It’s not just bad, it’s wrong

The pay gap between men and women is an issue that never goes away. It’s time for action, not more reassuring words

April 2, 2015

Do you remember the tale of “binders full of women”? Let me retell it anyway: during the 2012 US presidential election campaign, the Republican candidate Mitt Romney was asked about the gender pay gap.

Romney clearly felt he was on firm ground; when assembling his Cabinet as governor of Massachusetts, he had asked why all the applicants were men. These were the people who had the qualifications, his advisers replied. “I said, ‘Well, gosh, can’t we find some women that are also qualified?’,” Romney recalled. “I went to a number of women’s groups and said: ‘Can you help us find folks?’ And they brought us whole binders full of women.”

Perhaps he was trying to say the right thing. But even with the benefit of the doubt, the gaffe was a reminder that, for many in high office, gender equality is a paper exercise rather than something to get angry about.

This week, we focus on UK higher education’s record, crunching the numbers in our annual pay analysis to find out how women are being treated in comparison with their male colleagues.

Across all academic ranks, women are paid on average 11.3 per cent less than men in parallel posts; in some institutions, the figure is more than 20 per cent. For professors, the average disparity is 5.8 per cent, although again it rises to 19 per cent in the institutions with the largest gap. Coupled with the obvious under-representation of women in senior leadership positions, these numbers are more than unedifying. Are they even legal?

One brave academic took legal action to address the inequality and a gruelling four-year battle resulted in her pay being increased by £10,000

Discussions about the cause of gender inequality in universities tend to run through a familiar checklist: the problem of self-replicating elites (the old boy network); the myopia of headhunters who tap into established groups (the old boy network); the leaky pipeline that pitches career and family as all but mutually exclusive; the shortage of role models; the effect of “unconscious bias”; and the gender imbalance on universities’ governing boards.

But, as important as it is to focus on what is stopping women getting to the top, this does not address the basic question of why women are apparently being paid less than their male colleagues of the same rank and grade.

When we ran this same analysis some years ago, one brave academic was so incensed that she took legal action to address the inequality in her own department. It turned into a gruelling four-year battle, but resulted in her pay being increased by £10,000.

One hurdle she had to clear was finding out what her colleagues were paid, and this lack of transparency is one factor that allows the disparity within our sector-wide figures to persist. In the end, this is not a battle that will be won case by individual case; it will need collective agreement that this will not be tolerated. That requires leadership.

When it comes to pay, much of the focus is on excess at the top tiers of academia (£623,000, anyone?), but that should not deflect attention from what is happening in the ranks, too. Rolling up sleeves and tackling this long-standing problem, rather than nodding and saying the right thing, would be one way for those at the top to convince others that they have earned that bumper salary.

A meritocracy does not just demand that all have an equal chance of earning promotion; once you have proved that you are the woman for the job, it demands equal pay, too.

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