Have Women Really Graduated From the University of Gender Inequality?

24/09/2015 15:04 BST | Updated 24/09/2016 10:12 BST

Good news is always welcome, so let's start there. New IFS research shows that the graduate 'premium' is more significant for women. They are likely to earn three times as much as employed women who do not have a degree. For male graduates the ratio is twice that of those working without the benefit of higher education.

But that is more or less where the good news ends; and it's more driven by the fact that so many more women are trapped in low paid work than those female graduates who are doing well. In other words it's not difficult to realise a graduate premium when the group you are comparing is faring so badly. For me the shine has already come off this finding, and the rest of the research is far more worrying.

One key finding is that the recession hit women harder than men. While higher-earning men increased their earnings during and after this period less than previous cohorts, women graduates in their 20s saw a real decline in earnings over the recession period. So women who were already earning less went backwards and men who were doing alright basically continued to do alright.

The research goes on to starkly set out the graduate gender pay gap. For a small number of successful graduates, the research shows their annual earnings are impressive. For men, 10 years after graduation, 10% of them can expect to be earning over £55,000 per year, 5% over 73,000 per year and 1% over £148,000 per year.

But for women the bar is much lower: 10% were earning over £43,000, 5% more than £54,000 and 1% more than £89,000. The study puts the gender pay gap at 23%, lower than the Labour Force Survey at 33%, but still a gaping disparity in the way we reward our male and female graduates.

So, what to do about it? The Prime Minister has committed to closing the gender pay gap in a generation and the Government has recently consulted on the implementation of Section 78 of the 2010 Equality Act which would require companies with over 250 employees to publish their gender pay gap.

We believe this could be significant if, in addition to reporting the pay gap, it requires a pay review, the methodology to be published and the employer to commit to an action plan to address it. Almost certainly the figures will show women concentrated below management level and men concentrated at the top.

So opening up routes to progression, tackling unconscious bias and keeping the pipeline full of female talent is key. But we also know that men's careers take off in their 30s and 40s while women's stagnate or decline, often as a result of the impact of having children. So we want to see more senior part-time roles with companies defaulting to part-time or job share opportunities unless there is a good business case not to.

Finally we have to measure the mean gender pay gap not the median. Extremes matter in an age of growing pay inequality, so counting the lowest paid and the highest paid gives us a much more honest picture. And we all know very well, it isn't the women at the top.

Sam Smethers is the chief executive of the Fawcett Society