Why women are still poor relations at work

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The Independent Online

When they led their campaign for equal pay in the 1970s, campaigners predicted that the glass ceiling that had hung over women would soon be smashed. More than 30 years on, a deluge of statistics has proved how premature those hopes were.

Equality activists have reacted with horror to a string of reports released this week which revealed the extent of Britain's gender pay gap, showing that women's salaries languish way behind their male counterparts – and that female workers suffer from endemic prejudice as soon as they start their careers.

The research showed that the salary split begins at graduate level, with three times as many male as female graduates earning top salaries within three years of leaving universities.

A report from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that 3 per cent of men would earn £50,000 or more within three years of graduating, compared with 1 per cent of women. On average, female graduates would also earn £1,000 less than their male peers in that time.

These results were part of the largest survey yet of graduates' fates in the workplace, tracking 25,000 students in the three years after they left British universities.

Catherine Benfield, the head of the research project at the Higher Education Statistics Agency, said: "Women accept that they may take a job below their expectations and work up from there. Men would rather be unemployed and searching for that perfect job."

A survey released by the Institute of Directors this week showed that, far from improving, the gender pay gap widens at executive level. Pay for female directors was 22 per cent lower than their male counterparts, the investigation into 1,200 organisations found. Commenting on the survey, Miles Templeman, the director general of the Institute of Directors, said: "It is extremely disappointing that this year the survey shows that the gender pay gap is 22 per cent ... The pay gap has actually increased from 19 per cent last year and in some sectors it as high as 26 per cent."

He added: "It is wholly unacceptable ... that women in comparable positions do not receive the same rewards as their male counterparts."

The third blow delivered this week to those hoping for gender equality in the workplace was the news from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) that the percentage gap between the average hourly pay for men and women has only decreased by a fraction, down to 17.2 per cent from 17.5.

The ONS heralded it as the lowest pay gap since records began, but Baroness Prosser, the deputy chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission said this "snail's pace" change was not good enough. "Nationwide, women are less able to save for a pension, leaving them poverty stricken in old age ... With the Government conducting a review of anti-discrimination legislation, now's the time to drag the Equal Pay Act into the 21st century."

View from the other side of the glass ceiling

Jenny Poole, employment solicitor, 25

Qualified: 2007

Salary: £62,000

"I was really surprised by the statistics; girls do better academically, so it's amazing that the balance is reversed within three years of leaving university. I think it does weigh on employers minds that young women might like to get married and have kids, so they're seen as less sound investments. Ultimately that's sex discrimination."

Lucy Cohen, Accountant, 24

Graduated: 2005

Income: £60,000

"Before I set up my own accountancy firm I worked as an accountant for local government. Most of the top jobs were taken by men, and it felt like all the women stopped moving up when they got principal officer roles. Women don't question it when they don't get a pay-rise, they are willing to accept their lot rather than challenge it."

Lavinia Santoretti, economic researcher, 27

Graduated: 2005

Salary: £55,000

"In general my female friends earn much less than me, unless they are also in investment banking. In my firm there are a lot of opportunities for women, but I think the main reason women earn less is the jobs they choose. It seems that it's a case of girls still simply being less ambitious or demanding of themselves."

Louise Marozzi, property lawyer, 27

Qualified: 2007

Salary: £62,000

"Most of my female friends aren't earning anything like that money. For some women it's a lifestyle choice I think, but there's also definitely still an old boys' club atmosphere that can hold people back. It starts at school though – I went to an all-girls school, and we were never steered towards high-earning careers."