Young women are finally gaining the recognition in their pay packets that their higher qualifications merit, according to new research.
Figures show that women aged between 22 and 29 in employment are now earning more on average per hour than men of the same age.
The figures were unearthed by Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admission Service, during research into the gender gap in education.
The women's lead in the pay stakes is still only slight – their median hourly pay is now just over £10 an hour compared with just under £10 an hour for men. But it reverses a historic trend. Ms Curnock Cook contrasted the findings with figures from 1997 which showed the opposite.
She said that the figures could indicate it had taken a long time for the fact that women were leaving school and university with better qualifications than men to filter its way into the workforce.
She argued that it could lead to young couples deciding after having a child that it makes sense for the woman to become the breadwinner – because of her higher earnings potential.
"The gender pay gap may take another generation to close as the pay feeds through to the more senior workforce," she said. The figures show that the gap between men and women's hourly pay is also closing among 18- to 21-year-olds and 30- to 39-year-olds.
It is only among older workers – 40- to 49-year-olds, many of whom would have left school before the explosion in women's qualifications began – that men remain significantly ahead of women, earning just over £14 per hour on average while women earn just £12.
Overall, too, the gap between the extra that women can expect to earn from obtaining a degree, and the extra men can expect, remains significant: £82,000 compared with £121,000.
Ms Curnock Cook, who was delivering the Elizabeth Johnson memorial lecture at the Institute of Physics, stressed: "I wouldn't want anyone to think I've come and solved the gender gap in pay rates." A number of factors could impact upon future earnings of men and women, she conceded. However, the figures did show it could make sense for some couples for the woman to go back to work after childbirth and for the man to take on the caring role.
Research by the Higher Education Policy Institute shows that women now not only outnumber men overall at university, but they also outnumber them at every type of university. They are also more likely to get a 2:1 degree pass and are less likely to drop out. The institute's figures show 49.2 per cent of women opt for higher education compared with just 37.2 per cent of men. In the post-1992 universities (the former polytechnics), there are 23.8 per cent of the women cohort and 18 per cent of men.
The latest exam statistics show the biggest gender gap in GCSE performance yet, with girls 6.7 percentage points ahead of boys at A* level, and with more than one in four (26.5 per cent) registering a top-grade pass this year. At A-level, though, the gap has closed with 8.2 per cent of each sex registering A* grades.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "I am pleased that young females are now earning more but we still have a lot of work to do before we bridge the pay gap between men and women in higher education, especially at professorial level.
Last month, the Chartered Institute of Management reported that junior female managers are earning marginally more than their male peers for the first time, but that the pay gap stubbornly persists when averaged across all job and age levels. The institute warned that it would take a century before the average salary for female executives caught up with that of their male peers.
This month, the Supreme Court will hear a test case for equal pay brought by Sheffield dinner ladies and careworkers that could have implications for tens of thousands of women who claim they are paid less than men doing comparable jobs. The outcome could affect wages paid to council and NHS workers where some specialised roles have traditionally been performed almost exclusively by separate groups of men or women.