“Women earn more than men”: should we be excited?

An article in yesterday’s Independent by Richard Garner, the Education Editor, drew attention to the content of this year’s Elizabeth Johnson Memorial Lecture at the Institute of Physics. Betty Johnson, who died in 2003, was a great supporter of women in the sciences, and in her honour, this lecture this year was given by Mary Curnock Cook, the chief executive of UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. She spoke in part about figures published by the UK Office of National Statistics, in their Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, which revealed how women of a certain age group (22-29) have started to earn more than men, and it was this figure that made the headlines. Is it indeed proof that the gender pay gap is closing, or even that women’s qualifications are translating into better-paid jobs in the workplace?

Delving further into the statistics shows us that the news isn’t perhaps as positive – or, indeed, in an age where we are used to seeing stories of a persistent pay gap, as unusual – as the headline in the Independent suggested. For a start, the difference is very slight – a difference of a few pence an hour, hovering around the £10 an hour mark. Besides, this pay difference is restricted to this particular age group of 22 to 29 (and given that the average age to have a first baby in the UK is now 29, this may be a significant cut-off point). Overall, the picture is not so rosy either – while junior women managers now earn £21,969 on average, ie £602 more than men at the same level, female managers in general are paid on average £31,895 per year, which does not compare nearly as well with the £42,441 that men are paid on average for doing the same job. It is no surprise, then, that while the mean net graduate premium – the amount by which lifetime pay is boosted through degree level qualifications – is £108,000, this splits into an unequal £121,000 for men and only £82,000 for women.

Still, we should not be too pessimistic – any signs that men’s and women’s pay is growing closer together are encouraging as we strive to move our society towards a situation in which gender inequality is not even an issue. This is not about women seeking to be superior to men, nor is it even about particular women always seeking to be paid the same as particular men (although to be fair, if they are doing the same job, then they should be!). Statistics are a crude measure and do not discriminate between individuals of different characters, aptitudes, experiences and suitability for any particular job; they are a fair indicator, though, of trends, and one trend we would need to see in order to ‘park’ the whole issue of gender inequality would be precisely the sort of trend to which Mary Curnock Cook was drawing attention. In the meantime, it seems sensible to continue setting the kind of target, however aspirational, which Lord Davies broadly recommends in his report for the number of senior women on boards. Unless we set ourselves goals, we will not get to where we should be in this respect.

So in the light of this news, let us all – in equal (no pun intended) measure – celebrate, be cautious, and determine to make sure that the issue does not yet fade from our consciousness.

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