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Three-quarters of large UK businesses pay men more than women, on average, according to the government’s gender pay gap reporting. The average median difference — the median of all medians — is 9.7 per cent in favour of men.

The data do not tell us whether women are paid less than men for the same work, but they make clear that men are more likely to make it into highly paid roles.

The average company is 52 per cent male but has a top pay quartile — the highest-paid 25 per cent of earners — that is 63 per cent male.

In fact, the data show that, on average, 29 per cent of men are in the top quarter of earners at their company — 4 percentage points more than would be expected if men and women were distributed evenly across the pay distribution.

By contrast, 21 per cent of women make it into the top quartile. The disparity is similar but reversed among the lowest paid, with 31 per cent of female employees in the lowest-paid quartile of their company.

It is this sharply sloping inequality in pay levels that drives the gap at thousands of the companies that have reported their figures. The pattern is clearest when comparing sectors.

The finance and insurance sector has the second-highest median and the highest mean pay gap, and its top pay quartiles are dominated by men, giving it a distinctive cross shape in the graphic below.

The health and social care sector — whose flatter lines indicate a more equal distribution — has a lower pay gap, but here men are still over-represented at the top.

Quantifying the glass ceiling

One factor that influences the inequality of pay levels is the proportion of women in the workforce. On the whole, as the percentage of women at a company increases, so does the percentage of them who rank among its highest-paid employees.

But even among majority-female employers, many have majority-male top quartiles, hinting at a glass ceiling preserving a mens’ club at the top.

More than one in four majority-female companies have more men than women at the top of the pay scale, compared with one in 60 majority-male companies that have more women than men at the top.

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