Does the Gender Pay Gap Exist Before Graduates Enter the Workplace?

Several reasons for the gender pay gap have been suggested, including workplace discrimination and the effects of career interruptions such as motherhood.

Totaljobs’ research shows that the gender pay gap begins before graduates enter the workforce. Our candidate data demonstrates that female graduates apply for jobs whose average salary is £2,000 lower than their male peers.

We have observed that within the range of salaries that men and women apply for, men tend to aim for higher salaries at the higher end.

Apart from Languages and Music/Media, the results are statistically significant across all degree disciplines. This research raises a number of questions:

  • Is society doing enough to encourage female graduates to aim higher?
  • Why are the pay aspirations of male graduates higher than females?
  • What motivates female graduates when applying for jobs?

Visit the Comments & Theories page to see how industry leaders have reacted. For more information on Dr Hugh Barnes’ study, please see the Data Visualisation and Methodology pages.

A totaljobs graduate jobs study.

Average Salary of UK Graduate Applications

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Average Salary of UK Graduate Applications

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Average Salary of UK Graduate Applications

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Average Salary of UK Graduate Applications

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Discipline Number (M) Number (F) Salary (M) Salary (F) Difference (M-F)
Art/ Design/ Fashion 1,023 1,706 25,441 23,861 1,580
Classics/ English/ History/ Philosophy/ Theology 1,418 1,863 24,577 23,766 811
Construction/ Planning/ Architecture 1,181 330 29,720 27,879 1,841
Economics/ Politics/ Business Studies 8,229 6,364 28,639 27,183 1,456
Engineering 2,874 561 30,810 29,526 1,284
Finance/ Accounting 3,280 2,006 27,471 26,910 561
Geography 454 315 25,683 24,637 1,046
Health/ Fitness/ Wellbeing 618 475 27,546 26,105 1,441
Hospitality/ Tourism/ Leisure 455 890 26,413 24,951 1,462
IT/ Telecommunications/ New Media 3,733 997 27,835 27,013 822
Languages 215 510 25,407 25,030 377
Law 1,192 1,824 26,895 25,487 1,408
Mathematics/ Science 2,153 1,570 26,590 25,467 1,123
Media/ Music 1,294 1,265 24,429 24,158 271
Medical/ Pharmacology 492 546 25,918 25,165 753
Social Sciences 2,378 4,301 26,503 24,585 1,918

