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McMaster University medical students. The gender gap in precareer salary expectations is greatest in traditionally male-dominated fields, a study has found.

Glenn Lowson for The Globe and Mail/glenn lowson The Globe and Mail

Despite decades of apparent gains toward workplace equality, Canadian women starting their careers still expect to earn considerably less than men and wait longer for promotions, a sweeping new study has found.

A review of responses from 23,000 university students across Canada about their career expectations found that young women expected an average initial salary 13.5 per cent lower on average than young men aiming for equivalent jobs. And women expected to wait an average of 12 per cent longer than men to get their first promotion.

The young women's expectations for raises also lagged well behind men's: They anticipated salaries after five years of working that were, on average, 17.5 per cent less than men anticipated.

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"I was taken completely by surprise that women are still expecting less than men, given the advances that women have made over the years, particularly with respect to university education," said study co-author Linda Schweitzer, a professor at Carleton University's Sprott School of Business in Ottawa.

The gap in salary expectations has not seemed to close at all, despite decades of discussion about how women must battle pay inequity, she said. After reviewing previous studies done over the past 30 years, "this gender gap in initial salary expectations appears to be fairly stable over time, with the exception of a drop in the early 1990s."

When combined with the gender gap in advancement expectations, "this suggests that women still have lower expectations for their early careers in general," Prof. Schweitzer said in an interview.

"I would find it hard to believe that women are knowingly devaluing themselves relative to men," she added. "It is more likely that they are unaware of what men are expecting and simply expect less than men do," she said.

"My third-year students, both men and women, were also quite shocked and puzzled by the gaps that we found. The women were particularly interested in getting more information about what they should be expecting."

According to a Statistics Canada report last December, the actual gender wage gap is about 10 per cent for workers aged 25 to 29. Figures for the entire labour force showed that, in 1988, women earned 75.7 cents in wages for every $1 earned by men. By 2008, women earned 83.3 cents on the dollar, Statscan found.

The findings of the new study also indicate that the gender gap in precareer salary expectations is greatest in traditionally male-dominated fields, said study co-author Sean Lyons, an associate professor of business at Ontario's Guelph University. This suggests that efforts to raise the salary expectations of precareer women should be particularly targeted at these fields, he said.

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Although young women are entering male-dominated fields in greater numbers, it does not necessarily result in more equality for women in the labour market, he said. The study found evidence that this is because women form their expectations based on historical gender-role stereotyping and discrimination in the labour market.

"Young women indicated a preference for 'beta' career priorities, such as work-life balance, that are associated with lower salaries, while men indicated a preference for 'alpha' career priorities, such as quick advancement and building a sound financial base, that are associated with higher salaries," Prof. Lyons said.

Women in sciences and engineering were also only half as likely to say they wanted to reach a managerial position, the study found. While the aspirations were higher for those in business, women were still 20 per cent less likely than men to aspire to be a manager, he said.

"Educators and career counsellors should continue to encourage young women to pursue careers that have been traditionally dominated by men, and government programs should continue to address the under-representation of women in such fields," Prof. Lyons suggested.

Women in senior positions can act as role models for young women and demonstrate that they can break the "glass ceiling" blocking them from senior management or break into male-dominated fields such as science and engineering, the study recommended.

Mentors can also provide access to important networks and crucial information to young women who would otherwise have limited access to decision-makers in organizations.

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And, in all fields, young women should be questioning the notion that they have to make a tradeoff between salary and work-life balance, and be firm in demanding what their male counterparts are expecting, Prof. Lyons said.

"If women enter their first job negotiation with both lower initial expectations, and a negotiating approach that results in greater compromise on their part, they will likely end up behind, relative to their male counterparts."

The study, titled Exploring the Career Pipeline, is to be published in the journal Relations Industrielles/Industrial Relations.

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