What women really want

Men who work in higher education earn more than their female counterparts – and the gap is widening. Emma Haughton finds out why
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Higher education, it would seem, is not particularly progressive when it comes to equal opportunities. Research from the Association of University Teachers (AUT) has found that the gap between average salaries for male and female academic staff in the UK has actually widened over the last five years, with women earning on average 16 per cent less than men. The gap for academics in Wales and Scotland is even higher, at 19 per cent.

Higher education, it would seem, is not particularly progressive when it comes to equal opportunities. Research from the Association of University Teachers (AUT) has found that the gap between average salaries for male and female academic staff in the UK has actually widened over the last five years, with women earning on average 16 per cent less than men. The gap for academics in Wales and Scotland is even higher, at 19 per cent.

It's a national disgrace, asserts Kate Robinson, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Luton. "It's appalling that there is any discrimination in pay resulting from a difference between gender in this day and age, particularly in higher education, which should be upholding values of equality."

It is still an enormous problem, agrees Natalie Fenton, president of the AUT and senior lecturer in social sciences at the University of Loughborough, and one intricately tied into the issue of promotion. "Universities have very hierarchical systems that allow men to flourish more than women, who get stuck at the bottom of the pay scales. While there has been an increase in the number of women in higher education, they are still concentrated in the lower grades."

With the emphasis on the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), pay and promotion tend to follow research output and international reputation, she believes. But this is much harder for women to achieve. "We now have a very competitive working environment with academics needing to devote longer and longer hours to achieving research output, where you're promoted for publishing work, bringing in funding, speaking at international conferences and so on. But women don't have the childcare to go swanning off abroad. It's almost impossible for women with domestic responsibilities, so they're labelled as research inactive and their careers fall at the first hurdle."

And often the areas women do research are deemed less worthy, she says. "They don't pull in lucrative funding like research that is more business-oriented. But people's pay and promotion shouldn't be on the basis of the amount of money they bring in."

Part of the problem is that women frequently focus on teaching, pastoral care and administration, which are regarded as less important areas. "Women are more conscientious in a way that they perhaps shouldn't be now," says Gillian Howie, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Liverpool. "They pick up a lot of the time-consuming domestic labour of the department, while men disappear to write their papers. In terms of quality inspection, these are things that actually count, but women are not getting the credit for them."

Pay and promotion tend to depend on informal networks that are extremely entrenched and masculinised – "all sorts of prejudices slip in that aren't entirely transparent" – but Howie is also concerned about the increasingly casualised nature of the higher-education workforce. "Some people argue that it's things like career breaks that stop women being paid properly and promoted, but that's rather an old-fashioned argument. The fact is that women are nestled in the type of jobs that aren't well paid, often on teaching-only or fixed-term contracts, which are the poorest paid. Higher education is the second most casualised workforce after the fast-food industry."

So what should be done? The unanimous response is that the first thing higher-education institutions should do is conduct equal-pay audits to bring prejudice and discrimination out into the open. "Then we can deal with the consequences," says Robinson. "Once we get it into the public domain, we can look at the way careers in higher education are structured to discriminate against women, how a long-hours culture and a certain macho style still persist in the sector. We can then ask why women don't want to be vice-chancellors. What is it about the role that is putting them off?"

Fenton agrees. "We need annual pay reviews to show exactly where the discrimination is – quite often, you get people in the same corridor who are the same age, but the man is paid more." But changing the status quo could be tough, she admits, "not least of all with the Government pushing policy around the RAE, they are going to get certain gender outcomes from it, and those have to be tackled as well".

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