Education: The pay discrimination that's deterring women academics

Five months after the Bett report uncovered the sex discrimination at the heart of higher education, what's being done to turn the situation around?
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Shocking evidence of sex discrimination in higher education was made public earlier this year when an independent report on university pay and conditions found that women were being paid less than men at every level and in all types of employment. Universities and colleges were urged to put their houses in order. "We believe there is a considerable onus on higher education institutions to make progress as rapidly as recruitment and promotion on merit will allow," said the report by Sir Michael Bett, a senior civil servant.

It is five months since the Bett Report was published. The issue of equal opportunities became one of two key matters (the other was casualisation) in the long-running pay dispute between the Association of University Teachers (AUT) and university employers. One reason that the stalemate was broken last week was that the employers agreed to set up a working party to look at women in higher education. It meets for the first time this month.

Bett's estimate is that it would cost pounds 380m a year to end the inequalities and to give low-paid academics the increases they deserve. The universities say they can't afford that without help from central government.

It must only be a matter of time, however, before universities are forced to act or face being under the Equal Pay Act. Legal opinion suggests that higher education institutions would lose legal cases in the United Kingdom and Europe and end up having to pay large sums. "I think Bett will force a sea change," says Amanda Hart, national official for higher education at the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education.

Experts believe that the disadvantage suffered by women in higher education amounts to institutional discrimination. David VandeLinde, the Vice- chancellor of Bath University who chairs the Commission on University Career Opportunity, a group set up by the university bosses, is calling on vice-chancellors to "stand up and be advocates for equal opportunities".

He says: "They have to lead from the front. They have to say 'It's part of our institutional agenda to make sure we have the best academics we can get'." Women need to be encouraged to apply for promotion and their CVs need to be read differently to take account of career breaks when they have children, as happens in the United States.

Bett's inquiry found women losing out financially in all higher education jobs - in academic, administrative and manual work. It revealed that full-time male academics in the "old" universities were paid an average of pounds 4,259 more than female counterparts. Moreover women, who make up the majority of employees in universities and colleges, suffer in terms of promotion, especially in the higher grades. In the old universities, 56 per cent of men but only 29 per cent of women have become senior lecturers. In new universities, 30 per cent of men but only 16 per cent of women have become principal lecturer.

Within each grade women earn less than men. A male lecturer on the bottom grade earns pounds 238 a year more on average than his female counterpart. The gap for senior lecturers is pounds 541 and for professors pounds 1,807. In addition, women are three times as likely as men to be working part-time. They are also more likely to be on fixed-term contracts with less job security.

Everyone agrees that the reasons for the discrimination are structural rather than deliberate. They are also complex - a combination of biology, culture and history. "Women are less up-front than men about what their achievements are," says Joyce Hill, an English professor at Leeds University who chairs the group Through the Glass Ceiling, a networking group for women in senior posts. They tend to lack self-confidence and to feel that they can't apply for jobs unless they have a very good chance of getting them - which means fewer women get promotion. Men, by contrast, are happy to take a chance.

"Taking time out to have children is a dreadful setback in academic life," says Hill. If women take three or four years out, they find they can lose touch with developments in their subject.

Women are particularly thin on the ground in science and engineering. That's why the Athena Project was set up with funding from the research councils, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the vice-chancellors' committee. Its aim is to increase the number of women going in to science, engineering and technology and to improve their promotion prospects.

In the life sciences, women make up 61 per cent of undergraduates. But only 15 per cent end up as senior lecturers and researchers in the subject and only 7 per cent become professors. There's a similar picture in engineering: women comprise 15 per cent of students but only 5 per cent become senior lecturers and just 2 per cent make professor. The figures for the physical sciences are 37 per cent, 7 per cent and 2 per cent.

The dearth of women does not encourage female students to enter these subjects, says Dr Susan Bullivant, director of the Athena Project. "If you get more women on the staff, you are going to get more undergraduates coming in. It does help to see successful women."

Unfortunately, the number of successful women, as defined by women reaching the pinnacle of vice-chancellor, has actually declined in recent years, from a high of 10 in 1996-7. There are five women university vice-chancellors now - and only one of these at an old university.

One of the reasons there are so few high-fliers coming through the system, according to Julia Higgins, professor of chemical engineering at Imperial, is that women academics with families concentrate on teaching and administration. As a result, their research tends to suffer. That is why, she believes, women may reach senior-lecturer level, but find it difficult to attain reader or professor grade. "In the best universities, you have to be successful at research if you are going to be successful," she explains.

The AUT has been collecting evidence from members about the way the research assessment exercise (RAE) affects women. Its women's committee has sent a paper to the higher education funding council arguing that maternity leave should be taken into account when women's research output is analysed. At present, 12 RAE subject panels mention maternity leave, but there are no clear and consistent guidelines laid down, says the AUT.

"The RAE needs to be seen to be fair," says Sally Hunt, AUT assistant general secretary. "Women feel that too many cards in the research game are stacked against them."

'I'M NOT AMBITIOUS... A DOOR OPENED AND I JUST WALKED THROUGH IT'

Mrs Alexandra Burslem, 59, vice-chancellor, Manchester Metropolitan University, salary pounds 102,550

SUCCESS SIMPLY happened to Alexandra Burslem. She says her beginnings were inauspicious. She had to leave the first year of a history degree at Cambridge University to have a baby. Another baby followed, her marriage broke down and, as a single mother, she enrolled for a course in politics and modern history at Manchester University.

"I loved every minute of it," she says. She ended up with a first-class degree, went into research and a PhD followed.

She became a lecturer in British politics and administration at the former Manchester Polytechnic in 1973 on pounds 2,800. By 1982, she had become the head of department. "I was not ambitious," she says. "A door opened and I just walked through it."

Mrs Burslem went on to become head of the faculty of community studies and education. Two years later she moved sideways to the academic director's post.

She thinks that women are put off from applying for promotion by the belief that it will automatically mean much more responsibility. But she has found that most senior jobs carry different - not more - responsibility.

One reason that women are at such a disadvantage in the higher education field is that many of them have only entered the sector relatively recently, she says.

FORCED HERSELF TO ASK FOR MORE

Hannah Penniless, 27, junior lecturer in science faculty, Birmingham University, salary pounds 18,915

ONE OF a group of young women in her department, Ms Penniless has a first-class degree and a PhD. As a lecturer, she started on pounds 15,195 and has received a couple of pay awards and increments since. "We're paid less than our male colleagues of the same age and experience," she says.

Ms Penniless has had to steel herself to ask for more money, but she has done so. The head of department now acknowledges that there is a group of young women who are underpaid.

(Hannah Penniless is a pseudonym)

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