Women get the jobs but still miss the top

Prospects for the female graduate are improving, writes Alexandra Jardine, but the pay could be better
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The Independent Online
Female candidates for graduate jobs at the Bristol branch of the accountancy firm Arthur Andersen swept the board last year. Five of the six recruits chosen were women, and graduate recruiter Valerie Bigwood says the results may be similar this year. "The calibre of the girls coming through is far stronger than ever before," she says.

In the tough graduate job market, women now seem to be more successful.

One year after graduation, 8.2 per cent of women were still unemployed, compared with 12.5 per cent of men. A survey conducted for the BBC's Panorama programme "The Future is Female" last year showed that some leading companies had doubled their intake of female graduates in the past 10 years.

Inequality, however, still exists, as does the well-known "glass ceiling". Today's female graduates are still entering a world where few women reach the boardroom and women earn considerably less than their male counterparts.

An Institute of Management salary survey in May 1994 showed that on average female directors were paid 83.4 per cent of the earnings paid to men for the same job.

Even the most successful women only earn about 75 per cent of the salaries enjoyed by their male counterparts, and most women's earnings are far lower, according to the University of London careers adviser Shiona Llewellyn, writing in an equal opportunities casebook for students.

A recent report by the Ashridge Management Research Group, looking into the Times Top 200 companies, said women make up only 4 per cent of the directors in large companies. Just over 80 per cent of those are non- executive directors and only one director, Ann Iverson, managing director at Mothercare, has the most senior job in the company.

The report concluded that the pace of change seems likely to remain slow. At the present rate, it will be the year 2017 before there is even one woman on the board of every one of the Times Top 200.

So what are the prospects for today's female graduates? The good news is that they are impressing employers in the initial job search after university.

At Unilever, intake of female graduates has risen from 18 to 46 per cent in the past 10 years. In 1993, two-thirds of the company's non-technical jobs - in finance, personnel and marketing - went to women.

The head of graduate recruitment, Dr Martin Duffell, says female candidates benefited from Unilever's policy of selecting candidates on the basis of their performance in a group situation. "Women tend to have much better interpersonal skills than men," he says. "They are often more articulate and have the right kind of aggression - winning by argument and persuasion rather than by trying to force their views.

"In some ways this isn't surprising. A girl of 21 has had years of channelling her aggression into words, whereas boys up to the age of 16 tend to win by thumping each other."

He says more women are entering jobs in industry because they are more likely to put job satisfaction before high starting salaries.

"Men are lured away from industry by salary prospects in the City, but women find management and working with people more interesting than sitting in front of a VDU trading equities," says Dr Duffell. "So Unilever gets a good share of the brightest women while their male counterparts at university go into merchant banking or stockbroking."

Shell has tripled its number of female recruits since 1983. Last year 24 per cent of its recruits were women. Shell's graduate recruitment manager, Andy Gibb, says this increase directly reflects the growing number of women now studying science.

"There are more women than ever studying technical subjects at universities, so the pool of people from which we have to choose also contains more women," he says. "Roughly a third of the students on these university courses are women, so we aim to reflect that in our recruitment. We would be worried if there was an imbalance."

Although girls may impress interviewers in some respects, they are sometimes disadvantaged by a lack of assertiveness and failure to realise their own potential. Sheila Trahar, former careers adviser at Bristol University, says lack of self-confidence is a common problem for women. In response to demand from students, she sets up single-sex sessions dealing with assertiveness and self-presentation. Students are encouraged to explore why they find it difficult to behave assertively and to deal more confidently with stressful situations.

"We do have a problem because we tend to be persuaded into believing that we are there to service people," says Ms Trahar, who describes the response to the classes as phenomenal. "The sessions are about being able to say, 'Yes, I am good at this, I do have this to offer,' about not being frightened of unpopularity. We very often have a great need to be liked."

Employers, however, are not necessarily looking for signs of aggression and competitiveness. Ms Trahar believes that female strengths, such as flexibility, co-operation and intuition, are increasingly in demand today.

"Most companies are really changing," she says. "There is more emphasis on teamwork, so employees need to be flexible and able to take on a variety of different roles. This suits the way women tend to work."

She says, however, that theories about women getting the edge on men need to be looked at more closely.

"Women tend to be better at securing their first job after graduation, but the figures do not always show what kind of employment they take," she says. "It could be that their expectations are lower and they are settling for less high-powered jobs than men.

"Employers' feedback suggests female students go into the job search much better prepared than male ones. They tend to make their decisions about the career they want and stick to them.

"But maybe they try harder because they feel they have less of a chance than men."

Today's female students may be good at finding their first job, but will they break through the glass ceiling?

Mr Gibb says that at Shell female graduate recruits would have a good chance of rising to senior positions.

"At the moment there are very few women at senior levels because 20 years ago there were hardly any engineers," he says. "Hopefully, this will change with the rising number of women doing the job."

Shell, like many companies, offers a two-year career break to women, with the guarantee of a job when they return to work.

Many women, however, fall behind men after taking time out. "When you take a career break you lose your footing, so the next stage is harder for women," says Carol Nicholas, careers adviser at the University of Wales at Cardiff.

Although getting a foot in the door has become easier for women, the heavy pressures of family life and old-fashioned attitudes may mean that only the exceptional few will make it to the top.

As Ruth Miller wrote in her introduction to the 1992 Penguin Careers Guide: "We won't have true equal opportunities until mediocre women get as far as mediocre men."