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Jobs & Careers

Gender pay gap explained 2021

We hear about the gender pay gap a lot in the media – but what does it really mean and how does it affect you? Here's a super simple guide to get you up to speed...

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Unfortunately, we're still a long way off achieving true equality in the workplace. 20th November 2020 marked Equal Pay Day; the day women effectively start working for free relative to men because of the gender pay gap. That's a whole 42 days of unpaid work.

Shockingly, women are paid on average around 16% less than men in the UK. So, to make sense of this (pretty huge) issue, here's your complete guide to what pay gaps mean, why they exist and what's being done about them.

Unsure what salary to expect when you graduate? Take a look at our list of average starting salaries based on degree subjects.

What is the gender pay gap?

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People often assume the gender pay gap, or 'gender wage gap' as it's also called, is caused by men and women getting paid different amounts of money for doing the same job. While this is part of the problem, the gender pay gap is a much more complex issue.

It's important not to confuse it with equal pay.

The difference between the gender pay gap and equal pay

  1. Equal pay As stated in the Equality Act 2010, it is illegal to pay men and women differently for performing equal work.
  2. The gender pay gap – This measures the difference between men and women’s average earnings across a company or the labour force as a whole.

Equal pay is a legal issue, while the gender pay gap is a much broader problem in society.

Put simply, this means that the gender pay gap is caused by much more than men and women being paid differently for the same jobs.

A number of different factors contribute to the gender pay gap, including the different types of work that men and women do, the seniority of roles, the difference between people doing full-time and part-time work, socio-economic status, attitudes to maternity/paternity leave and much more.

Is there a gender pay gap in the UK?

Research shows that the gender pay gap in the UK is noticeable across numerous industries, but there has been a gradual improvement over recent years. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported:

In 2020, the gap among full-time employees fell to 7.4%, from 9.0% in 2019. Among all employees it fell to 15.5%, from 17.4% in 2019.

The official figure of 15.5% is based on the average hourly earnings of all workers, both full-time and part-time. It means that, for every £100 a man earns, a woman would generally earn £84.50.

While this is an improvement on previous years, it's obviously still a shocking figure and change is very much needed.

This gap is larger still if a woman is also part of a minority ethnic group or disabled, as will be explained below.

Why does the gender pay gap exist?

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There are loads of reasons why the gender pay gap exists. It's not just about individual salaries – it's about the kind of jobs women tend to do and their working habits in comparison with men.

Here are some of the main reasons men generally earn more than women:

  1. Part-time work

    According to the ONS, around 37% of women were working part-time between December 2020 and February 2021, compared to about 12% of men. For both men and women, people with part-time jobs tend to get paid less per week than their full-time colleagues.

    Women choose to work part-time for a number of reasons, but one of the main ones is childcare. This leads us to our next point...

  2. Childcare

    Thankfully, in age groups below 40, the gender pay gap for full-time workers is now close to non-existent. But, it's still pretty significant for people aged 40+. This is most likely due to women leaving work or cutting down their hours to have children.

  3. Gender inequality within industries

    We all know there's no such thing as 'girl jobs' and 'boy jobs'. But, some occupations are dominated by a certain gender, and the earning potential between sectors can vary.

    For example, women typically dominate roles within the teaching and care industries. The salaries for these positions are generally less than those offered to people working in management or director roles – areas that tend to be dominated by men.

While these factors clarify why the gender pay gap exists, they shouldn't be taken as excuses to explain away the issue. It's still a problem that needs addressing, but the solution clearly isn't as simple as just paying men and women the same.

To tackle this problem, we should be looking at childcare provision, attitudes to maternity/paternity leave and parenthood in the workplace, increasing accessibility in certain industries and much more.

How is the gender pay gap calculated?

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As you can imagine, calculating something as complex as the gender pay gap isn't exactly straightforward, and figures vary depending on what method's used.

For example, you'll see different numbers cited depending on whether the average is calculated as a median or mean, or whether part-time jobs have been included.

The official figure's based on the average hourly pay of workers, excluding overtime hours. It is presented as a percentage difference between men's and women's earnings.

You might see variations of official figures as it's sometimes reported as the mean average, and sometimes as the median average.

But, when the mean average is used, the results could be slightly skewed if there's a small group of people in very well- or poorly-paid positions.

As the median average isn't distorted by the highest and lowest outliers, it's often considered a more accurate representation of the gender pay gap.

