Monday 26 September 2016 5:40 am

STEM subjects hold the key to reducing the gender pay gap

The gender pay gap has never been under greater scrutiny. The difference in pay between men and women is likely to come into sharp focus when large companies in the UK are mandated to disclose their pay gaps from 2018 under new legislation being introduced next year.

However, even though the pay gap is closing, new Deloitte research has found that the UK gender pay gap will not close until 2069 unless action is taken to understand and tackle its root causes now.

The issue is complex and multi-faceted, and will require policymakers, educators and businesses to work together to bring about change.

Closing the gap

Deloitte’s analysis shows that the difference in the hourly pay gap between men and women is closing at a rate of just 2.5p a year, and that in certain occupations, such as skilled trades and education, the gap is actually widening.

However, the gap in starting salaries between men and women who have studied science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and go on to take jobs in those spheres is smaller than in other areas (and in some cases is zero).

Read more: Misconceptions about STEM subjects fail young people

If more women were to pursue careers in these areas, it would not only give them a more balanced portfolio of skills but would also narrow the gender pay gap for those in the early years of their working lives. This would, however, only deal with the early stages of a woman’s career – reducing it for later stages requires employers to take action to retain and advance these women. Currently, women only make up 14.4 per cent of those working in STEM occupations in the UK, so there is a long way to go.

It starts at school

When considering one of the causes of this imbalance, we need to go back to a young age and consider the academic choices boys and girls make at school and university.

Starting at GCSE level, a similar number of girls and boys choose to study STEM subjects overall, but three times more boys than girls take computing – this is at a time when technology is becoming increasingly important. At A-level, 40 per cent more boys than girls take STEM subjects, although girls outperform boys in all 10 of the most popular ones.

At university and in the workforce, the STEM gap widens further still. Of the women who do study STEM subjects during higher education, as many as 70 per cent do not go on to pursue STEM-related careers.

Promoting STEM subjects

Currently, women are more likely to pursue studies and take up employment in roles that place a greater importance on cognitive and social skills, with these typically being lower paid. However, if STEM skills are added to the mix, women would be better equipped for high-skilled jobs that are typically among the most highly paid.

Read more: Most girls think STEM subjects are too difficult for them

Therefore, women who study STEM subjects during their education and pursue careers in related areas have the potential to increase their earnings both in their early working lives and in later years.

So how do we resolve this? It will take a blend of actions – providing girls with access to role models at times when they are making vital subject choices, and employers showing that they can provide viable career options for women at all stages of their lives are just two. What is clear is that we can’t wait 53 years for the gender pay gap to close.