Out-Law Analysis 3 min. read

Gender pay gap in UK universities closes slowly

The gender pay gap is reducing slowly among universities in the UK. However, the University and College Union (UCU) has predicted that the academic gender pay gap will take 40 years to close, with imbalance of men and women in different grades, ‘insourcing’ and part-time working among main causes of the pay differences.

According to data provided by 156 universities and analysed by Pinsent Masons, the average median pay gap between male and female employees working for these universities was 11.3% in 2022-23. The latest figure shows a reduction of 0.4% from 2021-22 and 3.4% from 2020-21.

Unlike other sectors, female employees received more bonus payments than male employees in universities on average, with a median bonus gap of around -1.4% in favour of women in 2022-23.

In addition, a number of universities and colleges have reported no median hourly pay gap between male and female employees.

Key issues causing the pay gap within the sector

Although the gender pay gap has been decreasing, a number of factors could hinder further progress across the sector. The current gap is largely attributable to a general imbalance of men and women in different grades, with more males still occupying the higher paid grades and more women in lower grades.

The imbalance in grading structure is exacerbated by the impact of there no longer being a mandatory age for retirement within most universities. This has resulted in longer retention of male academics with significantly higher salaries. Thus, female staff might not be occupying the senior roles as quickly as previously expected.

The higher number of women in part-time employment is another contributing factor to the pay gap, as less part time colleagues are in higher paid roles but at some universities as high as 75% of all part time roles are held by women.

Universities have also attributed the gender pay gap to the continuing traditional gendered roles within the business, with more women for example occupying cleaning roles and more men occupying roles such as security. The gender pay gap for each university is also said to be directly impacted by whether the university outsources these services or whether these roles are included in gender pay gap figures for the university. In addition, several universities have explained that their gender pay gap is also due to fewer females in the so-called ‘STEM’ subjects – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Examples of solutions

Universities have taken different initiatives to help close the gender pay gap, with a particular focus on improving the gender balance across all levels of roles within the organisation. Many are doing so by identifying existing imbalances and undertaking recruitment measures such as increasing the pool of female candidates or tracking the gender profile of applicants and appointments. Other approaches include implementing dynamic working arrangements to assist people in working more flexibly to blend work and home life more effectively.

Some universities are introducing gender pay gap reporting at school or department level to establish data which they can then use to implement more local and targeted action plans.

To address the imbalance of men and women in grading structure, several universities have set targets to increase the number of women professors in academia. For example, the University of Bristol has set the objective of increasing the number of women professors to 50% by 2030. The university also plans to take steps to better understand and address the implications of part-time working on gender pay. It will promote the potential for job sharing for colleagues in leadership roles who work part-time and will develop a programme to better support parental leave returners.

Other universities have adopted different approaches. For example, one has opted to launch an ‘equality change programme’ with different work streams, including family friendly working and individual development. The programme aims to reduce the gender pay gap by working on recruitment, career progression and retention for female staff.

Several universities are focussing on ensuring a more transparent promotion process to allow for achieving an equal gender split in the higher pay quartiles. Some efforts include running promotion workshops, training staff on unconscious bias, and opening up information about career progression.

The University of Salford’s ‘academic career framework’ is an example of these efforts. This framework sets out "what good looks like" at different levels and aims to promote and increase transparency and awareness in relation to career routes within the university, with the goal of helping colleagues achieve more senior roles by having an awareness of the relevant requirements.

Loughborough University, meanwhile, has launched its first women’s network, Maia, which aims to provide support for female progression. As at 2022, membership stood at 500 people.

Many universities have become signatories to the Athena Swan Charter, a framework designed to support and transform gender equality within higher education and research. Signatories to the charter commit to adopting various principles into their own policies in relation to advancing gender equality, removing obstacles faced by women in the sector, and tackling the gender pay gap.

Co-written by Lesley Finlayson of Pinsent Masons.

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