What's the difference between the median and mean?

Median averages find the value directly in the middle of all results. When used to calculate the gender pay gap, it takes the salaries of all female employees, sorted from lowest to highest paid, and finds the central value. The difference between that employee’s salary and the median male’s salary becomes the gender pay gap.

Mean averages are calculated by adding up all results and dividing by the total number of results. So, when this method’s used to calculate the average salaries of men and women, the highest and lowest incomes of each gender can skew the results as they’re given equal weight to the most common salaries, despite being much rarer.

University gender pay gaps

Gender pay gap data share

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As of 2017/18, all companies with over 250 employees are legally required to record their gender pay gaps.

You can search the results here, where you’ll find everyone from Disney to Deloitte.

In April 2019, it was reported that around eight in 10 companies pay men more than women, with construction, finance and insurance showing the largest gaps.

The reporting is a crucial first step in naming and shaming the worst offenders and forcing companies to look at ways to tackle inequalities in the workplace. It should (hopefully!) empower employees at companies with a large gender pay gap to make internal changes and suggestions to drive change.

However, it remains to be seen whether this will have a direct impact on reducing gender pay gaps at these companies.

The data needs to be updated annually, though, and with it being so readily available to the public, it’s in the companies’ best interests to make improvements and avoid damage to their reputation.

What is the gender pay gap at your university?

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All universities in the UK are now legally required to record their gender pay gaps – and the results make for interesting reading.

Among Higher Education teaching professionals, women hold 40% of the jobs and earn on average 9.9% less than men.

Looking at the gender pay gaps across the entire workforces of individual unis, some have a much worse gap than this average.

Based on their 2020 gender pay gap report, Durham University has the biggest gap among Russell Group unis, with women earning a median hourly wage of 28.3% less than men.

On the other hand, the Royal College of Music and Staffordshire University both report a gender pay gap of 0%. Plus, St John’s College Cambridge actually reported a pay gap of –3.4%, meaning that, on average, they pay women slightly more than men.

University gender pay gaps ranked

UniversityMedian hourly pay gap (%)Women in lower quartile pay (%)Women in top quartile pay (%)
AECC University College37.16640
Arden University28.67450
Durham University28.368.136.7
Harper Adams University27.668.142.8
University of Keele27.671.350.5
Lancaster University25.573.734.1
University of Reading23.270.348.3
Bishop Grosseteste University20.379.457.4
University of Warwick23.36736
University of Bradford20.26744.2
University of Birmingham19.663.438.7
University of Leicester1967.442.3
Bath Spa University18.66948
University of Essex18.66741.2
University of Southampton18.667.237.8
York St John University18.668.555.1
Newcastle University176740
Leeds Trinity University16.972.251.1
St George's, University of London16.373.244.3
University of Liverpool16.268.840.8
Cardiff University15.66638
Trinity College15.380.844.4
University Of Bath15.161.237.9
University of St Andrews15.16439
University of Suffolk15.178.546.3
University of Nottingham14.866.441.2
University of Hertfordshire14.36551
University of Greenwich146741
University of Bristol13.76640
Royal Agricultural University13.75542
Sheffield Hallam University13.766.950.8
University of Gloucestershire13.770.941.2
University of Leeds13.665.840.1
The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts1385.347.3
University of Derby12.86652
University of Huddersfield12.87242
University of Sussex12.76839
The University of Manchester11.861.240.8
University of Sheffield11.565.942.5
Leeds Beckett University11.16445.5
Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine11.176.343.8
Plymouth College of Art11.165.657.6
Swansea University11.160.340.4
University of Cambridge11.161.438.5
The University of Lincoln11.175.941.6
The University of Northampton11.165.850.6
The University of Salford11.16245
Queen Mary, University of London10.259.839.6
King's College London10.16142
Gonville & Caius College1058.135.1
London School of Economics & Political Science9.55638
London Metropolitan University9.358.747.3
Aberystwyth University8.75242
Kingston University8.76651
Nottingham Trent University8.56847
Anglia Ruskin University8.46953.2
The University of Chichester8.465.451
University of Kent8.262.344.9
Middlesex University863.947.1
Birkbeck College, University of London7.757.746.8
The University of Cumbria7.572.757
The University of Westminster7.563.846.7
Bangor University7.26246.2
University of the Arts, London769.958.6
Birmingham City University6.66545
University College Birmingham6.471.358.8
Leeds Arts University5.761.856.4
The Open University5.76855
University of Bolton2.965.745.7
Manchester Metropolitan University2.65951
Royal College of Music057.150
Staffordshire University07052
St John's College Cambridge -3.458.667.3

Note: This table includes data from the 2020/21 tax year.

