Why McMaster University gave its female academics a pay rise

When his university found evidence of a £2,000 gender pay gap, it knew what was the right thing to do - and it did it, says David Wilkinson

May 14, 2015

It will cost McMaster C$1 million a year, but to us there was no choice but to find a way to fit it into our budget. It is time to pay the bill

In the days since McMaster University announced that it would increase the annual salary of its female academics by C$3,500 (£1,900), the headlines have focused on the money. But it was principle that drove our decision.

Our university is committed to fostering an inclusive community and to ensuring equity in compensation and treatment, so once the evidence was in, the decision was clear: we had to close the unfair gap in pay between our female and male professors.

McMaster is a research-intensive university that is proud to have introduced the concept of evidence-based medicine to the world. Evidence-based research and decision-making is ingrained in our culture.

In 2012, after the Marsden report commissioned by the Canadian government showed conclusively that women still struggle for equity at Canadian universities, we set about determining what we needed to do at McMaster to address this. In some ways pay equity is the easy part. Looking at two years of data, we extracted differences that could be attributed to factors such as academic faculties, rank and seniority. What remained could only be related to gender – a gap of just over C$3,500, equal to about 2.5 per cent of an average faculty member’s salary.

While we cannot attribute this difference to any discernible trend or process, some possible explanations arise. For example, it is known that women tend to bargain less for starting salaries than do men. We also know that women are statistically more likely to take time off from their academic careers for parental leave, and to care for sick or elderly family members. Fulfilling such important responsibilities should not be held against a person in terms of career development. This must be taken out of the equation when measuring research output and other performance metrics.

The current adjustment accounts for this. But how do we ensure that salaries do not continue to diverge in the future? We must train those who set starting salaries (deans, in our case) to ensure equity from the outset. We are adjusting our merit-pay scheme to remove parental leave as a determinant. We are also considering how to encourage all faculty, but especially women, to aspire to positions of prominence within the university, whether in administrative roles or in research chairs.

Yes, the pay decision will cost McMaster about C$1 million per year, but to us there was no choice other than to find a way to fit it into our C$400 million operating budget. Look at it this way: our utility costs will be rising by more than C$1 million next year. We would never think of not paying the bill. Women who educate our students and perform vital research have been earning less than men, and now that we know it, it is time to pay the bill.

We are confident that in the global marketplace for the best teaching and research talent, McMaster – one of four Canadian universities to be ranked among the world’s top 100 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – can stand out as a workplace that values equity, a point of attraction for both women and men.

We hope that our example will be taken up by our sister institutions and in other sectors. The drive to pay women and men the same for work of equal value is gathering momentum around the world, as it should.

We hope the students we are teaching today will graduate to work in a climate free from systemic impairments to equality in all forms, and that among the lessons they take from their education here will be that fairness must always be the starting point.

We expect that young men and young women who have learned together will go on to make similar contributions to their fields after graduating, and that their compensation will reflect their achievements.

We did not make our decision on pay to call attention to ourselves, nor did we make it as a political or social statement. In fact, we wish that our research had revealed no bias towards either gender, but it didn’t, and so we are correcting it.

We are paying women and men equally simply because it is fair.

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Reader's comments (1)

Good for McMaster. I wonder how many universities have done the analysis, found the pay gap and then done nothing? Or, more likely, set up a project to come up with recommendations etc etc that never quite delivers the outcomes? Quite a few I would have thought. However, as he points out, great for the women currently employed but the pay gap will still start again and continue if the unconscious bias of recruiters and managers responsible for pay isn't tackled. How much do you value your teaching and research staff, enough to make a few senior people feel uncomfortable?

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