Nice Girls don’t Ask – but Should

In the unfolding furore about the published gender pay gap at the BBC, the situation was not improved by the comments of Philip Hampton who implied that women had ‘let it happen’ and ‘weren’t doing much about it’. Given that he is co-chair of a Government-commissioned review charged with increasing the number of women in senior roles in FTSE 350 firms, along with Helen Alexander, his remarks provoked particular ire (including from me). He claimed that he had never had a woman come to him requesting a pay-rise – but with attitudes like his it is not difficult to see why. Indeed, by and large, if women do attempt to negotiate a pay increase they are likely to be less successful than men. As a (fairly old) Harvard Business Review article on women’s attempts at negotiations put it

‘Women who assertively pursue their own ambitions and promote their own interests may be labeled as bitchy or pushy. They frequently see their work devalued and find themselves ostracized or excluded from access to important information.’  .

But what if a pay-rise can come about without any face-to-face negotiation? Are women more likely to be willing to fill in a form and submit it to a nameless committee? No one (other than the half dozen or so on the committee) need know that a particular woman had the temerity to ask to move up the scale. Like academic promotions, however, it does need the woman to apply. In Cambridge, when all the evidence – both from the national ASSET survey and local focus groups – indicated that women felt badly-informed about the promotion process itself, a series of information fora were set up, which have been run – for men and women alike – to make sure those eligible to apply were well-placed to do so. Additionally, CV mentoring is offered to everyone who wants it to make sure they make the best possible case. I haven’t seen an analysis published about the consequences of either of these on applications and success by gender, but I hope someone in the university has looked into it.

Once an academic has become a professor, progression from Band 1 up to Band 4 is available in principle, with increments within each band also potentially available. (To calibrate, in Cambridge an FRS, FREng or FBA roughly translates into a Band 2 level, so many professors will never progress beyond Band 1.) Every two years the opportunity to apply for these pay awards is run in a competition known as the Professorial Pay Review. All it requires is a short account of recent progress (since the last pay award) to accompany the statement of activity that professors are expected to fill in anyhow each year.

The results of the last Professorial Pay Review have just been published, with breakdowns by School (equivalent to Faculty in most universities) and gender. With still only around 20% of all professors now being women, in some instances the numbers remain very small, but nevertheless I thought it would be interesting to do a little analysis to see what the figures revealed. Do they support the idea that women won’t apply for more money, even in a suitably faceless way?

The figures can of course be analysed in many ways; the starting position (before the exercise) shows that there was a slightly higher percentage of women remaining in Band 1 than men, with that shortfall largely being taken up by a higher percentage of men in Band 3.  First I considered whether there was evidence to suggest women were being shy about applying. Of the total men and women eligible to apply, 35% of men and 48% of women did. That answers the question pretty conclusively. Women were perfectly willing to apply. Indeed, apparently more willing than men. Women weren’t too nice to ask in this (faceless, non-negotiation) case. What these two bits of evidence suggest is that women, who have probably been more recently promoted to professor and hence still in Band 1, may not yet consider they have reached their ‘proper’ level but some percentage of men may feel they have progressed as far as they are likely to do and so don’t bother to apply. That is only a supposition, but it strikes me as plausible.

If women were more than willing to apply, the obvious next question is what about their success rates. Women were successful in 91% of their applications, whereas men only managed a success rate of 80% overall. This looks like excellent news in the sense it would seem women are not only putting themselves forward, but when they do they are extremely likely to succeed. Although a significantly lower percentage of the male professoriat was willing to apply, those who did were not self-selecting to be those most likely to succeed.

There are various ways one could interpret the data: that some men are still over-confident about their abilities would be one version. Another might be women were getting the sympathy vote. I suspect it is more subtle than either of those versions. I believe it is probably just an extension of my interpretation of the last sentence of the last paragraph: women are still finding their appropriate place in the hierarchy. Many will be relatively newly promoted (and possibly, although this needs a different analysis, being promoted at a relatively later stage than men) and recognize that there are opportunities to progress further. As one might expect from this analysis, most of the awards are increments within Band 1 (66% of the successful women’s applications and 63% of the men’s).

There is not much variability between Schools. This is complicated because the numbers of professors vary greatly between different parts of the university and the percentage of women in the Schools of Physical Sciences and Technology is much, much lower than in (for instance) Arts and Humanities. In some cases the numbers are too small to be statistically significant. In every School women’s success rate was higher than men’s, with the greatest difference being in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences where all women received an award and only two thirds of the men.

Of course, this analysis leaves out one enormous topic which probably, more than anything else, determines the gender pay gap amongst the professoriat in Cambridge: negotiation upon appointment for those appointed externally or negotiation to match a salary offered by another institution. The 2016 Equal Pay Review shows a 3.9% gap at Grade 12 (but this includes academic-related senior staff as well as professors). However, if attention is only focussed on so-called ‘market supplements’, which amount to extra pay paid over and above a grading in order to be able to recruit or retain a staff member, around 75% of these go to men and the average amount paid to women (£12, 975) is over £3000 less than paid to men (£16, 290). Furthermore a higher proportion of the additional payments to men were for retention purposes: this suggests men may acquire counter offers to boost their chances of a pay increase by negotiation. Women may either play this game less or be less mobile and so unlikely to seek a position in another university in the first place.

It is in these negotiations that the rot sets in and we really see that ‘nice girls don’t ask’ – or at least they don’t ask for enough. I wish we could simply get rid of these sort of negotiations so no one had to get into such a bargaining position.


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One Response to Nice Girls don’t Ask – but Should

  1. Linda DeRosett says:

    I am an American, single woman raising an adopted (from China) nearly 12 year old daughter. I think day and night (when I am not busy agonizing over the terrifying results of last November’s U.S. presidential election) about the best way to prepare her to go out into the world. I admire you and your work. Can I ask what it is that you think we should be teaching our adolescent girls? I am at the point of attempting to start a school because the education she is receiving is so lacking in anything of substance or value. Thank you so much.

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