Reflections on gender inequality in the UK graduate labour market

One of the key business sustainability goals identified by WBCSD is to address gender equality which has led me to reflect on this issue specifically in relation to university graduates in the UK.

It is no longer the case that women are less likely than men to attend university in the UK. In fact, the numbers of women at work and at university in the UK are on a par with men however, women are still less likely than men to be associated with leadership positions: they account for 6.1% of FTSE 100 executive positions and 3% of board chairpersons (The Guardian). The current issue for females is no longer access to higher education or to work in general; the issue is whether women can now progress to senior roles across a broad range of businesses including sectors which are still heavily male-dominated. Of course I am aware that there are many examples of successful UK businesswomen but they are still often used as case studies rather than viewed as the norm.

It is clear that women are valuable and influential in businesses: research has shown that companies with high-level female representation on boards significantly outperform those with no female representation – by 41% in terms of return on equity and by 56% in terms of operating results (Business in the Community). Yet despite such findings, women are still underrepresented in certain sectors and in top management positions across all industries. Sectors such as banking, consulting, engineering and IT are keen to rectify this diversity issue and have implemented external and internal pathways to encourage recruitment and development of female employees. EY have an extremely useful section of their website aimed at tackling the issue of gender equality.

Increasingly there are similar female-focused programmes aimed specifically at the graduate population in order to address the under-representation of females in graduate-level positions. Although almost 60% of graduates in the UK are female, only 42% of hires to large graduate schemes are women (The Guardian). Examples of such schemes include:

  • Women in business – PWC – one week paid experience opportunity where students can work closely with a female leader to gain exposure to the nature of the work that PWC do at a senior level.
  • IT’ s not just for the boys – event programme organised by Target Jobs and in partnership with Deloitte to enable female students to find out more about technology careers.
  • Women in investment banking – an event providing female students with a unique opportunity to hear first-hand about what it is like to work in an investment bank.
  • RBS Inspiring Enterprise – support offered to females interested in starting their own business to try and tackle the statistics that twice as many men as women start a business in the UK.

As the focus on diversity within organisations increases, these types of programmes are becoming more common yet the proportion of females in graduate-level roles has not changed for the better according to AGR. It doesn’t seem that the existence of female-attraction programmes is having the desired effect; perhaps these companies are trying too hard to persuade females to join them? Moreover, some females may find the very existence of such programmes offensive as it can be inferred that women cannot successfully join and progress in an organisation on their own without mentor support or a clear development pathway. An interesting piece of research would be to investigate how many of these female development programmes have been designed by men, women or a mixture of the two and whether this has had any effect on their intake rates.

My opinion is that the existence of such schemes is worthwhile but not wholly positive. They are useful in that they make it easier for females to identify employers who are committed to recruiting and progressing female talent. Whilst it is encouraging that businesses are implementing measures to try to address this inequality issue, it is unfortunate that such gender-focused schemes are necessary in today’s society.

Written by Jo Hobbs



  1. Thanks for posting this Jo. It provides a great insight into a challenging topic. It would be interesting to see what our placement students think of the events and programmes targeted at women.



  2. Thanks for posting this Jo. It gives a good insight into a challenging topic. It would be interesting to see what our placement students think of events and programmes targeted at women.



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