There is no single answer to this question. One of the key factors is the motherhood penalty, whereby working mothers encounter systematic disadvantages in pay, perceived competence and benefits relative to childless women. For employees aged 22-39 the gender pay gap is minimal, but it accelerates after that because of the amount of time women spend out of the labour market having children, and the atrophy of their career during that time.
You’d hope that a younger woman would not be penalised on the basis that she may at some point in the future plan to have children –and it’s completely illegal for an employer to try and find out–but I’d be amazed if it doesn’t still goes on, however ridiculous that may be. So that’s another factor. Men and women don’t often compete in the same labour market, and when they do they’re paid pretty similarly.
"Sociologists say that any job that becomes feminised instantly becomes low paid."
A major factor in the gender pay gap is women clustering into certain parts of the labour market, like nursing, which is around 90% female. The four C’s are the jobs that women cluster into – Care, Catering, Cleaning and Customer Services. When women are channelled into certain sectors it raises the labour supply, driving down pay. Sociologists say that any job that becomes feminised instantly becomes low paid – eg, the profession of bank tellers used to be masculine and well paid, but an influx of women into the sector meant pay started to fall. But women are increasingly better qualified than men.
"We have to hope that the motherhood penalty will disappear when employers realise they have to look after their most highly qualified staff and make the workplace a more family-friendly environment."
Human capital theory of the past was that women wouldn’t invest in education as much as men because they knew they were going to spend time out of the labour market. That’s clearly not the case now– girls are significantly outperforming boys at GCSE and A level, and they’re now 35% more likely to go to University, and qualifying with more 2:1s. And this is feeding through into labour market outcomes, at least for younger women.
More girls are going to medical school now than boys. Veterinary science and law are now increasingly feminised. But what will happen when they get into these high paid jobs, and then have children? We don’t really know. We have to hope that the motherhood penalty will disappear when employers realise they have to look after their most highly qualified staff and make the workplace a more family-friendly environment.