A "massive amount of work" remains to be done to close the pay gap between men and women, Tony Blair has said.
Better quality part-time work should be encouraged
His comments followed a report by the Women and Work Commission which found that women in full-time work were earning 17% less than men.
The group suggested numerous changes including more government support and improved vocational training.
But it stopped short of recommending compulsory pay reviews, a step that many unions had called for.
The prime minister hailed the report as a "ground-breaking piece of work", and responded by appointing Minister for Women Tessa Jowell as a Cabinet "champion" to produce an action plan.
"All the evidence is that girls are performing extremely well at school", he said.
"But from school through to the workplace, what the report shows is that we are wasting far too much talent."
The CBI's John Cridland, a commission member, said women were paid less because the UK's education system "completely fails" to alert schoolgirls to the fact that their choices will determine what they earn.
The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) hit back saying that the issue was a far wider one than the career advice girls received.
"Right the way through employment - from manual work to the City - women are not getting the support they need from such basic things as lavatories to a supportive company culture," said ATL general secretary Dr Mary Bousted.
"Society as a whole needs to provide girls with more, strong female role models."
For the Conservatives, shadow trade and industry secretary Alan Duncan said: "Unequal pay based on sex discrimination is completely and totally unacceptable in this day and age. We will do what it takes to stamp it out.
"It's outrageous that when a woman is as bright, qualified and productive as a man that she should ever be paid less."
The commission believes girls should be encouraged to think about non-traditional jobs as well as apprenticeships for women, especially in sectors with skill shortages.
Recommendations to tackle the problem included:
- £20m in government funding to raise skill levels
- Promotion of quality part-time work
- Matching jobs and skills locally
- Development and training of "equality representatives"
- Better careers advice for schoolgirls.
In its Shaping a Fairer Future report, the government-established commission said many women are in low-paid work, dominating what are known as the "five C's", including cleaning and caring.
Ending job segregation would benefit the economy by as much as £23bn, it added.
LOW-PAID WOMEN'S JOBS
Source: Women & Work Commission
Commission chairwoman Margaret Prosser said it was an outrage that the gender pay gap was one of the worst in Europe.
"Many women are working day-in, day-out far below their abilities," she said.
"If we do not make the fundamental change necessary to our school and workplace cultures, new jobs and opportunities will be filled in the same old way and women will continue to lose out."
Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, said the report had "deliberately missed the point".
Without compulsory pay audits, women will have to wait until "Doomsday" to earn the same as men, he said.
Katherine Rake, from women's equality campaign group the Fawcett Society, said widespread discrimination was a major contributor to the pay gap.
"The Equal Opportunities Commission came out recently saying that 30,000 women a year are dismissed simply because they are pregnant," she told the BBC.
But Mr Cridland denied employers were to blame.
"They(the commissioners) concluded that employer discrimination was neither the problem, and equal pay audits were not the solution," he said.
The commission was set up by Tony Blair in 2004 to examine women's experiences in the workplace and barriers affecting career progression.