Three-D Issue 26: Dealing with the gendered pay gap in UK universities

Rachel_Cohen_pictureJo LittlerRachel Cohen & Jo Littler
City University London

Universities pride themselves as being progressive institutions. Yet the pay penalty for female academics is currently an average of £6,103. In other words, female academics are paid are paid just 87% of what male academics are paid. At City University London where we work, the professorial pay difference is a whopping £15,992. But City is not alone. At LSE female academics typically earn 79% of their male counterparts; at Kings, 82%. These differences exist in some of the wealthiest and prestigious institutions of higher education: and, ironically, many of these institutions celebrate and benefit from having world-renowned centres for the scholarship of gender.

This means that every year female scholars lose out on over half a billion (£528 million) in wages swallowed up by the inequality gap. Universities’ responses to this stark inequality have been feeble at best. For instance, a spokesperson from the University of Leicester, which tops the gender inequality table, was quoted by the THES as saying that that pay differences had arisen owing to “changes in responsibility, promotion, length of time in post, distinctions, productivity and other non-discriminatory factors”. This attempt to justify the differences merely exemplifies the depth of the problem and the unwillingness of university managers to face it.

Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, like many adjacent disciplines with which it has intellectual traffic (particularly Gender Studies and Sociology) have a long history of pushing issues of sexism and equality to the forefront of academic analysis and debate. The tools of our trade can help us to see the complex reasons for such inequality. We know that women are slower to apply for and slower to achieve promotions; we know that women and men are often given different and differently time-consuming responsibilities; we know that career breaks for childcare are gendered; and that whose publications or teaching is rated as ‘excellent’ or meriting ‘distinction’ also tends to be a profoundly gendered practice. That this is the case is not an excuse for unequal pay. Rather, it should motivate us to think differently about what judgements are being made, and what policies are prohibiting women’s progression. That it has not been tackled may be partly because men make up the Senior Management Teams in most universities – women now comprise about 1/5 VCs, and most of that is only because of very recent increases. Similarly, half of all academics are women, but under a quarter of professors. Where they do become professors, women tend to be paid on the lowest of professorial bands.

Screen_Shot_2016-07-21_at_01.29.56UCU has asked the employers the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) to take positive action to change this. But, rather than deal head-on with this issue, UCEA has stalled, leaving any progress to its member institutions. And its member institutions have, in the main, continued to do very little. At best we see the introduction of mentoring or training which transfers responsibility for their disadvantage to women and makes solving the gender gap women’s problem. For instance, recommending participation in Aurora Women’s Leadership Training has become a common practice which is often foregrounded as the key strategy to prove commitment to gender equality (rather than, say, ensuring gender equality on interview panels). We need a more direct, more concerted and more multifaceted approach to tackling institutional sexism. We would encourage all members to support the UCU campaign as one crucial means of doing so.

The UK Equal Pay Act was passed in 1970, over 45 years ago; we shouldn’t still have to fight over this, but if we don’t fight nothing is going to change.

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