Equality by any legal means

July 9, 1999

Undervalued and underpaid women academics are using the courts to challenge sex discrimination. Tom Wilson backs their stand

Walking down the corridor to her office, Jane Smith noticed an advertisement pinned to the chemistry department noticeboard: "Senior lecturer, PhD and experience in teaching crystallography essential." Since she had neither she did not apply. But lots of men did even though they had no more qualifications than her. Guess what. A man got the job.

Sometime later Jane was again passing the noticeboard when she saw this notice:

"Internal promotions round. Due to exceptionally severe staffing and funding constraints, applicants are advised not to seek to apply for promotion unless they have a particularly strong case - please discuss with Dr Jones, Dean, if in doubt."

As Jane was extremely busy, with little time or energy for the promotion process, she decided not to bother. Two younger and less experienced male colleagues did - and got promoted.

A few years on, Jane went to discuss what was left of her promotion chances with the dean. He was sympathetic and appreciative of her excellent teaching record. He explained that she would however also need to show evidence of PhD supervision, external income generation and research activity. But some years previously she had lost her PhD students because, by popular student demand, she had taken on a major graduate teaching programme instead. She had not got involved in much external income generation because it involved evening and weekend work (like the research conference circuit) when she wanted to be with her young children at home. Jane had published two major textbooks but, the dean kindly explained, they would not really count.

Jane decided to approach lecturers' union Natfhe, whose lawyers are currently assembling documentation and preparing her case papers. The charge sheet against the university reads (so far): three breaches of the Equal Work for Work of Equal Value Regulations, breach of the Equal Pay Act and two breaches of the Sex Discrimination Act.

Natfhe's lawyers are also looking at several other similar cases. One of the worst involves a part-time, hourly paid lecturer teaching 200 hours per year at Pounds 25.60 an hour. That is Pounds 5,120 per year. Let us assume that equates to about half a typical full-time teaching load. Her full-time equivalent pay would be Pounds 10,240. Yet a typical full-time lecturer earns about Pounds 26,000. A new appointee would probably earn more than Pounds 16,000.

The biggest obstacle for Natfhe is not finding examples of discrimination. Nor is it compiling the documentary evidence. It is finding women prepared to put themselves through the demanding legal process. The courage of those who do is to be admired.

But they should not have to. Higher education employers should not be waiting until challenged, they should be acting now. A few years ago the CVCP Commission on University Career Opportunity set out clear procedures for avoiding discrimination on appointment and promotion. Yet, few university managers have even heard of it.

The Bett report paints a graphic picture of endemic sex discrimination in universities. It demands action. It is shameful that institutions that pioneered women's studies, that pride themselves on recruiting women students and ought to embody values of progression solely on merit are among the nation's worst offenders.

Some limited progress has been made in reducing glass ceilings and increasing the proportion of women professors, but far more is needed from the bottom up. Most of Natfhe's cases in the pipeline involve lower paid staff, often on casual contracts. Bett's figures show why: women comprise 51 per cent of lecturers but only 26 per cent of principal lecturers. Average salaries of women full-time staff are Pounds 26,093 against Pounds ,617 for men. And women part-time staff earn a full-time equivalent salary of Pounds 24,590 against Pounds 26,096 for men. Of women academics, 50 per cent work part-time and 9 per cent on a fixed-term contract - the equivalent male figures are 40 per cent and 7 per cent.

So when the introduction of performance-related pay is suggested by university employers, is it any wonder the response is hollow laughter? Institutions that cannot run existing systems fairly do not inspire confidence in new management initiatives. Of course, there is a better way to give pay for performance. It is called promotion. But it must be fair, open, transparent and non-discriminatory. And Natfhe is determined to use the full weight of the law to achieve it.

Tom Wilson is head of the university section of lecturers' union Natfhe. Names in this article have been changed.

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