Average differences in earnings between men and women continue to make headlines globally. Aisha Khan investigates how the perpetuation of traditional gender norms and current working practices limit opportunities for women at several stages in their careers.
The reporting of gender differences in earnings has become the norm in many companies, but growing evidence indicates that systematic inequalities and cultural stereotypes hinder career progression for female employees.
A study conducted by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a UK-based think-tank, found there are “stark gender differences” in the payoff to achieving a first-class degree at the most selective universities. The report found that the average payoff for male graduates with a first-class degree compared to lower classifications was around 14 percent, whereas the percentage for female students with a first-class degree was near zero, suggesting that fewer higher-achieving women go on to have highly remunerative careers.
Needless to say, a single study doesn’t draw any definitive conclusions, nor should we forget that higher education institutions enrich students in other ways aside from future earnings. However, recognising that the gender pay gap may start as early as graduation is key to understanding possible solutions.
An important distinction to bear in mind is that equal pay differs from the gender pay gap mentioned in this context. While legislation in countries such as the UK (the 2010 Equality Act) prohibits paying men and women unequal salaries for performing the same work at the same level, the gender pay gap is concerned with the average difference in earnings between men and women across a whole organisation.
If we think about inequality in the workplace, it’s worth asking when fundamental disparities begin in a woman’s life. Mary Evans, an Emeritus Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Kent and a centennial professor at the London School of Economics (LSE), suggests the disparity starts from the beginning. “Most of the studies that discuss early socialisation underline the binary difference between blue for boys and pink for girls. Research suggests that, throughout education, girls are rewarded for coherent and neat work, whereas boys are more likely to be rewarded for originality and thinking outside the box.
“It obviously doesn’t hold true across all schools and all parts of the education system, but the general patterns of reward structure make a difference.” She says this is noticeable in the private sector, where employers reward those who have done what they see as ‘hard subjects’, such as STEM, rather than ‘soft subjects’ which some employers believe the humanities fall under.
Previous studies have implied that one reason for the discrepancy in earnings is the fact that female students choose subjects with low financial returns. Vicky Miller has worked as a career consultant at NEOMA Business School for the last six years and provides individualised career coaching to students.
Along with Isabelle Chavelier, Director of the Talent & Careers department and the rest of the team, they’ve been working with students to raise awareness on gender equality in the workplace. The school surveys its graduates every year, including information on their choice of specialisation and salary. “We found out that only 17 percent of our female students are choosing to specialise in finance. It makes a great difference to those entering the financial field where the remuneration level is one of the highest so there is a clear link between the choice of subject and the choice of career,” says Miller.
Pervasive self-censorship Subject choice may explain gender disparity to an extent but acknowledging its connection to self-censorship is important. As the name suggests, self-censorship means refraining from saying or doing something, often due to anxiety or fear of how others will perceive said behaviour. Despite being coined in the context of freedom of speech, the term has entered the vernacular of gender norms and glass ceilings. When NEOMA organised a conference to raise awareness on the issue, Isabelle was surprised to find that many female students didn’t believe there was a problem. “We shared data on the percentage of females choosing to specialise in finance and implications on future earnings, but I was hearing reasons such as ‘I’m not good at mathematics’ or ‘I want to work in luxury marketing’, reflecting gender stereotypes about subject choice,” Chavelier says.
A potential explanation for the denial of the problem is that female students have noticed there are fewer women going into finance than men and therefore assume that it’s a hostile sector to work in. “It means they’re more likely to choose a different subject and will then reproduce that gender split because they’ve noticed it’s happening already,” adds Miller.
The school hopes to overcome issues around self-censorship by running workshops on areas such as negotiation and encouraging students to identify any beliefs or stereotypes that might be holding them back. “We have sessions where female students can talk about their concerns as well as role playing salary negotiation, salary rises and other conditions of their employment package.”
Strong female role models and networks
Sharing inspirational stories from women who have been through the same process is one way
to help students feel confident about entering the workplace. At NEOMA Business School, the alumni association has a branch called Neoma Wo.Men, indicating that the group is also inclusive of male students. Miller says: “The group is similar to HeForShe in the types of values it has, and it essentially puts a spotlight on successful female graduates and facilitates discussion on issues such as professional equality”. They also offer a mentorship programme where female alumni mentor students and graduates.
“We had a senior HR manager from GEODIS who attended one of the school’s events and reinforced the idea that it is possible to have it all but don’t waste time – negotiate your salary from the start, go for top jobs and keep going. There are compromises to make, as you would expect, but it’s about saying to women that you can do both.”
Achieving gender parity across all levels can prove difficult in male-dominated industries. In Singapore, women make up 44 percent of the nation’s workforce but only a quarter of business owners.
Rachel Eng, a managing director at a law firm, serves as the chairperson of the Singapore Women Entrepreneurs Network (SG- WEN) – an initiative that aims to “coalesce the women entrepreneurs in Singapore and connect them with other women entrepreneurs, business leaders and trade associations in the Asia-Pacific, in particular the ASEAN member states.”
When asked in an interview with Tatler Asia about why she felt the need to establish SG-WEN, she said the lack of female representation in senior roles “runs contrary to the fact that the women workforce in Singapore is a highly educated one.”
She felt there was a gap “which may be served by a network like SG-WEN where we could advocate not just for women leaders in general but more importantly, for women entrepreneurs and the unique challenges they face”.
Onus falls on employers and policymakers
Without action from government and businesses, fundamental change to improve representation of women in the workplace is unattainable. Miller and Chavelier point out that measures are being introduced by the French government to address concerns about the lack of female representation, particularly in senior roles. The Rixain Law, enacted last year, introduces new requirements for companies with over 1,000 employees to achieve gender equality. For example, one such obligation states that 40 percent of managerial positions need to be occupied by women by 2030. Failure to meet the required quotas for two years from March 2030 may subject a company to fines of up to one percent of their annual payroll.
“Many women were previously hesitant about the idea of quotas to improve representation but now they’ve realised it’s one of the most impactful ways to make a change. Companies are changing their succession policies and building women’s careers in a way they didn’t do before,” says Chavelier.
Thinking back to gender stereotypes on subject choice, Professor Evans believes that universities and government should resist downgrading humanities subjects. “Universities have a responsibility to argue for the legitimacy of subjects outside of STEM which in turn endorses the choices that women are making.”
The Government Equalities Office in the UK has underlined its commitment to changing workplace cultures so that every woman can reach her career potential. “We are encouraging employers to offer more flexibility within roles – something which we piloted with Zurich as a key enabler – as well as prompting employers to have clear and fair performance management processes and transparency on salary information,” says a spokesperson for the office.
It’s evident that a variety of structural factors continue to affect career mobility for women, starting from graduation to further down the line. A widening of opportunities is on the horizon but without a critical re-think in how we value women’s contributions in their personal and professional lives, the current society risks stifling talent from half of the world’s population.
This article was from the QS Global Education News Issue 10. Download the full edition.