There's no good reason for this inequality

A gruelling four-year battle with her institution over a gender pay gap was ultimately empowering for Liz Schafer, who hopes it will help other women in the fight for parity

June 30, 2011

Source: Peter Searle

It was in 2007 that I first realised there was a stark gender gap in academic pay at Royal Holloway, University of London. In a league table published by Times Higher Education ranking universities on equal pay for male and female academics, the institution where I had worked for the past 16 years languished near the bottom.

I am not someone who normally gets bothered about money, but the figures in this article suggested that female academics were being taken for a ride. It was particularly galling that Royal Holloway was doing so badly in the equality stakes given its history. In 1879, the philanthropist Thomas Holloway set up the college to educate women. The suffragette martyr Emily Wilding Davison was a student there. And in 1985, when Royal Holloway merged with Bedford College, it joined forces with another great pioneering institution for the education of women.

So, spurred by the revelations in that article in May, female professors at Royal Holloway met several times during 2007 to discuss the situation. Two of my colleagues - Pauline Croft from history and Bernice Andrews from psychology - decided to apply under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 for details about professorial pay. We were galvanised by the figures we received. It emerged that, in one faculty, female professors at Royal Holloway faced a pay gap averaging more than £9,000. Given my publication record, I considered I was insultingly far adrift of the average male professorial salary.

From November 2007, groups of us began writing letters to the deans, the principal and the chair of council asking for action. We were polite, and we were ignored. We were assertive, and we were ignored. However, we didn’t stop writing letters.

Then, with professorial pay frozen at the 2007-08 level and with no sign of a pay review in sight, in April 2009, I and three other professors - Chris Dymkowski from drama, Pauline Croft from history and Rajeswary Brown from management - filed grievances and submitted equal pay questionnaires to Royal Holloway. This kick-started the process that would lead to the employment tribunal. From then on, the timetable of events was dictated by the tribunal and this put pressure on Royal Holloway.

Chris, Pauline, Raj and I quickly became a mutual support group, aided by Clare Bradley, a professor of psychology who is our University and College Union branch equality representative.

The first critical part of the process was selecting “comparators”. When someone puts in a claim for equal pay, they must compare their pay with that of someone else. This very important step is also very hard and, in terms of working relationships, potentially quite disastrous. I needed to find male professors who were earning more than me, who, like me, had been a head of department, and who seemed comparable in terms of research, publications and teaching.

We obtained the information we needed as a result of the first case-management meeting of the tribunal in October 2009 - the judge ruled that Royal Holloway had to provide us with a list of all the male professors in our individual faculties who earned more than us and reveal what they earned. Once I saw those figures I realised that I wasn’t just underpaid, I was being treated like a fool.

When the four of us selected our comparators, 15 male professors at Royal Holloway became embroiled in the case. I sympathised with my comparators’ situation, but the process required it. Two of my comparators appeared to me to behave with dignity and integrity throughout the trying process. One was grumpy about it (reasonably so) but remained philosophical. One took it personally.

Claimants and comparators all had to provide so much information about ourselves - the stage in the process is aptly named “disclosure” - that it inevitably became uncomfortable. They learned about my childcare arrangements; the fact that, very unusually for a Royal Holloway professor, I live locally and can walk across the fields to work. We read each other’s references for jobs and promotions.

It is important to note that my comparators were not in the drama department; part of the challenge I was mounting was the claim that drama should not be paid differently from other subjects. A coincidental benefit of this is that I don’t now have to work alongside my comparators; we know more about each other than is comfortable.

Once disclosure had been completed, everything became adversarial. For example, I was surprised to find a bridge-building email I had sent to my comparators among the disclosure documents. It had been forwarded to the human resources department by the comparator who took everything personally. That email came back to haunt me over and over again; it was referred to in court by the barristers and by the judge; it was cited in the judgment. I thought I had phrased the email carefully, but every time it was mentioned I winced. And one sentence in my equal pay questionnaire was subjected to extended scrutiny by the judge and two barristers; as I listened to the debate, I wished I had taken more care over writing it.

By this stage, the UCU was representing us. Clare was a magnificent legal representative, but her area is the psychology of diabetes and other long-term medical conditions rather than employment law. We were all, including Clare, relieved when the union took our case on. Without the backing of the UCU, I could have funded my case only by remortgaging my home. Fortunately, the UCU had been looking for a case to test whether professorial pay stood up to scrutiny because it was so unregulated across the sector. A few institutions were introducing banding systems but the norm was, and is still in most universities, very odd: newly appointed professors, having spent all their years working in higher education moving up a clearly marked out, nationally negotiated salary scale, are suddenly set adrift in a free market and may have to bid for pay rises without any idea of the rules of the game.

The pressure intensified as we moved towards the tribunal. Litigation is taxing and inconvenient; I had a full teaching load to rearrange, but the students were all extremely supportive as well as being shocked at the fact that, in 2010, I was having to fight over such an issue.

A few days before the tribunal hearing, Chris, Pauline and Raj settled, for various personal reasons, including health issues. It had become clear just how gruelling the tribunal was going to be. Royal Holloway had hired a QC. However, because we had as a group generated 6,000 pages of evidence, it was also strategic for the others to settle; the tribunal panel indicated that they were unimpressed at being asked to read 6,000 pages in just a couple of days.

A solicitor friend pointed out that tribunal cases have a huge dropout rate because it is so hard to keep going. But professors have to be tenacious in their research; I kept thinking, “If women professors can’t keep going, who can?” I was determined not to become part of the dropout statistics, and my co-claimants turned up to offer moral support.

As the claimant, I was first up for cross-examination and this was surprisingly invigorating. Being questioned for 10 hours by a QC was slightly surreal and rather like a bad conference experience - the questions went on and on. I also had to admit publicly that I had been naive.

