IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


The Gender Wage Gap: evidence from the cohort studies

A research project investigating the gender wage gap (GWG) over the life course and across cohorts.

This study will provide a comprehensive analysis of the GWG across individuals' lives, up to the age of 60 in the case of the 1958 cohort, and across three generations.

The detailed information contained in the birth cohorts, including genetic and childhood development data, will be exploited to provide new insights into wage formation, how the GWG evolved, and what policy instruments will be needed to create pay equality.  

The project runs through to June 2024.


Nearly half a century after the Equal Pay Act, women still earn less than men and convergence is slow.

The gap grows with family formation, as mothers spend time out of the labour market and face lower pay than previously on returning to employment, particularly part-time.

One view is that the GWG reflects conventional norms about the division of domestic labour, while others point to discriminatory practices in the workplace.

Growing concern about the persistence of the GWG and the way it evolves over the life course and across cohorts prompted the team to start examining the reasons for the GWG.

The project is funded by the ESRC grant number ES/S012583/1.

Aims of the project

The study will address five related questions:

  1. What does the GWG look like over the life-course and across birth cohorts? Does it change later in life and how does it compare across cohorts for people at the same points in their life?
  2. How much of the GWG is accounted for by differences in human capital accumulation over the life-course? How different does the wage gap look over the life-course for men and women with similar human capital (qualifications and labour market experience)? 
  3. What role do parenthood and caring responsibilities play in the emergence of the GWG in mid-life and how persistent is this penalty over the life-course?
  4. How much of the gap is attributable to the sorts of jobs undertaken by men and women, particularly in relation to occupation and part-time status?
  5. What role do childhood attributes and experiences play in determining the subsequent GWG and do childhood influences still matter having accounted for early adulthood experiences?

By analysing nationally representative birth cohort data for people born in 1958, 1970 and 1989/90 this study addresses the topic from three angles:

  1. We consider the evolution of the GWG over the whole life-course. This is important because factors governing both selection into employment and wage determination vary for men and women well into later life.
  2. Because we track people from birth, we obtain a picture of the links between childhood circumstances, skills and experiences and subsequent earnings for men and women - and thus the size of the wage gap.
  3. We distinguish between the effects of ageing and birth cohort, something that is only possible with data tracking multiple birth cohorts.  

We anticipate cohort effects will be important for three reasons:

  1. Different cohorts are exposed to different labour market and policy conditions during their lifetimes. For instance, the 1958 cohort left school when the Equal Pay Act was first being implemented whereas the Act had been in place for a decade when the 1970 cohort left compulsory education.
  2. The education gap between men and women has disappeared and even reversed, such that the returns to employment will have shifted markedly between men and women across the generations.
  3. Attitudes to women's labour market participation and men's household production have shifted. These changes in social norms, together with attendant changes in public policy, have created opportunities for men and women to combine paid and unpaid work and leisure in ways not hitherto possible, with uncertain consequences for the life choices and earnings patterns of men and women across the life-course. 

The team are all members of the Social Research Institute: 

Principal Investigator 


Advisory board

The team will be supported by a ten-strong advisory group:

  • Julie Denis, Acas
  • Jane Waldfogel, Columbia University
  • Eleanor Gall and Rebecca Thomas, Equality and Human Rights Commission
  • James Heagerty, Government Equalities Office
  • Monica Costa-Dias, Institute for Fiscal Studies
  • Gregory Thwaites, The Resolution Foundation
  • Nikki Pound, Trades Union Congress