Student’s choice of post-16 technical course is a driving force of the gender pay gap between the most disadvantaged men and women, according to a new SMC report

Disadvantaged women are making course choices at 16 which can lead them to lower paid jobs than men, a report from the Social Mobility Commission says today (Tuesday 30 March 2021).

Regardless of how good their GCSE grades are, disadvantaged young women are the most likely to choose post-16 technical courses which lead to lower paid jobs in the UK, such as in retail, childcare, and social care. Disadvantaged men are prone to choosing technical subjects which lead to higher earnings, such as engineering and IT.

Half of disadvantaged women choose courses ranked in the bottom 25% of earnings, which compares with 31% of men from similar backgrounds. Post-16 subject choices of disadvantaged women explain about 10% of the earnings gap they face compared with more advantaged men.

These startling findings are in ‘The road not taken: Drivers of course selection’, a report which analysed the course selection and earnings of people who completed their GCSEs in England between 2001-02 and 2004-05. The report examines socio-economic differences amongst more recent cohorts and found the patterns to be very similar.

Published by the Social Mobility Commission today, with the research undertaken by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and CFE Research, the report also uncovers huge disparities in earnings depending on whether the students picked academic or technical options.

Academic routes are the most likely to lead to a big salary – with 80% of A level courses being linked to well-paid careers in the top 25% of earnings. A potentially unintended, unique strength of the education system is that course routes combining academic and technical qualifications are relatively high earning too, with 70% of combined courses ranked in the top 50% of earnings. On the other end of the scale, technical qualifications are mostly associated with low earnings – with 62% of classroom-based technical qualifications and 40% of apprenticeships leading students on a path to the bottom 25% of earnings.

There are also glaring regional differences. Disadvantaged women in London are much more likely to pick courses that lead to higher earnings than disadvantaged women in other regions of England (28% for inner London, 32% for outer London). Disadvantaged women in the north-east (17%) and north-west (20%) are the least likely to take high-earning courses. The same patterns hold for men, but the differences are much less pronounced. This is in part driven by London having the widest availability of school sixth forms, where there are likely to have an extensive choice of A levels and other academic qualifications linked to high pay. Students in the north-west and north-east of England have more limited access to school sixth forms.

The ethnic groups most likely to take low-earning courses are disadvantaged Black Caribbean students and disadvantaged White British women. Only 27% of women and 22% of men from disadvantaged Black Caribbean backgrounds took courses that led to the top 50% of earnings. Less than a quarter (24%) of disadvantaged White-British women selected courses that led to salaries in the top 50%, which compares with 33% of disadvantaged White-British men.

Interviews with young people in 2019-20 confirmed that gender roles and role models remain a strong influence on all students’ post-16 course selections, as do the actions and choices of friends. Enjoyment of a course and financial stability also motivate decisions, although disadvantaged young people are more likely to experience disappointment post-GCSE results and find themselves on low reward routes that they did not plan to take.

Alastair Da Costa, Social Mobility Commissioner for Adult Skills and Further Education, said:

The gender pay gap between disadvantaged men and women remains stark. There is no doubt growing up in deprivation, especially for women, has an enduring impact on early career earnings. It is particularly worrying that women appear to choose subjects that lead them to a smaller wage packet than men.

Policy needs to focus on closing the attainment gap between disadvantaged and more privileged students, and to ensure that all students get high quality exposure to technical education prior to making their post-16 subject choice. We also recommend increasing earnings in many occupations predominantly chosen by women from disadvantaged backgrounds and low levels of educational attainment, especially childcare and adult social care. Addressing these barriers early on could have a significant impact on women’s future earning potential and measurably reduce the gender and class pay gap.

We hope this report is a wake-up call ahead of the government implementing its ambitious agenda to reform technical and further education, which was laid out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper.

Dr Luke Sibieta, Research Fellow at the Institute for Fiscal Studies and co-author of the report, said:

The subjects and courses young people take at age 16 can have a large bearing on their future economic opportunities. Our analysis shows that the groups most likely to take low-earning courses are disadvantaged women from White British backgrounds and disadvantaged men and women from Black Caribbean backgrounds. Tackling these cumulative barriers requires a focus on what happens before age 16, including addressing inequalities in educational attainment, earlier provision of effective careers guidance and positive role models.

Our recommendations to narrow the gaps which spring from course selection are:

  • Reduce educational inequalities up to the age of 16.
  • Provide more career guidance on technical education choices pre-16, especially for disadvantaged women with low to average attainment, and disadvantaged men and women from Black Caribbean backgrounds.
  • Present students with more advice when they are deciding on technical or academic pathways. Our research found young people taking higher level courses are usually better informed about the education pathways and opportunities open to them compared to those taking lower-level courses.
  • Continue to allow blended technical and academic qualifications as these courses lead to relatively high earnings.
  • Target local barriers, such as helping disadvantaged students with travel costs, so that is not an obstacle to education.
  • Trial behavioural interventions that target gender norms, peer pressure or work experience in technical jobs.
  • Increase earnings in occupations predominantly chosen by women from disadvantaged backgrounds, and low levels of educational attainment, especially childcare and adult social care.

The report is published just before the SMC moves to the Cabinet Office. The arm’s length body hopes to use its new location to inform the government’s levelling up agenda to create a more equal society, particularly in the regions. This year the SMC is planning to work with central government, local leaders and metro mayors to share best practice and encourage more targeted action in the “coldest spots” across England.

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