‘Bridging’ funding between grants could help cut gender pay gap

Bristol deal also gives greater recognition to ‘good citizenship’ in promotion process and is seen as model for sector

February 3, 2020
Source: Getty

A deal to provide “bridging” funding for researchers between grants has been seen as a potential model to help close UK academia’s gender pay gap.

The new support has been offered by the University of Bristol in a deal with the local branch of the University and College Union because a high proportion of scholars on research-only fixed-term contracts are women.

These contracts are usually tied to specific research grants, forcing staff to leave once this runs out if they have not secured further funding. Although the details of Bristol’s proposals are yet to be worked out, it is hoped that they will allow staff to stay at the institution for a time while they seek additional cash.

Suzy Cheeke, vice-president of Bristol’s UCU branch, said that the lack of progress on tackling the gender pay gap at a national level meant local bargaining was vitally important. Although the university had shown a lot of “goodwill” towards the agreement, it had “not been easy”, she said.

“We also struggled to find examples of best practice in the sector to incorporate…so I hope our work will spur others on,” Ms Cheeke said.

The bridging funding is part of a broader agreement that also includes widening promotion criteria to take account of “good citizenship”, such as committee work or student support, rather than just focusing on research and teaching records, said Ms Cheeke.

“We know this work is typically undertaken by women but largely ignored when it comes to promotion considerations,” she said.  

The deal also increases the provision of flexible working and job-share opportunities, no matter the position, and mandates training in preventing gender bias for all staff involved in recruitment and promotion processes.

Bristol has also committed to collecting and publishing more data around flexible and part-time contracts and the progression of those people on them.

Analysis by Times Higher Education in 2019 showed that the average pay gap between men and women stood at 15.1 per cent, down from 15.9 per cent in 2018. The median gender pay gap at Bristol is 13.6 per cent.

The issue has formed an important part of the ongoing national dispute over pay and working conditions that saw staff at 60 universities go on strike in November last year.

Jenny Lennox, a UCU bargaining and negotiations official, said that the union had been pushing for local branches to put pressure on their universities. “The circumstances of gender pay gap can vary between universities, which is why although a national agreement is important, individual university managements need to tackle the problem in different ways,” she said.

Ms Lennox added that there were other universities working on similar plans but the union had seen “a real desire from universities to kick the issue into the long grass”. Often institutional strategies took note of the problem but failed to offer proactive solutions, she said. “They have to look at the underlying issues.”

Judith Squires, Bristol’s deputy vice-chancellor, who will lead the programme, supported by a board made up of senior academics, early career researchers and union members, said that it had been important for Bristol to be clear there was a set of “specific agreed actions and timelines”.

If other institutions wanted to follow suit, she urged them to “work with your union” and to gather and analyse data on staff progression. “It’s a matter [of] fairness; it matters to get it right,” she said.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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