Paul Boustead is director of human resources and organisational development at Lancaster University and chair of Universities Human Resources (UHR) until September 2019. 

Helen Scott is Executive Director of UHR and is a former HR Director with over 30 years working in the sector, and a Fellow of the CIPD.

The gender pay gap daydream is to find the single silver bullet that will solve the problem, and usher in a new era of fairness between genders and between generations. Daydream it is. We don’t have a silver bullet – not as individuals, not as institutions, and not at the whole society level. But we do have solutions. Slow moving ones, problematic ones, but solutions nonetheless. Our solutions are more like a herd of silver tortoises than a single silver bullet.

As HR professionals working in higher education, it can seem like our task to corral those silver tortoises, patiently, one by one, to add wheels to the best to speed them up, and keep the herd firmly moving in the right direction despite the social, cultural and legislative obstacle course we’re moving through. Please don’t tell us “herding” is the wrong word for this activity; some momentum is what we need here!

Obstacle course

The challenges are many. For some, the legislative task has completed: laws are in place that give a right to equal pay between men and women for equal work. And for these people, disparities in pay are the result of combinations of educational choices, personality and individual aspirations, social and cultural expectations that are far too complex and intertwined for us ever to be able to solve with the blunt instrument of new law. Whether or not fresh legislation is the answer is hardly the point for HR teams up and down the country examining every last string they can pull in their efforts to reduce a gap in pay that is straightforwardly unfair in its outcomes no matter the reasons it exists.

So if it isn’t the legislative background that gets in the way of quick movement on the gender pay gap, what is it? As UHR members from around the country told us, speed of movement in solving these issues can seem glacial. If a woman, now in her fifties, has cultural expectations that have led her to take repeated steps back from her career – to nurture her children, or care for her parents as they enter old age – how easily can that be reversed?

If a woman in her twenties only ever attaches the phrase “imposter syndrome” to herself or her female friends, and so takes the first vital step on the long career ladder more tentatively than her male equivalent, how did she learn that, and is it a result of social conditioning that can never be undone? Or undone only at frustratingly slow speed? If a man, brought up to believe he has to be the main breadwinner, argues every year for discretionary bonus payments or upwards movement on a grade point scale and sometimes achieves them when other colleagues including female colleagues don’t have the same expectations – how do we unravel this in a way that is fair to all?

Quick fixes don’t exist

Nuala Conway, head of human resources at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, agrees that there are few quick wins. While acknowledging that bigger institutions may face different challenges, she places real focus on the data.

When people leave, understand why. If there are bottlenecks in the flow of staff to better-paid roles, and the data shows that to adversely impact women, intervene. Mentor and support them. Is it their choice to be “stuck,” or not? How can we make sure they have the skills to get to those senior roles? A customised, tailored approach might be tough for larger universities but it’s a realistic way forward for us. That can mean getting the right promising people onto leadership training, or it can mean intervening specifically in favour of under-represented groups. What does your data tell you? We also think about lattice promotions – horizontal at first. Of course that does little in the short term to reduce the gender pay gap. But in the longer term, candidates who learn skills in new disciplines may find that’s the route to get ahead.

Karen Bush, head of equality, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Essex, describes a process of over ten years in which the HR team has addressed these issues, achieving slow incremental wins in many areas from recruitment practices to flexible working policies. But she knows even good progress can be annoyingly slow. She places emphasis on the values of the institution and asks: “How do we aspire to work at Essex?”

You need to invest time in people. It’s all very well creating job descriptions that are lists of tasks, but our resourcing guidance needs to include information on values too. How do we want people to work? We have to make sure our managers receive proper training on this aspect of their roles. So if we aspire to creating opportunities that are flexible, if that’s a firm commitment at the policy level, then we need to work with managers to embed this within their thinking. So for instance we need to insist that managers can’t sit on a recruitment panel without first undertaking unconscious bias training. Inclusivity is at the heart of this. A focus on our values as employers helps staff, no matter what their role, translate policy into everyday work.

Career paths needn’t be set in stone. At Anglia Ruskin University, an increased focus on parity of esteem between careers in research and careers in education is one aspect of looking at gender pay gap in a holistic way. As Rachael Cornwall, head of engagement and development at Anglia Ruskin explains, her institution has made its way into the upper quartile of the reported figures by focusing on the people, and what is good for the university, rather than just focusing on gender pay gap reporting or Athena Swan as stand-alone initiatives, helpful though these are in providing structure for activity in this field. Equal pay reviews have helped focus efforts, while more flexible working and part-time options and specific focus on carers and inclusivity networks helps the HR team get some on-the-ground feedback.

We’ve tackled the issue from every angle,” Rachael said. “We’ve looked at attraction and retention policies, promotion processes, career paths. A focus on more robust management of discretionary payments led to a clear reduction in the median pay gap there, and we’ve introduced a new Academic Practitioner role to our career pathway. Bit by bit we’re seeing improvement: an increased proportion of female professors, for instance, to more than one-third of the whole. Like most institutions we take close note of our regular staff survey, and the latest shows a real up-tick in people saying Anglia Ruskin is helping people achieve a good work-life balance and is supportive of flexible or part-time working patterns – areas that tend to impact women to a greater degree.

