Transparency and the Gender Pay Gap

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.

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4 Responses to Transparency and the Gender Pay Gap

  1. Kate Jeffery says:

    Universities report the *gap* but not actual salaries. Personally I think that all salaries paid from the public purse, as in higher education, should be made public.

    it’s not about what people are worth – it’s about what they can get. The lowest salary band at UCL for profs starts at £65k but the top band starts at £116k and has no upper limit. A prof whose salary starts at the bottom and increments at the usual rate will likely stay in or close to the lowest band for the rest of their career. The upper bands are for those who negotiate. This hugely disadvantages women – women are less likely to be head-hunted (and thus able to threaten to leave), less likely to seek alternative positions in an attempt to drive up their own salaries (a common male tactic) and less likely to negotiate salary on employment or promotion. However, even women who are up for negotiating (and I think they *should* be taught how to do this) are hamstrung because they tend not to be plugged into the male social networks where salary info is privately shared over a few beers, or whatever (as a woman myself, I wouldn’t actually know how they do this). They thus don’t have any ammunition with which to negotiate. As with the BBC, academia is an old boys’ network that has (grudgingly, it sometimes feels) allowed women in but then doesn’t give them the same resources.

    • Maybe UCL has to think harder about this. The Cambridge system has its faults but it isn’t simply a case of negotiation – although as I say, those who get counter offers certainly do negotiate and these are typically men.

      The Cambridge professorial pay scale has 4 bands; there is a biennial process to get upgraded within band or to move to a higher band. There are undoubtedly some people, men and women, who don’t apply and one of the things I dislike about the system is that those who don’t ask don’t get, so pushy folk can get moved up a notch or two regularly and others never ask even when they are FRS, (Basically, get an FRS or equivalent and it’s straightforward to get into Band 2; higher bands are less easy to define although the criteria do attempt to do so.)

      But the details of numbers and the mean for each band – if not the individuals – are given in the equal pay review. Interestingly, with about 20% of all professors being women, the highest percentage – 25% – are in the top band. Admittedly this is also where the pay gap is largest at 5.4% for last year. For bands 1 and 2 the mean pay is actually very slightly higher for women than for men.

      Would naming names help? I don’t think so. (Speaking as a woman who was the first in my School of Physical Sciences to get promoted to professor, at a time when mean pay was also broken down by School, anyone could have seen what I earned back in the late 1990s!) I think there is quite enough information in the pay review, given that we do have insight into the top band data and we do have a formal process – without negotiation – to move up. UCL needs to think harder about its much vaunted equality if it doesn’t do something similar.

      • Kate Jeffery says:

        To be fair to UCL I think it is trying pretty hard within the parameters you outlined – they also have been scrutinizing the issue very carefully, and there is an annual pay review where everyone gets looked at in detail – as a result, the pay gap has narrowed, which is good. But the imbalances are still so high. For example, when someone is recruited from, say, overseas, they can slot in at double the salary of someone with the same credentials already in situ in the office next door and neither party would have any idea (I’ve seen it happen). It’s the dreaded “market supplement” which women find it much harder to negotiate, for numerous reasons. If salaries were open to public scrutiny these types of imbalances would at least partly self-correct, I’m sure of it, because women get pretty angry when they discover them (as we’ve seen today) and a lot of men also find it dismaying.

  2. Richard Powell says:

    I’ve come late to this but hope my comment is relevant nonetheless.

    There is a transparent system for the most senior salaries in the public sector. Here is the most recent report of the Senior Salaries Review Board:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/629680/SSRB_2017_report_Web.pdf

    The fact that you were seemingly unaware of this suggests it may work reasonably well. You will see that the highest salaries – those of the Lord Chief Justice and the Chief of Defence Staff – are around £250k. Perm Secs mostly receive a little below £200k. It’s a pity that the PM’s salary is kept artificially low for political reasons, and that her unconvincing display of ostentatious virtue in refusing her full entitlement reduces it further. If it were a more realistic £300k it would provide a much more effective benchmark, and perhaps ceiling on salaries paid from public money. Incidentally all salaries go with the job, rather than the individual, so there’s very limited scope for negotiation. Could something similar be made to work in higher education, or would it be an intolerable interference in the affairs of independent institutions?

    It was perhaps unfair to put the spotlight on Glynis Breakwell. But many VCs are drawing salaries that far exceed those paid to those doing the most senior and demanding jobs in public service. The money thus spent is no longer available to fund research, or to boost the pay of those at the bottom of the ladder who are genuinely struggling. At the very least these generous wedges of quasi-public cash need to be justified. I have yet to see a persuasive attempt to do that.

    Where am I coming from? I worked for the Foreign Office for nearly thirty years, and when I retired in 2010 I was in the lowest salary band of the Senior Management Structure. My salary was around £72k – then about the same as an MP’s, though they have edged ahead now. On the whole I thought it reasonable, though some friends in the private sector earned many multiples of that. It did rankle though when I saw other publicly-funded employees earning significantly more than me for work with comparable responsibilities.

    Incidentally, Andrew Adonis was never an MP – he was plucked from the Number 10 Policy Unit to be a Minister of State for Education without having to go to the trouble of getting himself elected, or having to deal with a constituency caseload. I can see why his prejudices get up people’s noses!