At the time of writing, not all universities had yet submitted their gender pay gap reports for 2020/21. The deadline for employers to submit their reports for that tax year is October 2021.

What are universities doing about their gender pay gaps?

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Although all universities were legally required to report their gender pay gap data, commenting or explaining what they were doing to tackle it was optional.

In their March 2021 gender pay gap report, Harper Adams University, an institution that specialises in agricultural and rural disciplines, said:

The challenges we face in addressing the Gender Pay Gap include those relating to the
specific industry areas in which we specialise and the legacy of those areas.

We are seeing changes in the balance of equality between men and women in our roles, but these are slow to come through in applications for positions that will enable significant changes to our Gender Pay Gap statistics.

We are wholly committed to closing the gap.

Durham University fares the worst out of all the Russell Groups for their gender pay gap, and they released a statement in 2018 that claimed the uni is committed to tackling the issue:

We recognise that the gender pay gap is a serious issue for Durham University, as it is for society as a whole and the higher education sector in particular.

We are committed to addressing it through our comprehensive action plan, approved by the University Executive Committee and University Council.

Clearly, the government hopes that by making the data public, organisations will be encouraged to take steps to rectify the situation and improve their standing.

However, it remains to be seen what direct action will actually be taken in most cases.

Gender pay gaps at universities compared to other sectors

When looking at the ONS 2020 gender pay gap report, it’s clear that higher education professionals do experience a significant pay inequality, with men generally earning around 10% more than women. However, it is far from the worst industry for this issue.

For example, production managers and directors in mining and energy experience a gender pay gap of around 38%, while IT engineers have a pay gap of 36%.

In contrast, among counsellors, there’s a pay gap of –19%, meaning women generally earn more than men.

If you’ve got a part-time job at university, make sure you know all of your employment rights.

Ethnicity and disability pay gaps

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As well as the gender pay gap, there are also noticeable differences in earnings for black and minority ethnic workers and people with disabilities.

Ethnicity pay gaps

According to a 2019 report by ONS (their latest report at the time of writing), the ethnicity pay gap between White and ethnic minority people is the lowest it’s been since 2012 in England and Wales.

The report found that most ethnic minority employees earn less than White British people on average. The ethnic pay gap is particularly marked among Pakistani (16%), White and Black African (15%) and Bangladeshi (15%) people.

However, on average, White and Asian (–7%), Indian (–16%), Chinese (–23%) and White Irish (–41%) people earn more than those who are White British.

For most ethnic groups, men still earn more than women. But, among men, there is a bigger ethnicity pay gap than there is among women.

Inequality among higher education professionals

People from ethnic minority backgrounds also face serious under-representation at universities. According to 2019/20 data from HESA, among higher-education employees who do both teaching and research (i.e. professors), only 2% are Black.

This compares to around 9% who are Asian and 80% who are White British.

Disability pay gaps

In the most recent ONS report on disability pay gaps in the UK (from 2018), it was found that there was a 12.2% pay gap between non-disabled and disabled employees. And, the disability pay gap was actually wider for men than women.

There was a pay gap of 18.6% for disabled employees with a mental impairment, 9.7% for people with a physical impairment and 7.4% for people with other impairments.

These are the best universities for graduate salaries – and Oxbridge isn’t top.

How you can help to close pay gaps

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Pay gaps based on gender, ethnicity or disability aren’t going to disappear overnight. It’s going to take employers, educators and the government working together to create some real change.

We need better education, awareness and shifting attitudes to create real equality and fairness, but now that thousands of companies are being legally required to reveal their gender pay gap for the first time, the first steps are being taken.

However, we can all do our bit to help close these pay gaps. If you, or someone you know, are being affected by an unfair pay gap at work, always report it to your manager or HR department.

Talking more openly about our salaries will also help. People often shy away from talking about pay, but this only allows pay gaps to continue. Pay gaps can only be called out and challenged if people know they exist after all.

Finally, we should all do our best to support each other in the workplace. While we need the government and employers to take real action, helping those around us where possible can help create a more inclusive atmosphere.

Speaking up about pay gaps can take guts – build up your confidence by reading our guide on what to expect in your first job.


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