What the disclosure part of the process had revealed to me was that my faith in the annual pay review was quite sad. There was a whole range of ways in which it was possible to get a salary increase at Royal Holloway that bypassed the annual review. As the tribunal said, the “lion’s share” of significant pay increases obtained by my comparators were from “retention payments, head of department payments and their ‘roll in’ (this is when a professor continues to be paid the head of department allowance after leaving the role)”.

Of course, in the run-up to the last research assessment exercise, everyone knew that some academics were transferring from one institution to another and enlarging their salaries in the process (at one stage in the tribunal the phrase “RAE raids” was used). What I had not grasped was the extent to which a lot of, predominantly male, academics were boosting their salaries by threatening to leave their institutions and then securing retention payments.

I would have expected such pay rises to be supported by significant documentation: the offer of a job with salary specified perhaps or, at the very least, an offer of an interview with salary range indicated. But some at Royal Holloway were able to secure substantial annual pay rises just by producing an email from another institution that merely asked them to consider applying for a post.

When I was head of department, I used to send out similar hunter-and-gatherer emails: when you are advertising a post you want a strong field and you want to make sure good people apply. And I have received many such emails, which I used to delete. But deleting them turned out to be a big mistake; my salary was falling behind because I wasn’t threatening to leave on a regular basis.

The system rewarded discontent and punished loyalty. It even, bizarrely, made retention payments to some professors who went for a job interview and were rejected. And one male professor (let’s call him Professor A) secured a pay hike because another male professor in his department (Professor B) obtained a retention payment that “would have a comparability impact” on Professor A: that is, Professor A would be fed up if he ever found out that Professor B was earning more than him.

On the subject of Royal Holloway’s retention payments, the tribunal commented: “There was no documentation to describe any principle applying to retention payment, including whether accepting a retention payment implied a commitment to remain at Royal Holloway, and if so for any period of time; no written process or procedure; no stated criteria either for the making of a retention offer or for the calculation of the sum; no evidence of the analysis, in any individual case, of any market data (beyond the simple inquiry of what the other university was offering), and no evidence of consideration of equality or comparability issues.” If we marked students’ essays using criteria like that we’d be in trouble.

In addition, retention payments are particularly vulnerable to a finding of sexism. Research by a colleague at Royal Holloway, Jeff Frank, who is a professor of economics, suggests that women are less likely to get outside offers simply because, rightly or wrongly, they are perceived to be less likely to move. Furthermore, even when women receive outside job offers, employers are less likely to match the offer for the same reason, the perception that women are loyal servants who will stay put. The tribunal certainly found that “on the face of it, a financial benefit which is linked to the ability, or perceived ability, to be mobile, whether considered in career terms or geographically, or both, operates to the disadvantage of women”.

There was another major route for bypassing the annual salary review: on demitting as head of department, some academics kept their head of department allowance. In the tribunal’s words, “the system of continuing the head of department allowance plainly lacked transparency, and indeed appeared wholly reliant on the undocumented subjective assessment of the Principal”.

Salary roll-ins were sometimes arranged without any request from the individual. The tribunal summed up on the rolled-in payments thus: “This was presented as an arbitrary reward, operated retrospectively, seemingly undocumented, largely in the hands of one individual, and, given the availability of annual review, unnecessary for the (presumed) objective of rewarding successful tenure as head of department.” The tribunal also judged it a “curiosity” that, at one stage, two head of department allowances were being paid in one department when it had only one head.

The tribunal was also critical of the lack of transparency surrounding Royal Holloway’s professorial pay processes in general. On the subject of the annual pay review, the judgment states that “written statements of principle or procedure for setting or assessing pay were the exception” and “(w)hat was lacking was a full written explanation and analysis of any relationship between any stated criterion or form of contribution, any measurement of expectation and any relationship with the making or refusal of an award and the amount of the award”.

There is a historical explanation for the shambles that is the professorial pay system in so many institutions, and it relates to the sudden and rapid increase in the number of professors in the UK. When I joined the Royal Holloway drama department in 1991, there was one professor. Now, the department is much bigger - there are at least three times as many undergraduates - and there are seven professors. Perhaps professorial pay was easier to arrange when there was only one professor per department. But the critical factor has been the RAE - realistically, what principal or vice-chancellor is going to relinquish their ability to play retention payment games as the research excellence framework approaches simply because of a crisis of conscience over equal opportunities?

What the tribunal judgment shows, however, is that maverick, opaque payments via a retention system operated more or less by one person are vulnerable if a university is taken to an employment tribunal. And the business case for universities sorting out their professorial pay is that if they don’t, they risk paying out significant amounts of money defending claims, whatever judgment they receive.

In an employment tribunal, each side pays its own costs; in November 2010, Royal Holloway was fielding a QC, a barrister, two solicitors, a vice-principal, the head of HR plus at least one observer from HR for three and a half weeks. That’s a lot of direct, and indirect, costs.

Securing my judgment - a hefty 85-page document - was very important to me. The good news was that the tribunal judged that, yes, I, a female professor, do “like work” compared with male professors, and yes, the system of retention payments that had operated at Royal Holloway was open to question.

For legal reasons, I can’t discuss the settlement. However, as a result of the professorial pay-banding system the university has now introduced, my pay increased by £10,000, suggesting that my previous pay level was not appropriate.

Overall, it was a gruelling but exhilarating experience. I’ve done a crash course in legal studies, and I’ve seen the references that were written to support my promotion, which was very empowering - I now have a far more hard-headed appreciation of my value to the institution. The next person who mounts a challenge over equal pay for professors can use everything that has been learned during my case.

Royal Holloway is now, as they say, under new management. The problem of gender inequality in professorial pay has not been solved, but I hope it will now be easier for female professors to hold universities to account.


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