The gender pay gap has been much in the news with the revelations about the pay of the BBC’s superstars. Whatever you may feel about the level of remuneration for Chris Evans compared with Andrew Marr, whether you believe one is worth more or less than the other, I think it is clear there is little transparency in the process by which the ‘correct’ level of pay has been arrived at. Why should Emma Maitlis not even make it into the top tier – is it because of her gender, because she hasn’t argued persuasively enough for high levels of pay or because it has been denied? On her in particular there seems a lot of uncertainty, with her contract currently being negotiated. But other obvious stars, such as Mishal Husain, sit lower than might have been expected – does ethnicity come into play as well as gender? We have no idea about this, but each of us could look through the BBC’s list and draw up their own list of queries and cries of astonishment.
Universities are not exempt from the new requirement reporting on the gender pay gap. Some, a few, have already been publishing their Equal Pay Review. Cambridge has since 2008, although not every year (it usually publishes them in alternate years, even though the data is collected each year). Furthermore, it has not only published this, it has had review groups analysing the data and trying to establish the source of the problem and what might and should be done. (I was involved for a number of years, exploring KPIs and the questions lurking behind the figures.)
In absolute terms Cambridge is clearly not without its own issues, although it isn’t in the top 10 offenders currently for professorial salaries according to the THE. Where it does fall down is for average academic pay across all grades. Although I am no longer involved in the group that does the scrutiny, I would assume this large average gap in Cambridge reflects the fact there are as yet fewer women in the top grades. ‘Grade segregation’ also affects the averages across all grades of staff. For academics, every year this separate discrepancy is diminishing and, more importantly, great attention is paid to success rates at promotion to make sure that women are indeed moving up through the grades fairly. I would like to think, albeit progress is slow, we are on a steady path in my university to pay equality.
The trouble with the crude gender pay gap figures is that they hide so many competing factors. Uneven distribution of men and women across grades is just one such ‘hidden variable’. Others include the differences at the top where ‘market supplements’, or bonus payments or some other set of weasel words obscures the fact that those who threaten to leave an institution may get a top-up which isn’t always published. So in these higher echelons, published data may not actually mean a great deal. Too often such top-ups go to those who are more demanding, but some folk never think to ask for additional pay to keep them loyal. Add in the fact that, stereotypically at least, women are less mobile than men making it hard for them to threaten to leave and immediately there is another factor which can exacerbate gender differentials: they aren’t able to negotiate high salaries at a new institution requiring a counter bid from the host institution.
This is not new territory. It needs constantly to be monitored, discussed, scrutinised and remedial measures taken.
Other topics around university pay have found their way into the mainstream media in the last week or two. I find the way some of these stories have been reported, and the comments non-academics have made, fairly surprising and upon occasion infuriating and even ignorant. Both Lord Adonis and Jo Johnson have been weighing in on the subject of VC’s pay. Lord Adonis chose to single out Glynis Breakwell at Bath as his figure of hate, given that she is the highest paid of all the vice-chancellors. Jo Johnson seems to have preferred to talk in more general terms. The unit of pay deemed reasonable for comparator terms in their eyes is the PM’s pay. So the fact the Bath VC earns more than three times May’s salary is thought to be unreasonable. (Interestingly, no one has commented that both these are women; nor have I seen the gender pay gap for VCs, if any such there is, discussed.) Added to this Adonis made some ill-informed comments about the (lack of) work academics do over the summer, which I felt moved to dissect earlier this week elsewhere. He seemed to forget that MPs – of which he was one once – have a long summer recess, at least as long as any academic’s break and no doubt equally used to catch up with all the work the rest of the year makes impossible.
Adonis’ criticism of Glynis Breakwell also seemed to overlook the behaviour of some MPs. He pointed out that she additionally held three non-executive directorships, for which she also got paid. I do wonder how many MPs, not to mention peers, also hold non-executive directorships with accompanying supplementary cash. It is clear that for some of them they even get cosy with companies whilst MPs – possibly assisting with relevant legislation – and then line up remunerative employment thereafter. I really don’t think this is an improvement on the VC saga at all, but I never saw this picked up or Adonis called out on the obvious parallels.
I am not saying there is no case for restraint in pay at the top and that Jo Johnson is not right to call for such constraint. But, by and large I would guess academic pay is no less transparent than the BBCs, or MPs who have further roles on the side or indeed just about any senior executives in any sector. What someone is worth is a question many people don’t want to contemplate. They may choose to answer instead with ‘what can we get away with paying this person?’ Those who are cantankerous, or persuasive in argument, or have some sway over the remuneration committee will do rather better than the person who just meekly accepts the offer that lands on their desk.
If we are to remove the pay gap we are going to have to face up to the fact that the way to remove it is not to teach women how to negotiate. This is standard, deficit mode thinking. We should not be fixing the women but the system.