Gender pay gap ‘starts in student wage expectations’

Study of Swiss students finds men and women overestimate their graduate earnings, but men do it more significantly

June 2, 2021
Gender pay gap
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A study has found that the gender pay gap exists even before students start work, because female undergraduates’ wage expectations are lower on average than male undergraduates.

Researchers surveyed 865 students across two Swiss universities about their wage expectations after graduation. They found a 9.7 per cent gap in expectations between female and male students directly after graduation, with male students on average expecting higher earnings.

Three years after graduation the gap increased to 11.6 per cent, according to a paper published in Plos One on 2 June.

The authors compared the students’ expectations with the actual wages of comparable graduates and found that on average both male and female students’ expectations exceeded the expectations of actual graduates. However, male students’ expected wages were 13 per cent higher, whereas female students were 11.2 per cent higher.

The actual wages also confirmed the existence of a gender wage gap.

The authors then gave students the information about real-life earnings and then asked them what their wage expectations would now be. For women, the average adjusted expectations were lower than their original expectations. However, for male students, the opposite happened: their expectations increased.

They also asked students about a range of personal and professional preferences, and found a range of differences between male and female students in choice of study programme, targeted industry and occupation, as well as preferences over job attributes.

Taking into account this range of preferences could account for some of the differences in wage expectations. For example, female students were more likely to expect job security or a family-friendly workplace and male students were more likely to expect a competitive atmosphere or to become a manager. However, the authors say they “cannot fully explain the expectational gender wage gap”.

Ana Fernandes, a professor at the Bern University of Applied Sciences and one of the authors, said their work showed that men and women were already quite far apart in their wage expectations at the start of their careers. 

The pay gap was not about academic achievement, as the findings show “men were overconfident”. “Girls should be taught they do not need to hold back,” she said.

With this knowledge, universities could do more to help address the problem, such as through coaching, she said. “It would not hurt to start significantly earlier, such as in school, but I still think it would be a good opportunity. There is still time for these young adults to learn,” she said.

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