How can universities reduce their gender pay gaps?

Experts debate merits of approaches including across-the-board rises for women and the longer, harder challenge of changing cultures

May 7, 2019
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When the UK government announced in 2017 that all organisations with 250 employers or more would be obliged to publish figures on their gender pay gap, pro-equality campaigners rejoiced. And while it is safe to say that nobody expected such a move to solve the problem of gender pay disparity overnight, many will have hoped that the act of forcing employers to think about their own pay gaps would have had some positive effect in the time since.

Two years on, however, relatively little progress has been made in the higher education sector. Times Higher Education’s own analysis of the most recent pay gap figures – the second round of reporting since the legislation came in – shows that the gap has actually widened at 46 universities since the first reporting exercise.

It seems clear that too many institutions are still at a loss as to how to go about rectifying the centuries-old culture of employment that favours men. But there are also a number of success stories that can offer some guidance.

First, it is important to differentiate between pay equity – equal pay for equal work – and the gender pay gap itself, which is an average of the institution’s overall difference between male and female pay.

The University of Essex has been praised for achieving the former via its radical move to give all female staff an unconditional pay rise in 2016 to bring their salaries in line with those of their male peers. Essex’s vice-chancellor, Anthony Forster, explained that this had had a proven, immediate effect, and the university now says it has eliminated gender pay gaps within individual pay brackets. A university-wide pay audit ensured that professors are now paid the same salary for the same work regardless of gender and regardless of their ability to negotiate or sell themselves.

“We were impatient for years,” Professor Forster said. “We did not want to accept that in 10 to 15 years [pay equality] would work out. We believed as an institution that it could and should be done sooner, and if that comes at an initial financial cost to us, then so be it.”

Anthony Forster

(Anthony Forster)

This does not mean, however, that Essex has eliminated its gender pay gap overall because, like many organisations, it employs a significantly higher proportion of women in its lowest-paid roles (68.2 per cent women, compared with 31.8 per cent men).

Similarly, the number of men in the top-tier jobs is slightly higher, 59.9 per cent, which inevitably tips the pay balance in favour of men overall and leaves the institution’s female staff earning a mean hourly wage that is 17.6 per cent lower than that of their male counterparts.

While Professor Forster acknowledged that there was still “work to do” at Essex to reduce the average pay gap figure, he said that the move to ensure pay equity within pay brackets had also had the effect of shrinking the gender pay gap overall.

“In 2013, our pay gap was 25 per cent,” he said. “As of 31 March this year, that was reduced significantly. We are still not satisfied, but I hope that is evidence that reducing internal gaps can make an immediate difference.”

Despite the attention that Essex’s move garnered, no other university has publicly emulated it. And while that reluctance could be attributed in part to fears about cost, some argue that the effects will not be sustainable without an improved culture overall.

Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics and master of Churchill College, Cambridge, said “grade segregation” remained one of the biggest challenges in this respect. “If a university has more female cleaners but more male professors, then boosting female professorial pay won’t make much of a difference overall,” she said, citing the example of the University of Cambridge, which moved to a single pay scale a number of years ago.

“Everyone had to get regraded on the new scales, and it was clear that this exercise made more difference to female salaries…it moved to close the gap,” said Dame Athene. She was doubtful that such measures were “long lasting”, however, “because some of the issues arise from the differential rates at which men and women appear to apply for increments…To change the gender pay gap in the way it is reported, we need far more female professors (and senior administrators), not just better paid ones, and a better balance in the bottom grades, too.”

While there is as yet no “proven” method of eliminating the average gap overall, a clear pattern emerges in THE’s analysis of the recent reported data in that universities with smaller gaps tend to demonstrate a much fairer balance of men and women employed across each tier.

An example can be found in the University of Worcester, which boasts the smallest gender pay gap for the second year running. It has a mean average gap of 2.1 per cent for the 2018 reporting year, compared with the sector average of 15.9 per cent in favour of men.

