Women earn up to a quarter less than men at some universities despite taking the lion's share of recent promotions, according to new figures.
Average pay for women lags behind that of men at every UK university. In the sector as a whole, women earn on average £30,500 a year - more than £5,000 less than the average for men.
At many universities - including Leicester, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, University College London and the London School of Economics - the gap is more than £8,500 a year.
The Equal Opportunities Commission took the sector to task over its gender imbalance. Jenny Watson, the commission's deputy chair, said it was a persistent problem. "These shocking figures reveal just how far women in higher education are still being sold short. If women do not get a fair deal in education they will go elsewhere, and our universities cannot afford to lose them."
Stephen Court, senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers, said: "There is a persistent gender pay gap in higher education, with women academics employed full time earning on average 85p for every £1 earned by their male colleagues. Although there may be elements linked to the extent of the gender pay gap - such as the subject mix at institutions, and the proportion of staff employed on a research-only basis - that does not excuse the fact that 30 years on from the Equal Pay Act women academics get a poor deal."
The Higher Education Statistics Agency figures for full-time academics in 2002-03 largely reflect the greater numbers of males in senior positions but also indicate that female academics continue to earn slightly less than men on similar grades.
One of the biggest gaps exists at Leicester University, where the difference between male and female average salaries is £9,203, or 24.1 per cent.
Alison Hall, director of personnel services at Leicester, said the figures were affected by the inclusion of clinical academics, whose salaries are significantly higher than those of other academic staff. Eighty-nine per cent of the university's clinical academics are male.
She said the university's own analysis, based on salary data for July 2004, indicates that the difference in average salaries for male and female academics by grade was no more than 2.4 per cent for all but one grade.
"We are committed to ensuring equal pay for work of equal value for all our staff and will be undertaking an equal pay audit early in the 2004-05 academic year," Dr Hall said.
Erica Halvorsen, policy adviser for the Equality Challenge Unit, said research was needed into why certain roles in academia appeared to be so unappealing or unavailable to women.
She said women were more likely to take on administrative roles if asked, while men were more insistent on concentrating on research, which was key to promotion. "Women tend to be a little more involved with student and pastoral care, which is not where the big bucks are," Ms Halvorsen added.
Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said many universities were below the national average gender gap of 18 per cent as defined by the Equal Opportunities Commission.
"Like most employers, particularly in the public sector, there is concern about the pay gap and major steps are being taken to address the situation.
The new pay framework is designed to tackle equal pay," she said.
But Roger Kline, head of lecturers' union Natfhe's universities department, said the local pay system Ucea was pushing would exacerbate the gender divide.
Keith Thomas, director of human resources at Aston University, said Aston had set up an equal opportunities monitoring group. He said: "Many of our male academics have been with the university longer than most of our female academics, and so have progressed further up incremental salary scales."
Previous Hesa figures reported in June showed more women advancing up the academic ladder.
The new statistics also reveal wide discrepancies in average academic salaries offered by different institutions. Prestigious universities including Oxbridge pay much less than other institutions.
The top average salary of £99,524 is at the London Business School, where all but one of the 31 professors are men.
Market forces bring wide pay variations (includes table)