You want to narrow the gender pay gap? Tackle the ‘gender career gap’ first

Kirstie Donnelly MBE talks about the real problem behind unequal gender pay.

13 August 2015

Like many I was interested to hear of the Government’s plans to force large firms to disclose the gender pay gap amongst their staff. Narrowing the pay gap is critical to our country’s success, so it’s good to see the Government acting to bridge that divide. But like some of the critics, I’m also inclined to say that the problem goes far deeper and cannot be solved alone by publishing information on pay gaps. Because behind this is a broader gender career gap – one that sees men do ‘male’ jobs and women pursue ‘feminine’ careers. This starts at a much younger age - and it’s what really needs tackling.

Early on, the playing field is largely level. Look in any of the papers this month, and you’ll see photos of smiling girls waving glittering exam results, along with opinion pieces worrying about how boys are trailing in the league tables. As data taken from the OECD’s PISA tests shows, girls consistently outperform boys, and even when they leave school, employment rates tend to be broadly similar. But at some point between the classroom and the conference room, things go awry. Because research repeatedly shows that woman are underrepresented in key fields, including engineering and technology – sectors that typically command higher pay. The 2014 -15 House of Lords report on Digital Skills highlighted that women only make up 30% of the ICT workforce; while the IPPR’s 2014 report showed that only 7% of the professional engineering workforce in the UK is made up of women.

But let’s be clear - equality doesn’t have to mean every career has an equal number of men and women. For a productive economy, we need to use the skills of the whole workforce – and that means making sure opportunities aren’t closed off to people because of their gender.  Consider for example the number of men in the care sector.  A 2014 report by the charity Anchor and the International Longevity Centre-UK found that just 20% of the health and social care workforce is men. In order to meet the projected population growth, the sector will need to hire an additional 1 million workers by 2025 – an unobtainable target if recruitment doesn’t widen its current demographic.

So how can we overcome this gender career gap?

In 2014 City & Guilds conducted research into careers advice, showing that advice was routinely delivered along old-fashioned stereotypes. Girls were directed towards nursing, care and teaching; boys towards IT and engineering. In construction, just 0.6% of women were encouraged to think of it as a potential career path, compared to 12% of men.

It’s astounding and unnecessary that in 2015 we assume gender matters more than a person’s skillset or interests. We must start to address what, when and how we are talking to the next generation about the workplace. 

For starters, that means making careers advice robust and relevant. Our research found that a third of young people reported not receiving any careers guidance school, but often we see confusion over where the responsibility should lie in the first place. For example, many parents expect teachers to be the best source of information about next steps – even though teachers themselves don’t necessarily have the right knowledge. And yet young people generally view parents as their main source of careers guidance. The new careers enterprise company is a positive development, but it’s clear that until expert advice is embedded in every school the job will not be done – and outdated stereotypes will endure.

We also mustn’t shy away from telling kids from primary school upwards about all the possibilities within their reach. We should also be celebrating the young role models already in our communities changing minds – I need look no further than our 2015 City & Guilds National People’s Choice Winner Amy, who is a 20 year old award-winning mechanic determined to blaze a path in an industry dominated by men. We need to encourage initiatives like City & Guilds Apprentice Connect, and make sure these young advocates are helping future apprentices choose the right direction for themselves.

In addition, we have to get better at showing young people first-hand what different industries entail. Work experience is too often an add-on, yet how can we say we are preparing kids for their future if we don’t incorporate it into school life? At the heart of our City & Guilds TechBac offer for 14 -19 year olds is practical work experience, because we recognise it’s vital for young people to be in a real work environment to not only gain valuable skills, but to make well informed decisions about their future. How can we expect young people to choose a career path if they have no idea what it’s like? Likewise we need to make sure practical skills and technical education are given the same appreciation as academic aptitude. That way, children can learn where their strengths lie, and choose the right path for themselves.

To their credit, the Government’s consultation acknowledges that tackling pay is only one part of the bigger employment debate, as it asks for views on encouraging young girls to consider the broadest range of careers. It also lists efforts such as investment in teaching STEM subjects ‘where institutions demonstrate a commitment to diversity and equality’. Yet this is still just the tip of the iceberg; for true change we need business leaders, policymakers, teachers and parents to challenge misconceptions at every stage.

Perhaps publishing the pay gap will have some impact. But as Professor Wolf has suggested, the gap owes as much, if not more, to women working in different and lower-paid jobs to men. The real battle is in stopping skills being lost to the economy.

I can’t criticise the Government’s objectives, because of course the gender pay gap should be consigned to history. But a person’s career path starts ten years before that, while they’re still in school – so there’s no question that it’s time to act now.


Our research reveals that three quarters of young people demand skills-based training to achieve their ambitions Read full research article