Are Women Underpaid?

The deadline is past for companies in the UK employing more than 250 employees to report their gender pay gap. The numbers are not pretty and the University sector is no different from other types of employers in manifesting an average or median hourly difference of around 20%.  (Wonkhe have published the data for universities, and there is also an account of all the Oxford Colleges data here, although I haven’t yet seen an equivalent for Cambridge. My own college, Churchill, is pretty typical I fear.) However I think it is very important to unravel what this really means. It looks bad, it is bad, but what exactly is it telling us?

Firstly, it does not tell us whether men and women are being paid a 20% discrepancy for the same work. Of course, I hear you say, it is illegal to pay men and women differently for doing the same role, but despite this being enshrined in law it is clear – for instance from the latest stories from the BBC – that the law is not always applied. Personally, I would have liked the new Government reporting requirements to have been put into a form where this sort of unequal behaviour had to be made explicit. That is not what we have. Nor do the requirements actually force greater transparency. Again, to single out the BBC (not because they are clearly the worst offenders, but simply because they have been extensively analysed so there is more information about their weaknesses than for most other organisations) it is obvious just how much the lack of transparency makes it easy to obscure what is going on, thereby making it hard for legal challenges to be made.

I wish institutions were required to report by grade (or role), so that intrinsic differences in how men and women are paid for equivalent roles became clear. The University of Cambridge does report like this – has done so for around a decade – and, back when I chaired the relevant group, we tried to understand why, for instance, it seemed that new male appointments were typically made at higher points within one particular grade than women. We got some answers – since grades actually cover a variety of roles which have different typical starting pay – but I’m not sure it was satisfactory enough and I hope in the years since I stepped down from the role such investigations continue.

However, what the government has chosen to make mandatory for reporting is simply the averages across all grades. These figures raise an entirely different set of issues and problems which may be much harder to resolve. Which is why I wish we had answers to the first set for which it should be much easier to effect a cure. What averages over all grades show is what was anyhow already obvious to everyone in the sector: that there are more male professors at the top and more (frequently part-time) female cleaners at the bottom. This grade segregation has its roots in part in our society and its values and in part – but only in part – in university practices. The trouble is that the first set of issues are essentially outwith any particular university’s control so that they alone cannot remove all the discrepancies.

For instance, in Cambridge, my memory is that the highest paid professors tend to be in the sciences and engineering schools, not the arts, humanities and social sciences. But where are there more women? Of course in the latter group not the former. That there are a low proportion of female professors in Physics or Engineering is not, I believe, down to inherent bias (even if that may play some small part, although I have no evidence it does even that) but has its roots in the low numbers of girls ever starting to study these subjects due to problems pre-18 in our schools and in our societal expectations and norms.   There are proportionally more female professors in English but, on average, all the professors in English are paid less than in sciences. Even if we only looked at professorial salaries, then, we would find a marked gender pay gap, but from that it couldn’t simply be concluded the University might be misbehaving.

That is not to make any excuse for the ca 20% overall gender pay gap that the University is showing. There will undoubtedly be work that can and must be done to facilitate progression for women to the higher grades. We should also be doing all we can to make it easier for men to opt into part-time working associated with childcare responsibilities. Only if a working world, where equality of choice for men and women regarding caring responsibilities is facilitated, can we hope to see a world where the domestic onus is not simply seen as the ‘woman’s problem’. To my mind, removing the stigma – which appears to surround men taking six months of parental leave, even where an employer makes it financially viable – is a key part in making it easier for women to progress. I suspect that too often the only focus of attention is on ‘fixing the women’, but fixing the system is much more broad-ranging.

Of course every university should be scrutinising the wording of advertisements for implicit messaging that may deter one gender or the other; they should be considering whether an appropriately diverse range of candidates apply for any job – and if not why not; if the pool turns out to be badly out of kilter with the pool from which they should be drawing they need to start again; they should be sure panels are well-versed in the dangers of unconscious bias and that they know how to decode any symptoms of gendered wording in letters of reference; they need to check whether shortlists are balanced; and they need to be wary if selection panels always rank the brilliant woman just behind the also brilliant man when making appointments. And those are just the issues relating to academic appointments. An equivalent list could be drawn up for appointments to every kind of job in the organisation and equally for issues around promotion and progression.

Finally, what the Government reporting does require is an analysis of bonuses by gender. Bonuses are often awarded for recruitment and retention purposes. Particularly in the latter case this means that people essentially ask for them: up my pay or I’ll leave to go to Harvard being the typical line of argument. As things stand (often related to the issue of childcare I allude to above) men are more likely to be mobile and therefore willing to contemplate a Harvard approach, hence men – at the top of the tree – are more likely to be the ones getting the bonuses. Instantly one has moved away from equal pay for equal work. I think this whole system of academic bonuses needs to be scrutinised because it introduces great inequalities unrelated to academic worth. I don’t know what the answer is. but I think too often the mantra of ‘ask and it shall be given’ applies in a not very considered way that introduces unfairnesses across the board.

I guess there is a presumption that those employers in any sector which have come up with a massive gender pay gap will be shamed into doing better. How long it will take to root out some of the systemic problems I would not like to predict, but until society reconsiders many issues about how we perceive men and women, that gap is likely to remain.

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3 Responses to Are Women Underpaid?

  1. Female professor says:

    “That there are a low proportion of female professors in Physics or Engineering is not, I believe, down to inherent bias (even if that may play some small part, although I have no evidence it does even that) but has its roots in the low numbers of girls ever starting to study these subjects due to problems pre-18 in our schools and in our societal expectations and norms”

    I am very glad that you don’t see much inherent bias in your experiences within department, college and on panels. Sadly I have experienced bias (including in your own department, albeit many years ago) and I have on occasions seen blatant bias on panels I have served on, with women being held to much higher standards than men.

    I would point to the very interesting study carried out in Holland of professorial appointments by Marieke van den Brink and Yvonne Benschop

    In this study it was found that to be appointed as professors women often needed to be “sheep with five legs” (i.e. more qualified, possessing qualities not listed in the job requirements). Meanwhile for men who were “sheep with three legs” (i.e. missing required qualities/experience) it was often argued that they would “grow another leg” (i.e. pick up the required expertise and experience in their professorial roles).

    I think many of the issues you point to play a big role – and the gender pay gap is complex to resolve – but I still see and hear of far too women academics experiencing direct discrimination, going well beyond subtle biases. Those who discriminate typically face no consequences or disciplinary action unless formal complaints are made – and women who are already experiencing discrimination from senior academics are unlikely to make formal complaints.

    • I am saying that, when it comes to promotions in the recent past, no I haven’t seen bias. I have seen people do inappropriate things – eg in letters of reference as I have previously written about – and panels pick them up and overrule them. I have seen that in my own university and elsewhere. I think times are changing as more and more people get sensitised to the issues. Men calling out the ‘higher’ standard rule you refer to is particularly powerful into shaming others to do the right thing.

  2. Steve says:

    If you drill down into intersections between race and gender the figures for our sector (in the UK) are even more startling. Out of 18,510 professors in the UK, 85 are are black of which 17 are black women ( 2015 HESA data). The pay gap between black people (and their white counterparts) actually widens as you progress up the academic scale; the higher the qualification the larger the pay gap (e.g. Intersections are interesting because they are not simply the addition of one discrimination on another, and they are rarely taken into account as a characteristic on their own. There have been many historical legal cases down the years where there has been a refusal to take race and gender into consideration (see Kimberlé Crenshaw’s classic article in University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8). Most of the gender pay gap discussion I have seen comes from a basis of an assumption of white-female.

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