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Despite the Equal Pay Act in 1970, women still earn less than men in Britain today. In fact, the current gender pay gap means women effectively stop earning relative to men on a day in the first week of November. This day – referred to as Equal Pay Day – varies according to the pay gap each year. In 2017 it lands on Friday 10 November – today – so what better time to look at one of the ways this gap could be closed: encouraging more female school leavers into STEM careers.

The latest research from the Chartered Management Institute shows that women are far more likely to fill junior management positions than men, with 66% of junior management positions filled by women. But this figure drops to just 26% for director-level roles, meaning that almost three-quarters of all director-level positions are filled by men.

The same research revealed that the gender pay gap has risen to 26.8%, with male managers on average out-earning female peers by £11,606 a year, up from 23.1%, or £8,964, last year. And even for those women who do progress to more senior roles, the pay gap begins to widen considerably, rising to £34,144, with men earning an average of £175,673 and women £141,529.

However, STEM careers – those in science, technology, engineering and maths – buck this trend, or at least at the beginning of careers. According to research carried out by Deloitte last year – the gap in starting salary between men and women who have STEM subjects and go on to take jobs in those spheres is smaller than in any other subjects studied. If more women were to pursue careers in these areas, Deloitte’s research concluded, not only would it give them a more balanced portfolio of skills, but it would also narrow the gender pay gap for those in the early years of their working lives.

Overall, Deloitte reported, almost as many girls as boys sat GCSEs in STEM subjects in 2016. However, three times more boys than girls took computing at GCSE level. And 50% more boys than girls took design and technology, but with the number of girls awarded A* – C grades in this subject nearly 20% points higher than for boys.

There is a disconnect between girls’ interest and talent in STEM and whether they choose to pursue it further, whether at university or in an apprenticeship setting. At A-Level in 2016, for example, girls continued to outperform boys in every STEM subject, but 40% more boys than girls then went on to take STEM subjects at university. This year’s AllAboutSchoolLeavers research into the school leaver careers market shows that ‘Science and Mathematics’ is the third most popular industry for school leavers – boys and girls – to say they want to work in, yet last year there were only 500 apprenticeship starts in Science and Mathematics in the whole of the UK, compared to over 143,000 starts in Business, Administration and Law.

This is letting down women, all young people, and ultimately the UK economy: the Royal Academy of Engineering says the UK needs 100,000 new graduates in STEM subjects every year until 2020 just to maintain current employment numbers. If we want women to have jobs in the future, and well-paid ones at that, then more need to be encouraged into STEM when making career choices.

But what can be done to encourage more girls to pursue STEM as a career? Last year, research carried out by Milkround found that 23% of female school leavers believed their male counterparts got more support in choosing a STEM career than they did, while over 50% said they thought that women would struggle to earn as much as men in STEM industries.

In order to debunk these views, educators and employers should engage with young women.

Young people have told AllAboutSchoolLeavers that they go to parents, subject teachers and websites to find out information – so STEM employers can use this knowledge to reach them, promote their opportunities and apprenticeship programmes and break down misconceptions. Our research also shows that work experience is important to school leavers – almost half say it is the factor most likely to persuade them to do an apprenticeship – so promoting these opportunities to young women could also encourage them into the industry.

And they have a lot of skills to bring to this industry: female school leavers are well equipped to embark on STEM careers. Those leaving at 16 are more likely to have good GCSE grades in relevant subjects – girls outperform boys in all but three of the 16 STEM categories. In Construction, for example, 100% of the girls entered in 2015 achieved an A*-C grade. When it comes to A-levels, girls do better than boys in STEM subjects in terms of A*/A grades in Physics, Maths, Chemistry and Biology, while n Computing and ICT the attainment advantage of girls over boys is noticeably increasing. In Applied A-level single award STEM subjects girls are in a minority of entrants but their results are significantly better than the male results.

Female school leavers have plenty to give STEM, and many options by which to enter the industry – whether that’s via apprenticeships, for example, or going on to study technical or scientific subjects at university – and more of them in the industry would be a step towards greater gender equality. This is something we should all be on board with.

Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

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