Women are likely to earn £250,000 less during their working lives than men, a conference was told yesterday.
The figure depicted the gap in earnings between a woman with average skills who worked throughout her life without having a baby and a man with similar skills, said Julie Mellor, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
Ms Mellor, who was addressing a conference organised by the National Union of Teachers on gender differences in education, said women were offered lower pay almost from the moment they left school.
Figures showed that 56 per cent of girls got five or more top-grade GCSE passes, compared with 45 per cent of boys – yet, by the time they reached the age of 20, the girls' earnings were 10 per cent behind those of boys. Ms Mellor added: "I think that is the figure that most surprises me – that there is a 10 per cent gap by that age.
"We know girls are doing well at school – but by the time they come out of school they are immediately discriminated against."
The figures also showed that on average, female graduates earned 15 per cent less than males. "Girls are getting lower pay and less job prospects despite an increase in their educational performance," she added.
Ms Mellor said there were "three fundamental reasons" for the pay discrepancies: discrimination in pay structures by employers; segregation in employment options, with many women going into lower-paid jobs such as cleaning and care work; and a perception that women had most responsibilities when it came to caring for families. She urged employers to institute pay reviews to determine whether they discriminated against women. A survey had shown that 93 per cent of employers believed their pay structures were fair – but the evidence belied that.
Ms Mellor also warned that government moves to encourage more youngsters to opt for vocational courses from the age of 14 could lead to more segregation in career paths.
Ministers are planning to encourage more 14-year-olds to opt for GCSEs in vocational subjects such as engineering, health and social care, leisure and tourism, or business studies. Figures already compiled by the Equal Opportunities Commission showed that 98 per cent of those opting for engineering vocational qualifications were male, compared with only 10 per cent of those opting for health and social care courses.
Progress was being made slowly in A-level options, she added. There were four boys for every girl studying A-level physics in 2001 compared with five two decades ago. In 1994, there were five boys studying computing for every girl whereas the ratio now was seven to two.
Suzanne Mackenzie, the NUT's equal opportunities officer, said more girls were opting to take up physics now the syllabus had been made more relevant to the modern world. She said the union was urging the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to "use the physics example" in devising curriculum options for other subjects for 14 to 16-year-olds.
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