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Women are equal to men and so we absolutely need to ensure that aspirations are equal. The more female leaders we have and the more there are women on the boards of businesses operating within the fashion industry, the easier it will be to set aspiration. - Caroline Rush CBE, CEO, British Fashion Council
In my experience of the news media industry, graduates all start on the same salary, regardless of gender. There shouldn't be a gap between anyone at graduate level - and further down the line, it goes without saying, increases in pay should be performance related and not to do with one's sex. - Patrick Smith, Telegraph Culture Journalist for TV, Film, and Music
The data seems to suggest that even if employers did not discriminate unfairly against women, women might well still end up paid less well as a consequence of their own comparatively more modest ambitions. Perhaps society should make a conscious effort to encourage young women to aim higher. - Dr Stephen Law, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London
Dr Barnes' numbers for the four STEM categories do show a small (3-4%) but significant bias in salary expectations in favour of men. WISE research in partnership with Network Rail has established that women evaluate job opportunities in a much broader way than men and maximising salary is not necessarily at the top of the list. Women are just as interested in the working environment and the overall contribution the job makes as they are in the salary and the precise nature of the work activities. We should not rush, therefore, to conclude that this study means women working in STEM value themselves lower than their male peers. - Helen Wollaston, Director, WISE Campaign
The jobs that women and men apply for are influenced by a wide range of factors, particularly stereotypical expectations and assumptions that society has around the types of work that women and men should be doing. Solutions that focus on building young women's aspirations and confidence fail to address the structural barriers that women face in the labour market such as stereotyping about men's and women's skills and capabilities, inflexible working practices, and discrimination in pay systems. Gender stereotyping is a cradle to labour market issue, and early intervention measures are essential to ensure that young women and men are able to make informed decisions around subject and career choice. - Anna Ritchie Allan, Project Manager, Close the Gap
The reasons why there is still a significant gender pay gap are complex. Much of them reflect occupational segregation and differences in how men and women have worked in the past. For real progress to be made on the gender pay gap we must break down these occupational stereotypes, avoid women trading down into lower-paying jobs for flexibility, tackle leaky pipelines and encourage more men to work flexibly. - The Confederation of British Industry (CBI)
It is vital that we encourage more women to enter the IT profession, so that the industry can benefit from their talents. We know already that women don't bargain on salary and T&Cs when they are offered a new role. Something inside them believes that they are lucky to have been offered.
Men however are aware of what their friends have been paid and have confidence enough to value themselves, challenging new employers to pay more. Companies can help by offering an equal pay package to everyone. Women, who have a great amount of potential to bring to the technology sector, should believe in themselves and ask for the same pay as their male counterparts. - Gillian Arnold, Chair of BCS Women
We understand this issue as a specific manifestation of women's inequality which is part of the broader "problem" of women's position in society. Until there is a joining up of the dots of women's inequality and an acknowledgement that our societal structures have been largely constructed for men we will fail to improve all manifestations of that inequality including the gender pay gap. - Vivienne Hayes MBE, CEO of Women's Resource Centre
The RIBA is committed to making architecture and the broader construction industry more equal, diverse and inclusive and that it is representative of society as a whole, but we recognise we must all do more. The RIBA provides guidance and support to members from all backgrounds and will continue to do so to help to tackle the challenges and barriers that too often still exist. - Jane Duncan, President of The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)
This research is very interesting and I do feel that the issue is far wider than just pay but links to aspirations and support from an early age: how girls and boys are both encouraged to aim equally as high. It is then of fundamental importance that we support women throughout their career so that they can have both a career and a family and not step aside at this point, which is what we see happen in so many places. - Emma Mirrington, Director, The Forum for In-house Recruitment Managers (The FIRM)
We discovered that women made up just 18% of university students enrolled in computing courses in the 2014-2015 academic year. With organisations across the UK eager to achieve more diverse IT workforces, these graduates should be using their rarity in the jobs market to find higher-paying roles, not lower. With that in mind, it's upsetting to learn that female graduates are applying for lower-paying jobs than their male counterparts, but not that surprising. I suspect the lack of female leadership role models in the technology industry is harming the aspirations of young women looking to embark on a career in IT. - Ben Rossi, Group Editor at Information Age and Creator of the Women in IT Awards
Female graduates today are more ambitious than previous generations, but they are also driven by wider factors than just money when applying for jobs, such as flexibility and an employer's values. Females also have a tendency towards the public and voluntary sector. In our experience, when females do choose to apply to the bigger firms they are as likely to get the roles and be paid the same as their male peers. Firms and recruiters should pay attention to these findings and work hard to ensure they appear inclusive and flexible to men and women alike. - Gaenor Bagley, Head of People at PwC
This research reflects our own, which shows a greater gender pay gap in the legal profession than the UK average. We want all solicitors to be confident that the law is a profession where talent, ability and application are rewarded irrespective of gender or background. The Law Society encourages all firms to regularly review their pay policies to identify reasons for any gender pay gap and to address them. We are sharing best practice to help firms tackle this issue. - Catherine Dixon, Law Society CEO
Even though the data here shows less of a starting gap for music graduates, this is because all starting salaries in the music industry are low. Confounding all expectations, the UK music industry is still an un-diverse sector to work in and there remains an inconsistent level of support for equality and diversity activities in many organisations. A more equitable working environment can be achieved by leaders acting progressively in their attitudes towards all employees by ensuring they have equal pay policies and making adjustments when they find discrepancies. - Vick Bain, CEO of BASCA
If we think about why young women may aspire to lower paid positions than their male counterparts, we might look to the lack of role models who exist in their given professions. This sends a signal to women that they are less likely to achieve, or that the bar for success is higher. Women are underrepresented at senior levels in business and politics, which signals 'you can't be what you can't see'. To tackle the lower aspirations of women, there need to be positive strategies in place in these professions. - Dr Heather Savigny, Associate Professor in Politics & Gender at Bournemouth University
Certainly the evidence (both in employment and indeed in politics more broadly) suggests that men tend to overestimate their abilities and skills, while women tend to undervalue theirs. But, focusing on women's lack of confidence runs the risk of 'blaming' women, rather than focusing our efforts on combatting wider structural inequalities and patterns of gender socialisation. While encouraging women to 'aim higher' in the jobs they apply for is not a bad thing, this is not going to fundamentally transform deeply-ingrained structural discrimination in the workforce – including the ways women are perceived in the workplace, continuing pay inequity, lack of flexibility, and pregnancy and maternity discrimination. - Dr Meryl Kenny, Lecturer in Politics (Gender) at the University of Edinburgh
Many studies show that the reasons for gender pay differences can be complex, but what is clear is that 45 years on from the Equal Pay Act, such stark disparities in this day and age are simply unacceptable.
Occupational segregation is a long standing problem, has led to women being typically undervalued, and it is well documented that motherhood comes with a financial penalty for women. As with equivalent racial disparities, problems have also been found to be a result of structural and systemic sex discrimination.
It is vital that we not only address issues relating to aspiration and expectation from a young age but more than that we must enforce legal levers such as mandatory gender pay reporting and anti-discrimination provisions relating to sex, pregnancy and maternity discrimination. - Pavan Dhaliwal, Director of Public Affairs and Campaigns, British Humanist Association

The average salary of jobs applied for was calculated for each candidate, before averaging across all candidates. Results reflect a candidate average rather than an application average, and are therefore not skewed by candidates who apply for many jobs.

The Parameters

  • Of the totaljobs site users: 12 million candidates updated their profiles from 2010 onwards
  • Of these: 1.4 million candidates mention a Bachelors degree or Masters degree*
  • Of these: 1.1 million go on to record a completion date and a recognised final grade
  • Of these: 450,000 of these completed their degree in 2010 or later
  • Of these: 430,000 of these record a title (assumption is made that ‘Mr’ indicates male and ‘Mrs’, ‘Miss’, & ‘Ms’ female)
  • Of these: 220,000 are registered as being in the UK and having attended selected UK universities that have conferred degrees on at least 50 candidates since 2010
  • Of these: 108,000 candidates applied for at least one full-time, non-agency-advertised job, with a lower annual salary range of 5k to 100k and an upper salary range of 5k to 200k, within approximately two and a half years of graduating
  • Of these: 56,000 candidates have applied for between 3 and 200 jobs, making 650,000 applications between them

*A candidate’s degree discipline is based on their own classification of their degree.

The Results

Result patterns are consistent, despite large variations in the parameters.

For example, the results are similar if parameters are modified to:

  • Go back to only 2012
  • Include only applicants who have applied for at least five jobs
  • Include candidates who have applied for less than 50 jobs
  • Include agency jobs

The results are similar with and without correcting the job salaries for inflation, and statistical significance is tested to meet a 95% confidence level.

The Limitations

Analysis is based on the candidates who visit totaljobs sites, which may or may not be representative of UK graduates as a whole. Results rely on candidates being truthful about having degrees, their gender (as indicated by their title) and an accurate self-classification of their degree discipline.