Bring on the silver tortoises

This isn’t a checklist. If we were to create one, it would have many more points. But these actions are increasingly mainstream in helping universities think about concrete actions they can take to reduce the gender pay gap. The gains may be slow and incremental, but in combination, the UHR member institutions we spoke to have faith in…

  • Unconscious bias training: if women are being selected out of the process towards the top jobs at an early stage, for whatever reasons, training at all levels around unconscious bias helps individuals understand their own role in achieving a greater degree of equality;
  • Non-gendered language in anonymous recruitment processes. For instance, much vital support work across the institution will take place under the role title “administrator” or “secretary”. Call those professionals “managers” instead and watch the applications from men increase. Or try introducing the default premise when drafting recruitment wording that professorships are part-time roles, with an option to work full-time;
  • Agile, not just flexible working: women have consistently been more likely than men to choose flexible working patterns, often driven by the cultural expectation that they will be the number one family carer. Many women have benefited from greater flexibility in the workplace, particularly as technological change has allowed them to work not just flexibly but in an agile way. Helping all staff work in ways that help them meet their family commitments can only help in creating a level playing field;
  • HR involvement on gender-neutral interview panels: think broadly about who has the skills to interview and choose recruitment panels from beyond the immediate team;
  • Make the policy concrete: if the policy commitment is towards a greater degree of flexible working, or towards anonymous recruitment, or any other policy goal, what does that actually look like in that team there? Work with individual managers and teams on plans that turn the aim into the concrete working practice;
  • Be prepared to intervene at the individual level, from mentoring and career-support plans for potential candidates, to promoting leadership training for promising staff. Get the support structures right: Anglia Ruskin’s forum for part-time and flexible workers for example – as a way to influence both the recruitment and the retention of the best staff;
  • Rethinking career paths: whether this is by creating alternative ways to achieve professorships or by broadening skills via movement into other teams;
  • Challenging assumptions of qualifications needed: if women are acting successfully in top professions in other sectors, why tie your hands in your efforts to recruit new thinking into the sector by insisting on qualifications they are unlikely to have? Broaden the candidate pool and jettison the assumptions. That’s one aspect of challenging resourcing teams more specifically to get under-represented groups into roles. Why so few women in STEM subjects? Why so few men in health and social care? When do women “fail” within application processes? Monitor, learn and take action from what your applicant data tells you;
  • Add a target: focus the minds from vice chancellor level downwards by adding a target to the efforts to reduce the gender pay gap. Athena Swan works for some here. But don’t get caught up in the idea that you are making these interventions just to hit the target. Instead, focus on the opportunities created, the careers and lives improved. Do it for the people.

A leadership task

Many universities are well into the second, third, or fourth iteration of their plans to reduce the gender pay gap. For some, the point has been reached where a one per cent movement every year in the direction of greater equality is frustratingly slow. We see achieving greater gender equality as a leadership task: from the top down, it is part of the privileged leadership role to develop future female leaders, make family friendly culture a reality, and challenge every aspect of process and policy that is slowing down change. Yes, a third of vice chancellors are now female. Yes, a quarter of professors are now women. But how embarrassing if we are satisfied with that.

We are all motivated to act in different ways. Athena Swan awards provide a rigorous framework for thinking about your policies and processes and as such is very useful. Go get the gold standard. Flexibility and opportunity might act as key parts of your institution’s brand and value proposition in an increasingly competitive international education market. If that’s what motivates you to act, fine. But perhaps as human beings most of us find it easier to be motivated by the core equality goal itself, and the impact inequality has on our friends and colleagues.

4 responses to “Silver tortoises will help us to narrow the gender pay gap

  1. Silver tortoises are just not good enough. How many brilliant female leaders and future leaders are making decisions today (tomorrow, next week) to leave their institution or the entire sector because they are being actively discriminated against? The measures in this article are no more likely to bring about the rapid and meaningful change we need than the suggestion that we should all just wait for the current generation of senior leaders (and their ideas) to retire. Yes, I have been told that. I find this an extremely depressing read on International Women’s Day.

  2. To answer your question: no brilliant female leaders and future leaders are making the decision to leave because they’re being actively discriminated against. You’ve created a narrative based on the idea that we should strive for equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity. The idea of Equality of outcome removes freedom of choice for people who’re hiring by forcing them to hire the underqualified based solely on gender. That’s discrimination and not something I support. The wage gap exists because of free choice and to get rid of it would be to get rid of a persons basic human rights. Women and men are different and nothing is going to change that. I appreciate the sentiment behind you’re message as I am an advocate of equal rights but taking peoples freedoms and rights away is not the solution.

  3. I share your frustrations: HE changes slowly on so many fronts. We’re not celebrating slowness here, but we are attempting to explain reality as we see it, of cultural change taking time. HE is better than the national picture on GPG; and much better than some sectors to and from which HE staff will move (cold comfort, perhaps). HR welcomes new thinking ion systems and culture change to help achieve greater gender (and other) equality. Let’s hope there’s more movement this time next year.

  4. I can’t agree with the comment “The wage gap exists because of free choice and to get rid of it would be to get rid of a persons basic human rights”.
    It is not “free choice” that results in a woman being appointed to a new job on say £5k less than a man would be simply because her previous pay was say £5k less due to the fact that she had time off to have children or went part time at a point in her career to care for those children.

    Such low balling of pay is not a free choice it’s an employer decision that they have been able to get away with passed off as good business sense because the job can be done well for less

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