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10% gender pay gap: stop victim-blaming, start bias proofing says UCU RHUL committee

UCU RHUL committee response to Abbie Cheeseman’s article A Feminist Institution with a 10% Gender Pay Gap?

The UCU Royal Holloway local branch committee welcomes Abbie Cheeseman’s article entitled A Feminist Institution with a 10% Gender Pay Gap?   She highlights the greater-than 10% gender gap in professorial pay at RHUL which the Times Higher Education (THE) this year reported was the 7th worst in the UK. She also rightly pointed out that this pay gap has been steadily widening in recent years.

Cheeseman suggested that Gender pay gaps should not be seen as a direct case of sexism and considered various possible explanations for the pay gap increases.  In fact the explanations given by the College are indirect cases of sexism.

Cheeseman suggested that efforts to decrease the gap – such as allowing more opportunities for entry level professorial roles for women, have in the short term increased the gap as they have a lower rate of pay than more established professors.  In fact, College policy does not allow quotas for any level; rather, people are promoted who are judged to meet specified criteria for promotion. Women’s promotions are often delayed and once in the lowest professorial band, the established phenomenon of sticky floors comes into play to keep women there while their male colleagues advance to higher bands.  Gender stereotyping alone can lead assessors to see men rather than women professors as ‘international stars’ warranting salaries in the top band.

Gender stereotyping can also be seen in that Royal Holloway typically pays a higher salary to men but not to women professors it appoints from outside, thereby adding to the gender pay gap.  The College also pays ‘market supplements’ on top of basic pay to academics who are judged to be able to earn more in the outside market, were they to work there. The largest of these market supplements – £20,000 per annum – are paid predominantly to men working in male-dominated fields such as economics and accountancy. In 2010, the College separated these market supplements from basic pay at the time of introducing professorial banding (this was in the wake of a successful Equal Pay Claim against the College for gender discrimination by a woman professor). They also continued to pay the original salaries to ‘red circled’ individuals (who were assessed at a lower band/salary than they were previously paid) for a period of 3 years but this overpayment was not counted in basic pay. These changes substantially reduced the gender gap in basic pay though it still remained in excess of 5%. Nevertheless, since 2010, this professorial gender pay gap has doubled.

Cheeseman pointed out that if median rather than mean pay is considered the gender gap in professorial pay decreased in the 2014 Equal Pay Audit (EPA): however in the 2016 EPA use of medians worsened the professorial gender pay gap.

Where ethnicity is concerned there were only 13 Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic (BAME) professors at RHUL at the time of the 2016 Equal Pay Audit and none were in band five (where there were 17 white professors). The overall ethnicity gap in mean basic pay was small (2.1%) but the pay gap in total pay approached 5% in bands 3 and 4 favouring white professors. Thus all is not well here either and there is some evidence that the ethnicity pay gap for the workforce at RHUL is worsening along with the gender pay gap.

Iris Bohnet, who was Dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has written an outstanding book called What Works: Gender Equality by Design.  The indirect sexism of stereotyping, glass ceilings and sticky floors are well known but – and this is the important point in Bohnet’s book – we also know how to design evaluation and remuneration systems to prevent these problems. Anonymous marking of student scripts is a well-known example, something that eliminated gender bias in student assessment in one fell swoop. Bias is ubiquitous and impossible to eliminate. But inefficient systems that allow bias to operate unchecked are not inevitable.  Rather than seeking ways to keep bias in check, the college has focused energy intensively on the ‘Enabling Women Academics through the Promotion Process’ programme. This tutors women to apply for promotion more effectively. It places the responsibility of lack of career progression on the women, not the institution. There is a similar scheme for BAME staff.

The data show that the efforts to promote more women to the professoriate by this Enabling Women programme have failed in their intended objective to increase the percentage of women professors from 30% to 35%.  The College spokesperson quoted in the article omitted to mention that the percentage of women professors is now less (27% in the 2016 Equal Pay Audit) than it was before the Enabling Women programme started (30%). Instead the spokesperson was quoted as saying We are delighted that 65 percent of participants in this programme have gone on to secure promotions. The spokesperson omitted to mention that many of the women who secured promotions had done so at other universities, not at RHUL. Sadly, RHUL had not recognised their quality and they went elsewhere. It is also impossible to tell how many of the women on the programme would have been promoted anyway, or indeed, how many were already delayed in their promotion.

Cheeseman also mentions low turnover of professors as an issue in gender pay inequality. However, the data show a high turnover rate among women professors (30% approaching the last Research Excellence Framework exercise in the period between 2010 and 2013).  This is evidence that RHUL has been under-evaluating its women professors relative to men professors (19% turnover for men).

It is time for Senior Management to consider what they have steadfastly refused to acknowledge, that their promotion and professorial evaluation procedures and further aspects of academic life at the college, may be allowing sex bias and ethnicity bias to operate. The victim-blaming approach of the Enabling Women programme has not worked. There is little likelihood that the ‘Mentoring and Coaching Scheme’, another victim-blaming strategy, reported by the College spokesperson to be launched for women and other under-represented groups, will be any more successful if ultimately the assessment process is biased. Similarly, such a scheme is unlikely to be successful if women and BAME staff are getting given heavier workloads and fewer opportunities for the leadership roles that advance careers – a classic cause of slow career progression amongst these groups.

The College spokesperson was quoted as saying We have spent considerable time over the last few years working with campus unions to improve the mechanisms for promotion and to make them more fair and transparent. We in the UCU local branch committee have indeed spent hundreds of frustrating hours attempting to encourage Senior Management to improve their processes and to look further at how the institution may be impeding the career progression of women, BAME people and other protected groups. Basic aspects of good practice, such as involving unions in the Equal Pay Audit, are not being followed by management.

Confronted by the professorial gender pay gap of 10.1%, the 7th worst in the country, a member of the senior management team stated, bizarrely, that RHUL’s listing by THE was not appropriate because RHUL could only be compared with other institutions with a professorial banding scheme. Other members of the senior management team have argued, simply, that there are no gender pay gaps within any one of the five professorial bands so the overall gap is not a sign of anything being amiss. This ignores the fact that until last year there were no women in band 5 at all and 16 men. The most common band for women professors remains band 2 while the most common for men is band 4. We are unconvinced by arguments that this is a natural reflection of the lesser contributions of women academics at RHUL.

It is time for the Principal and his management team to acknowledge the severity of the problem and work with UCU on matters ranging from clarity of criteria for promotion to consistency in how criteria are judged to be met, workload, and opportunities for leadership roles. Assessors need to be encouraged to question and justify their decisions as a matter of course: evidence-free opinion in place of reasoned feedback allows bias to operate unchecked. Applications and associated documents need to be anonymised effectively; currently information about protected characteristics is frequently leaked to assessors. To be 7th worst in the country for the professorial gender pay gap is an ignominious position for RHUL, something none of us want to see.

Gender pay inequality – and BAME and LGBT pay inequality – are areas where high-quality research is being undertaken at the College. Drawing upon the College’s own research strengths, Royal Holloway could be in the forefront of national league tables, not drawing up the rear. We look forward to working with management to bias-proof assessment procedures and eradicate the gender and other pay gaps.


The UCU RHUL branch committee, 10th July 2017