By Matin Durrani
I went up to London yesterday (I’m never quite sure if one goes up or down to the capital but never mind) to attend a lecture at the Institute of Physics given by Mary Curnock Cook (right), who is chief executive of the University and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).
Entitled “Gender maps in education”, Cook’s presentation was this year’s memorial lecture given in honour of Elizabeth Johnson (1936–2003), a US-born condensed-matter theorist who did much to encourage women to pursue careers in science.
The memorial lectures always have women in science as their general theme and as head of UCAS – the centralized service in the UK for students applying to university or college – Cook had some fascinating data about how many women go to university and how well they do once they are there.
Cook’s starting point was that women who have a degree from a British university earn a total of £82,000 more over their lifetime than someone without a degree. Which sounds fantastic, until you realize that the equivalent “graduate premium” for men is a much larger: roughly £121,000.
So why the difference? Well, it’s complicated is the short answer – or, as Cook put it, “it’s the educational equivalent of a can of worms”.
But one reason is that more men than women study science, engineering, technology and medicine (STEM) subjects at university, which generally lead to jobs that have higher salaries than those jobs that don’t require a science degree.
However, the good news for women is that they are starting to catch up with men when it comes to pay: while men in their 40s earn quite a bit more than women of the same age, younger men who are currently in their 20s are on a par with women. We could, Cook speculated, have reached a tipping point: as those women get older, the overall differences in pay between the sexes – the “gender pay gap” – will even out.
What’s also interesting is that while some 40% of 18-year-old women in the UK go into higher education, just 32% of men of the same age go on to do degrees. On the other hand, men have a slightly better overall success rate of being accepted onto a course than women. That’s because men are more likely to study STEM subjects, which are generally less popular and hence easier to get into.
Cook was well aware that there’s a lot more one could say on this subject – and that a proper treatment would probably require a year-long academic study to get to the bottom of things. But the evening-out of the gender pay gap certainly sounds like a good thing.