It’s commencement time, and for newly minted grads facing a long and potentially futile job search this summer, there’s at least one bit of good news. According to its recent Spring Salary survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) found that starting salaries are up 5.9 percent for 2011 college grads.

The news is not so good, however, for young women starting new jobs. In a separate study released last week, the same organization found that the average Class of 2010 female with a new bachelor’s degree received a $36,451 starting salary—17 percent less than the $44,159 her average male peer received. The difference can’t be explained away by major (the idea that males choose study areas that lead to higher-paying jobs)—even when salary was adjusted for this, men came out ahead in all but a few cases.

This finding is likely to help muffle the increasingly common rationale that the long-standing pay gap persists because men choose higher-paying careers or because women take time off to have children, and as a result get behind their male peers. Recent studies have further bolstered this claim by showing that in large cities, young women—who are now graduating from college in greater numbers than their male peers—actually make more than guys their age.

Over at, workplace columnist Anne Fisher spoke with experts who say the real difference in salary is because women don’t negotiate enough. They don’t like to self-promote—a problem that’s surely exacerbated by fresh-out-of-college nervousness and inexperience—and as a result, end up with less than their male peers.

I’m sure this is true to some extent, but I’m hesitant to believe a 17 percent difference can be explained away entirely by insecure female college grads. Study after study shows that vestiges of discrimination exist—whether it’s female MBAs who still make less, despite being armed with the same advanced business degree as men, or job-specific research that shows that even female secretaries make only 83 percent of their male peers.

To pin the blame for their lower pay entirely on young women themselves seems unfair, in my opinion. What about potential discrimination by hiring managers who, knowing young women may be unlikely to ask for more, start off by low-balling them on pay to begin with? They surely share some of the blame—as do unfriendly family workplaces, the cultures of male-dominated industries and the reality of child-care expenses in this country.

For young female college grads, the takeaway is—yes—to negotiate and promote yourself more. (Or go into engineering: It was one of only two majors in the NACE study where women actually earned more.) And the lesson for leaders? Remember the pay gap is still an issue at every level of the workplace, and do what you can to become part of the solution.

More stats from the recent NACE study:

Median starting salary offer for college grads: $44,159 for men, $36,451 for women

Median offer by gender within academic major: Accounting: $46,997 for men, $45,508 for women; Computer Science: $56,227 for men, $52, 531 for women; Engineering: $58, 783 for men, $61,084 for women; Social Sciences: $36,647 for men, $28,213 for women

More from On Leadership:

Not your mother’s ambition

10 body language traps for women

Engineering gender parity

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