say getting a paid job is important to them. These young women are not included in the GPG calculations. But the gender pay gap will be affected by their limited work options. There is evidence to show that young NEET women suffer significant wage scarring, earning 17% less in their thirties than young women who have not been NEET. We also know that young women are more likely to remain stuck on lower pay than young men. Around 780,000 women aged 16-30 cycle in and out of low pay (double the number of young men) with one-third stuck there for 10 years compared to one-fifth of men.(1)

Neither does the GPG reflect women's inability to work as much as they want to, nor the additional challenges they are facing in securing work, compared to young men. ONS figures show that 41% of women work part time compared with 11% of males (all ages) and 10% of full time and 25% of part time workers want more hours. According to another poll conducted for Young Women's Trust, 39% of young women in work and aged 18-30 worry about not having enough paid hours (compared to 33% of young men) and this rises to 53% of those in the C2DE socio-economic group.

Why does this matter? It matters because there is an increasingly accepted narrative which goes like this:

• Young women do better at school (on average this is true)

• More young women than young men go to university (yes, true again)

• The GPG shows that young women earn as much as men or more in their 20s and 30s (very misleading)

Those of us who work closely with the statistics know this is simplistic. The Equality and Human Rights Commission and others have acknowledged that young women's academic attainment is not translating into better opportunities in the workplace. The GPG is one useful measure of equality at work - but like all statistics it has to be taken in context and used with care. We must not interpret the progress made in one area to mean that it's 'mission accomplished' for gender equality in the labour market. We still have a long way to go to close the opportunity gap for young women.

(1) Estimates based on calculations by Resolution Foundation 2014:

The Escape Plan,