Why have higher education’s female leaders had to wait so long for equal pay?

The higher education sector’s gender pay gap stands at 14.8 per cent, three percentage points higher than the UK as a whole. Janet Jones asks why and what we can do about it

Janet Jones's avatar
21 Feb 2024
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The figures are stark. Women make up 54 per cent of the higher education workforce and occupy 45 per cent of academic jobs. Only 28 per cent of academic leaders are women – even fewer than the 31 per cent of female executive leaders in the UK’s private sector.

The proportion of male staff on senior higher education contracts is nearly three times higher than for female staff. Of vice-chancellors, 83 per cent identify as male. This is a loss to our sector, which stands to benefit enormously from a broader range of skills and perspectives. 


I would have predicted that universities would fare better than the private sector. Higher education is known to be family-friendly, with its generous holidays, maternity leave and flexible work patterns. Yet the Fawcett Society calculated the 2022 UK mean gender pay gap at 11.3 per cent, while figures from Advance HE show the 2021 mean gender pay gap in our HE sector was 14.8 per cent.

My current institution, the University of Westminster, bucks this trend with a 7.2 per cent mean pay differential, which is encouraging. But why are we so careless as a sector? Can we not double down on gender equality to ensure female leaders aren’t ignored and under-promoted? We must all do better to narrow the gap.

Dismantle hierarchical structures

I left the BBC for academia after 16 years as a journalist and programme maker. I was attracted to academic work for many reasons. One was leaving behind a top-down, male-dominated media business for a change in power relations.

Ostensibly, higher education is run on democratic lines. But there is a paradox here. After working for a few higher education institutions, I’ve found that universities can be quite hierarchical, exhibiting an uneasy relationship to distributed leadership. I dislike overgeneralisations, but women tend to flourish in open spaces that have a genuine commitment to organisational democracy. Is that why senior female leaders have had to wait so long for their equal pay day?

Leaders who flex agency and power, dominance and assertiveness are more successful in running hierarchical institutions, according to research. These attributes are often associated with male leadership styles. So is higher education’s pay gap down to our organisational cultures?

Close the gender gap in skills

Female leaders are reported to be good at sense-making, exploring root causes of issues while developing a deeper understanding of the organisation’s purpose and potential challenges. But does this come across at the interview? Do panels prefer confidence to self-awareness – do they favour candidates with the ability to adopt quick actions and decisiveness and own the outputs of other’s labour? Research shows that women are more likely to share credit and praise others. Is this form of modesty our undoing, or a strength? I would say it’s a strength.

We could improve our performance as a sector by promoting leaders, of all genders, who can build high-performing teams underpinned by support, trust and collaboration – critical skills for leading through crisis successfully. Recent published research showed that women were rated more highly than men in navigating Covid, where these skills were essential. They also found that women published significantly less than their male counterparts through the pandemic, with kitchen offices and home-schooling taking precedence. Overall, women tend to be time-poor and must do more with less. For us, there’s no time to play around.

Build a network

There’s plenty of evidence that women are good at leading large, complex civic institutions, where communicating powerfully and prolifically are central to the leadership style. I’m certainly not comfortable with the standard deficit model, suggesting women have in-built incompetencies such as: a lack of confidence or ambition; poor skills for self-promotion; a tendency to opt out of applying for jobs; limited external career capital; mobility resistance; couching their discourse in “just” and “oh it’s nothing”.

I question this characterisation, but it might explain why gendered strengths may be offset by other factors. To address this, informal and formal mentoring systems that build confidence are essential for women across all workplaces, especially higher education. We definitely need allies and mutual support networks.

I recognise this short personal view is an oversimplification, but generative leadership defined by a high level of reflexivity, learning and discerning – and less dominated by facts, figures and reports with overly bureaucratic and hierarchical leadership – is often a more comfortable place for female leaders to occupy. We need many styles of leadership around the boardroom table. But I believe a healthy organisational culture is one that balances its workforce across the genders, valuing female-centred approaches and creating an environment and culture where women can thrive.

Janet Jones is pro vice-chancellor and head of the College of Design, Creative and Digital Industries at the University of Westminster.

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See our International Women’s Day spotlight for more advice and resources from women leaders in higher education.


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