Labour market guides: gender differences in pay and career choices

Conversation between man and woman
Say goodbye to stereotypes. There are differences on average in the careers and educational paths that attract males and females but there’s no need to follow the herd.

There are differences on average in which degrees and careers female and male students are attracted to. Male students are more likely to be interested in higher-paying areas such as IT, engineering and finance. On average, men earn more than women and, among school students planning on going to university, are more likely to cite future earning potential as a reason for taking a degree. However, young male graduates are more likely to be unemployed than young female graduates.

It’s worth being aware of these differences, to make sure that you’re not being influenced by gender stereotypes or what your friends are doing. Aim to make career and subject choices that are genuinely the right ones for you.

Exploring the gender pay gap

Various ONS reports cover gender differences in pay. Its Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings, 2015 Provisional Results notes that median (average) gross annual earnings for full-time employees were £27,600 in the financial year that ended on 5 April 2015. Breaking this down by gender, this was around £30,000 for men and around £24,000 for women.

The report examined gender pay differences by type of career, using median full-time hourly earnings and excluding overtime. The pay gap was greatest for skilled trades occupations (which include electricians, motor mechanics and chefs) at 24.6% and least in sales and customer service occupations (eg shop assistants and call centre staff) at 4.3%. Looking at the types of work that will most appeal to those undertaking a degree or higher apprenticeship, the pay gap was:

  • 11.0% among professional occupations (such as doctors, teachers, solicitors and accountants)
  • 11.2% among associate professional and technical occupations (such as journalists, buyers and junior police officers)
  • 18.9% among managers, directors and senior officials (such as department heads, branch managers and headteachers).

Graduates in the UK Labour Market 2013 ranks which undergraduate degree subjects are associated with the highest salaries. It also notes that in four out of the top five subjects there are more male graduates than female graduates. In average salary order, these are:

  1. medicine (47% male graduates)
  2. engineering (93% male graduates)
  3. physical and environmental sciences (64% male graduates)
  4. architecture (78% male graduates)
  5. maths and computer science (77% male graduates).

The ONS report Graduate Earnings Over the Last Decade, released in 2011, paints a similar picture. This report classes anyone with a qualification above A level standard as a graduate, so we’ve referred to this group as ‘high level qualification holders’. It notes that in the decade 2000 to 2010:

  • average earnings in the banking and finance industry for those who had qualifications above A level standard (eg degrees, HNDs and HNCs) were £37,300; these workers were predominantly male
  • average earnings at public administration, education and health sector employers for those who had qualifications above A level standard were £27,600; these workers were predominantly female.

In terms of subjects studied by those who had qualifications higher than A level, it found:

  • 34% of women and 9% of men had a degree in health-related studies or education
  • 47% of men and 20% of women had a degree in business and finance, science or engineering.

The ONS report Graduates in the UK Labour Market 2013 also found that male graduates on average earn £3 more an hour than female graduates (this figure includes part-time workers).

However, the picture is different when looking at unemployment rates. The Graduate Labour Market Statistics: 2015 report found that among young graduates aged 21 to 30:

  • 5.8% of male graduates were unemployed
  • 4.0% of female graduates were unemployed.

The difference was less when looking at working age graduates as a whole (3.3% of male graduates were unemployed, versus 2.9% of female graduates).

Female school students set sights on going to uni

The trendence School Leaver Barometer questions secondary school pupils each year about their future plans. The 2015 survey found that, while both male and female respondents were more interested in going to university than starting work instead, the percentage was even higher among females than males: 88% cent of female students planned to go to university, compared with 78% of males.

It also asked about the reasons for these choices. Among university-bound students, the top reasons were:

  • ‘For the career I want I need to get a university qualification’ (cited by 65.5% of females and 60.4% of males)
  • ‘To get a better job’ (cited by 61.3% of males and 55.5% of females’)
  • ‘I want to study my subject more’ (cited by 55.2% of females and 54.2% of males)
  • ‘To earn more money’ (cited by 43.5% of males and 31.7% of females).

The fact that the higher earning potential offered by a degree appealed to a higher percentage of males than females is interesting given than male graduates do on average end up earning more than female graduates.

The majority of students of both genders (around 83%) already had some idea of the type of job that interested them. The most popular areas among females were:

  1. healthcare (25.7%)
  2. ‘other’ (21.9%)
  3. science (20.6%)
  4. teaching (20.0%)

The most popular areas among males were:

  1. IT and telecoms (23.1%)
  2. engineering and manufacturing (23.0%)
  3. science (22.7%)
  4. ‘other’ (18.7%)

Science is clearly an appealing career area for both genders. However, there were notable differences in other areas that ranked highly.

  • Healthcare careers only interested 8.6% of male respondents, compared with 25.7% of female respondents.
  • Teaching careers appealed to 11.4% of male respondents, compared with 20.0% of female respondents.
  • IT and telecoms careers were being considered by 5.0% of female respondents, compared with 23.1% of male respondents.
  • Engineering and manufacturing careers interested 5.4% of female respondents, compared with 23.0% of male respondents.

Healthcare and teaching, which feature highly in female students’ plans, are areas in which opportunities and prospects of career progression are limited for those without a degree. In contrast, there are some good alternative routes available into IT and engineering, which on average appeal more to males.

The survey also asked which industry they would like to work in. Some industries had similar levels of popularity among male and female students; others had marked differences. The most popular sectors were:

  1. the public sector – similar levels of students of both genders were attracted to this sector (26.5% of female students and 24.9% of male students)
  2. media and advertising – 25.1% of female students wanted to work in this area but only 12.7% of male students
  3. retail – this sector had an even sharper gender divide, attracting 25.6% of female students but only 5.5% of male students
  4. IT and technology – 24.9% of male students were interested in this area but only 7.7% of female students
  5. engineering, design and manufacturing – 20.3% of male students wanted to work in these industries, compared with 5.7% of female students.

Among students who planned to start work instead of going to university, the most popular reason was ‘I want to start earning now’. This received a practically identical score among male and female students (45.6% of females and 45.8% of males cited this as a factor). However, there was a gender divide in terms of students whose reasons included ‘I won't get the grades for university’: this was cited by 24.9% of female students and only 17.9% of male students – despite the fact that females typically do better at A level than males. A higher percentage of female than male students also said ‘University is expensive and I don't want to get into debt’ (44.3% versus 36.2%).

Finance careers didn’t quite make it into the top five most popular careers, and appealed more to male school students than females.

  • Accountancy careers appealed to 12.9% of males and 8.8% of females.
  • Banking and insurance careers appealed to 12.3% of males and 6.3% of females.
  • Investment banking careers appealed to 11.9% of males and 4.4% of females.

Search for...

Degree Explorer

The Degree Explorer helps you plan for your future! Match your interests to university subjects and explore each recommendation to find out what suits you.

Get started

Teacher or parent?

Join our mailing list to receive monthly newsletters from our TARGETcareers and Inspiring Futures teams to help you support your school leavers in their career and university decision making.


Register today

Sign up to access to use your dashboard and receive extra advice in your inbox

Sign up