David Green, Worcester’s vice-chancellor, confirmed that the university had virtually identical proportions of female employees across each pay quartile, ensuring that men were neither significantly over-represented at the top nor under-represented at the bottom of the scale.

He also attributed Worcester’s success to “continuing good performance…based on values, culture and systems all supporting gender equality and fairness generally”. The institution reconfigured its promotions system in 2004 to take into account “fairness and equality” as well as individual merits, he added.

While Worcester might have actively changed its focus to account for fair gender representation, there are other examples – often at arts-based institutions – where the make-up of the staff body naturally tends towards a smaller pay gap.

Arts University Bournemouth, for instance, saw one of the biggest positive changes this year – shrinking its pay gap by 4.7 percentage points by mean average. Inspection of the proportion of women in each pay quartile demonstrates a fairly even spread – they occupy 52 per cent of the top quartile jobs and 45 per cent of the second highest pay quartile.

Goldsmiths, University of London, tells a similar story: its mean hourly wage gap sits at 5.2 per cent, significantly lower than at most universities, and women occupy close to half the jobs across each pay quartile (51 per cent of the highest-paid jobs overall).

University systems around the world are wrestling with the same issue, and may offer some insights.

The American University in Washington, which had the highest proportion of senior academics who are women (73.9 per cent) in THE’s recent University Impact Rankings, has been outspoken about its “data-informed, active recruitment methods, which elicit notably diverse candidate pools, where approximately one-half of new full-time faculty hires in recent years have been women”.

Western Sydney University in Australia came top for overall gender equality in the same rankings, based on measures of not only senior staff diversity, but also institutional research on gender and university policies in this area. A spokeswoman told THE that its showing was down to the university’s proactive measures used in recruitment – 50 per cent of all staff are now female, including 47 per cent of managers and 41 per cent of professors.

In light of this evidence, an institution hoping to close its pay gap might be tempted to start hiring more men in lower-skilled jobs. But Julia Buckingham, vice-chancellor and president of Brunel University London, said such a conclusion rather misses the point.

The pay gap reporting exercise is too limited in detailing workplace inequalities, she said, because “there are a lot of complexities. But the big difference is that lower quartile – the lowest paid jobs. How do you encourage people to develop, how do you raise and sustain aspirations?”

Universities should be reviewing their career progression pathways from top to bottom – and communicating to staff members their desire to see everyone to flourish, Professor Buckingham said, “channelling that idea that even the lowest-paid person at the bottom of the chain can have the opportunity to reach the very top”.

Julia Buckingham

(Julia Buckingham)

While she described Essex’s pay exercise as “interesting”, she said that as chair of the review of the Athena SWAN equality charter she championed the idea of “offering as many different options” for female employees in terms of support – be that networking and social events, careers workshops or mentoring.

“There’s no easy answer because it is nuanced. What works for one institution might not work for another. But I think we can all ask ourselves, ‘Are we really doing all we can?’”

As the gender pay gap debate continues, there is a danger that such initiatives can be written off as an ineffective box-ticking exercise. But to the naysayers, Professor Buckingham would “suggest they go along and try some”.

“Something interesting that has come up in our [Athena SWAN charter] review is the importance that people place on culture and behaviours, and I think the biggest difference we have seen is that women are starting to feel able to talk about these things in a way they had not before,” she said. It may take time, but this ability to encourage conversations around career progression and pay disparity does have a proven effect in encouraging women to put themselves forward for promotions, she explained.

Professor Forster argued that “support is not enough on its own” but agreed that pay rises were no straightforward solution, either. “What is really needed is a broad range of interventions that ensures there is consistent focus on core values,” he said.

The Essex leader made it clear that he did not feel it was his place to “tell other institutions what to do” with regard to improving gender equity. “But sometimes,” he said, “perhaps often, sticking to your values costs money, and we were prepared to do that.”


Print headline: To close gender pay gap, make a big leap or a steady advance?

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