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Post-16 subject choice leads to pay penalty for women

Written by: Emma Lunn
Disadvantaged women are making course choices at 16 which can lead them to lower paid jobs than men, according to a report from the Social Mobility Commission.

The report The road not taken: Drivers of course selection found that regardless of how good their GCSE grades are, ‘disadvantaged’ young women are the most likely to choose post-16 technical courses which lead to lower paid jobs in the UK, such as in retail, childcare, and social care.

But disadvantaged men tend to choose technical subjects which lead to higher earnings, such as engineering and IT.

The study, which included research undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and CFE Research, found that half of disadvantaged women choose courses ranked in the bottom 25% of earnings, which compares with 31% of men from similar backgrounds.

The Social Mobility Commission said that post-16 subject choices of disadvantaged women explain about 10% of the earnings gap they face compared with more advantaged men.

The study analysed the course selection and earnings of people who completed their GCSEs in England between 2001-02 and 2004-05. It also examined socio-economic differences amongst more recent cohorts and found the patterns to be very similar.

The report also uncovered huge disparities in earnings depending on whether the students picked academic or technical options. Academic routes are the most likely to lead to a big salary – with 80% of A level courses being linked to well-paid careers in the top 25% of earnings.

Course routes combining academic and technical qualifications are relatively high earning too, with 70% of combined courses ranked in the top 50% of earnings.

On the other end of the scale, technical qualifications are mostly associated with low earnings – with 62% of classroom-based technical qualifications and 40% of apprenticeships leading students on a path to the bottom 25% of earnings.

Interviews with young people in 2019-20 confirmed that gender roles and role models remain a strong influence on all students’ post-16 course selections, as do the actions and choices of friends.

Enjoyment of a course and financial stability also motivate decisions, although disadvantaged young people are more likely to experience disappointment post-GCSE results and find themselves on low reward routes that they did not plan to take.

Alastair Da Costa, social mobility commissioner for adult skills and further education, said: “The gender pay gap between disadvantaged men and women remains stark. There is no doubt growing up in deprivation, especially for women, has an enduring impact on early career earnings. It is particularly worrying that women appear to choose subjects that lead them to a smaller wage packet than men.

“Policy needs to focus on closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and more privileged students, and to ensure that all students get high quality exposure to technical education prior to making their post-16 subject choice. We also recommend increasing earnings in many occupations predominantly chosen by women from disadvantaged backgrounds and low levels of educational attainment, especially childcare and adult social care. Addressing these barriers early on could have a significant impact on women’s future earning potential and measurably reduce the gender and class pay gap.”

Dr Luke Sibieta, research fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and co-author of the report, said: “The subjects and courses young people take at age 16 can have a large bearing on their future economic opportunities. Our analysis shows that the groups most likely to take low-earning courses are disadvantaged women from White British backgrounds and disadvantaged men and women from Black Caribbean backgrounds. Tackling these cumulative barriers requires a focus on what happens before age 16, including addressing inequalities in educational attainment, earlier provision of effective careers guidance and positive role models.”

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