New female principal investigators in UK ‘paid £5K less than men’

Female PIs awarded lower starting salaries than similarly qualified male research group leaders, survey suggests

March 23, 2019
Scientists in green house

Female principal investigators are being routinely appointed at lower pay grades than men taking up identical posts at UK universities, leading to a significant salary deficit, a new study suggests.

Drawing on a survey of 365 new research group leaders in the UK, of whom roughly 40 per cent were women, researchers found that “the majority of principal investigators were being paid less than their male counterparts”, according to a preprint recently published on bioRxiv.

That pay gap corresponded to a “£3,000 to £5,000 annual difference”, with a far larger proportion of female researchers falling into the £30,000 to £35,000 pay bracket than males, says the paper, titled “The Life of PI: Transitions to Independence in Academia”, which claims to have profiled a “significant proportion of new group leaders in the UK recruited over the past six years”.

The gender pay gap, which “cannot be explained by seniority”, was driven by the fact that female respondents are “more likely to be appointed at the lower of two possible grades” – either grade 7 versus grade 8 for lecturer positions, or grade 8 versus grade 9 for senior lecturer posts – than men, report the study’s authors, Sophie Acton, Andrew Bell, Christopher Toseland and Alison Twelvetrees.

That was crucial because “while it makes little difference to actual salary initially, it has huge implications for future career progression”, the paper states.

Dr Acton, a research group leader at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory for Molecular Cell Biology at UCL, said she was “surprised” by the survey’s results, which also covered areas around time spent teaching, job satisfaction and research funding.

“I genuinely thought the pay gap in academia was a seniority issue caused by having top-level jobs dominated by men and it would even itself out over time,” Dr Acton told Times Higher Education.

“But if we’re seeing this gap appear for relatively junior positions then that is disappointing,” she continued, adding it may be difficult to address such disparities because “employers will not want to move away from flexible and negotiated salaries [for principal investigators].”

The research, which found that principal investigators generally completed a seven-year postdoctoral period across two to three fixed-term positions before leading their own group, also suggests that women won “significantly lower” additional funding in overall value as principal investigators.

Thus, women’s careers are “more likely to stall [because they were] failing to gain momentum with funding and therefore recruitment [to permanent positions]”, says the report, which argues that female principal investigators should be “encouraged and supported to apply for more funding and build their teams in the same way as male new PIs” to combat what it calls a “worrying trend”.

The paper also highlights how roughly three times as many men were recruited as principal investigators than women in 2013, which it describes as a “worrying statistic on gender disparity in recruitment [related to] the research excellence framework 2014”.

The “wave of recruitment [prior to the 2014 REF deadline] significantly, if not entirely, favoured male applicants”, it says, adding that this may have been driven by an “increase in direct head-hunting or more informal recruitment techniques driven by networks”, and that the “unacceptable” trend “warrants further investigation to understand why the disparity is so extreme”.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Female principal investigators in the UK start on £5K less than men

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Reader's comments (1)

What else does anyone who has lived and observed this or any contemporary society for more than a few moments expect? Men stacked the deck a couple of millenia ago when they came up with their invention of a male god and the world has yet to evolve beyond the fists and clubs which, however updated, are still employed by their followers.

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