April 12, 2022

Breaking the bias: addressing the higher education gender pay gap

As participation continues to widen in the UK’s higher education sector with increasing numbers of applications from previously underrepresented sectors, many gender-based anomalies remain. For example, while women are much more likely to go to university than men (as well as to complete their studies and to achieve a good degree), figures show that women graduates cede their professional advantage in a matter of months.


Perpetuating the gender bias

Studies show that after graduation, men are more likely to be in ‘highly skilled’ employment or further study, with men’s graduate earnings, on average, circa 10 percent higher than women’s within 15 months – even among similarly qualified graduates. It’s not just that women are significantly underrepresented in some sectors – including technology where proportionally fewer women (14 percent) are employed – but that women are also under-compensated in these fields. The difference between the median pay of men and women who studied Engineering and Technology is £4,400 five years after graduation.


This trend isn’t confined to male-dominated disciplines; similar gaps exist even in those professions traditionally populated by women, such as nursing, where men’s median salaries are £2,000 more than women’s twelve months from graduation, with an even wider gap (£3,400) developing after three years. As you might expect, further inequalities arise with intersectionalities; for instance, female BAME graduates earn less than white women.


It’s a pattern that is also reflected within the university hierarchy itself: more than 90 percent of British universities pay their average male employee more than females. Less than half the academic appointments in universities are female, with women accounting for just under a quarter (23 percent) of professorial positions. Women are also more likely to work part-time: 58 percent of women work full-time, compared to more than three-quarters of men. According to UCU, female teachers earned a sixth less than their male counterparts in 2019, a gap that’s even wider in Russell Group universities. The higher the pay grade, the starker the figures are – only a fifth of vice-chancellor positions are held by women.


Universities – like most employers – still have work to do to ensure their female employees are being treated equitably.


Sticky floor is maintaining the gender pay gap

A recent research project at Cardiff University, led by Dr. Georgina Santos found that male academics routinely attained more senior roles compared to female academics, even after parenting responsibilities were taken into account. These results echo a study by Harvard Business School five years previously that countered the commonly held assumption that women failed to achieve the highest leadership positions due to their childcare and domestic duties.


The results showed that a variety of factors, including institutional and individual biases, as well as the attitudes of managers and women’s own self-limiting beliefs combine to create not so much a glass ceiling as a ‘sticky floor’ that unfairly detains women at lower professional levels. This trend hasn’t been helped by a succession of Covid-driven lockdowns that have reinforced traditional gender divisions in caregiving and domestic responsibilities, shifting the burden to women and deprioritising equity initiatives.


Tackling the gender pay gap

Many universities have already introduced initiatives to help close the gender pay gap (GPG). For instance, leadership and mentoring programmes are widely used to support women looking for more senior roles, promoting transparency and broader awareness of career routes and of the prerequisites for progression.


Universities keen to improve the gender balance at all levels are also accelerating the process by identifying existing gender imbalances, creating larger pools of female candidates, and tracking applicants and appointments by gender. Monitoring equality outcomes for all promotions, as well as encouraging underrepresented staff to apply for posts, and considering the implications of part-time work patterns on career advancement prospects are strategies that all have the potential to redress the GPG. Some universities are acknowledging and using their GPG data to inform action plans that map into a broader DE&I framework to better understand gender bias.


Global initiatives like the Athena SWAN Charter provide useful benchmarks against which to measure progress. The Athena SWAN Charter was established to support gender equality in higher education, having identified a shortfall of women in senior roles across a range of disciplines, but especially in STEM subjects. By signing up to the charter, universities commit to advancing gender equality as well as removing the barriers faced by female staff. That said, An Athena SWAN award may not be enough to prompt the long-term structural change that’s necessary for lasting reform.


A strategic approach is needed:

Institutional reform

It’s not enough to increase the number of women in the most senior positions; changing how things are done is as important as changing who does them.


Revising traditional hierarchies

Leadership structures that are rooted in flatter, more democratic principles are more likely to positively impact the GPG than an increase in pay for senior managers.


Moderating market forces

Giving free rein to market forces often simply reinforces traditional hierarchies where gendered doctrines often flourish at the expense of fairness and equity.


A commitment to promoting and modelling equity

The UK’s universities are often seen as world-leading – from the quality of their higher education provision to their research credentials. But universities also have a responsibility to ensure that access is democratised, and participation widened – at every level.


It’s important to acknowledge that the persistent gender inequalities that permeate all societal structures also act as barriers for women’s professional advancement in the higher education sector. The figures are stark. Simply put, female staff are less likely to be promoted, especially to top roles, are less likely to have permanent contracts, and are paid less.


Although universities have access to a wealth of research into gender diversity, change isn’t happening fast enough – or going far enough. As DE&I issues climb the corporate agenda, an increased willingness to share good practice – among public and private sector institutions – may lead to greater engagement with successful diversity champions. Increasing the visibility of female talent – including those who have taken alternative career pathways towards progression – is perhaps the first and most fundamental step. This means actively championing women, rather than mentoring or sponsoring them, to create more opportunities for advancement.


Clarity is key. Time and resources must be invested in codifying and effectively communicating promotional pathways – indicating those study and research elements that count towards promotion – as well as creating departmental and inter-university networks that lead to research and other academic opportunities.


Above all, individual universities must be held accountable for their progress in breaking the bias. Although the urgency of equity discussions may have slipped during the pandemic due to the health concerns and economic challenges presented by Covid-19, it’s important to recognise that any distraction from the goal of gender equality is damaging to girls and women who are demanding urgent change to a long overdue system.


As universities look to attract more diverse talent to the student body, prospective students will surely be seeking confirmation that this diversity is reflected in the university’s own hierarchy. The issue of the moment is no longer how organisations can break down the barriers for female students but how these same women can see themselves represented in the world of work. The burning question must be: do universities practise what they teach?




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