Huge inequality in maternity pay across sector

Poor levels of financial support will ‘force women to return to work too quickly’

May 8, 2014

Source: Getty

Waiting game: some female academics on fixed-term contracts delay starting a family until they have a permanent position

Massive disparities exist in levels of maternity pay in higher education, with many universities providing only a fraction of the money awarded at other institutions, figures have revealed.

About a fifth of universities – 34 in total – offer only statutory maternity pay for women with less than a year’s service, equating to 90 per cent of pay for six weeks, followed by £138.18 a week for 33 weeks, or 90 per cent of their salary, whichever sum is lower.

Such terms, which still require staff to have at least 26 weeks’ service, compare badly with those offered by many well-known institutions.

Birkbeck, University of London, the University of Manchester and the University of Oxford offer employees with at least half a year’s service 100 per cent pay for 26 weeks of leave, then 13 weeks at statutory pay. The University of Cambridge and University College London offer 100 per cent pay for the first 18 weeks of maternity leave regardless of length of service.

Maternity pay is, in general, more generous for staff with at least one year’s service, but still varies significantly between institutions, according to the data collected by the University and College Union.

About a sixth of universities – 24 in total – offer staff 18 weeks of full pay before reducing payments to statutory levels, but many offer just four at full pay before tapering pay to 50 per cent for 12 weeks. Others offer six or eight weeks at full pay, before benefits fall to half pay for 12 weeks.

“Without a generous maternity package, some women will be forced to return to work more quickly than they want to,” said Tamsin Hinton-Smith, co-director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Sussex.

With many female academics living away from a family support network, poor levels of maternity pay meant women had to use expensive childcare from very early on, Dr Hinton-Smith added.

“When I had five-year-old twins in a crèche, it cost £17,000 a year for full-time care, which is a lot when you are a lecturer at a junior grade,” she said.

“I know some women academics who are taking maternity leave without a partner to support them, so it is even more difficult for them.”

Universities must also clarify their policies on maternity pay for staff on fixed-term contracts, such as researchers and teaching fellows, said Kirsty Pringle, a research fellow at the University of Leeds’ School of Earth and Environment.

Dr Pringle, who has recently returned to work after maternity leave, said there was much uncertainty over whether contracts are extended to cover a period of leave.

“This contributes to a situation where many women delay starting a family until they have achieved a permanent position,” she said.

The ambiguity over fixed-term staff’s maternity rights may deter women pursuing an academic career because it was “off-putting to young researchers who want more flexibility in their family choices”, she added.

Research councils should also clarify whether they offer PhD students or those on a fixed-term fellowship maternity pay and leave, Dr Pringle said.

For instance, the Economic and Social Research Council offers six months’ full pay, followed by six months’ unpaid leave, but other councils were less clear in how maternity pay was structured, she explained.

In addition to maternity pay, universities should also consider other practices, such as lightening teaching and administrative loads when women return to the workplace, Dr Hinton-Smith said.

Some university science departments currently allow women to focus solely on research in the first six months after returning, which allows them to write proposals and win funding, she explained.

“It would make a huge difference if it were available more widely because women academics often have heavy teaching or admin loads,” she said.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt said despite “enlightened rhetoric” about helping female university staff, much more needed to be done to improve conditions.

“Universities need to recognise that women may have children and that this is backed up with best practice on maternity leave and pay.

“Maternity leave is central to a woman’s health and wellbeing after pregnancy and helps ensure a smooth transition back to work,” she said.

jack.grove@tsleducation.com

Maternity pay comparison

For full-time lecturer on £31,645 a year. Institutions rated from most generous to basic:
1. Manchester, Oxford, Birkbeck, after 26 weeks’ service 
26 weeks’ full pay£15,823
13 weeks’ statutory pay£1,796
Total£17,619
2. 24 institutions, after a year’s service 
18 weeks’ full pay £10,954
21 weeks’ statutory pay£2,902
Total£13,856
3. Around 20 institutions, after a year’s service 
4 weeks’ full pay£2,434
2 weeks at 90% pay £1,095
12 weeks at 50% pay £3,651
21 weeks’ statutory pay£2,902
Total£10,082
4. 34 institutions, after 26 weeks’ service – statutory maternity pay only 
6 weeks at 90% pay£3,286
33 weeks at £138.18 pw£4,560
Total£7,846


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Reader's comments (3)

This is the rub of instiutional autonomy. Universities that wish to ensure that its female academics have the opportunity to return to their roles after an appropriate break will expose that don't. I know that among a cohort of young academics the disparity of maternity leave provision was both marked, and obvious, to the women involved. Effectively, University A offered twice as much as University B. Our emphasis must be on ensuring that B raises its game. Meanwhile, although the REF offers some consideration, there is still an assumption about the pace of progress from PhD to extensive publication that pays no attention to the fuller consequences of maternity leave. We (men and women) are living longer, we need to accept that paths to 'excellent' performance may be different.
Why should *employers* pay those on maternity leave? Children and their parents should be entitled to financial support from the state (i.e. all of us), since we all need them, but I can see no reason why that support should be a burden on employers. I believe employers are not allowed to ask women about their plans to have kids. Then they are asked to give maternity pay, as well as the costs of being without an employee. That is wrong.
Surely we should be doing more to have highly educated women having babies (1/3 of women graduates don't have children - that must be much higher for those taking masters, PhDs, post-docs). Removing maternity pay would simply mean women put off children til they are totally financially set and that might be too late for many ... employers must play their part in society too

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