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Tackling the HE sector’s gender pay gap

Andy Fryer of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA) outlines what can help tackle gender pay gaps.
This article is more than 6 years old

Andy Fryer is Head of Communications and Membership at the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association (UCEA).

The government’s website for the compulsory reporting of the gender pay gap has been a hive of activity, peaking as the first “snapshot” deadline passed last week.

Yet, the only users of the site making any real honey so far have been journalists. This is understandable, as nearly every sector, employer, and university has had to face some challenging facts and figures about their gender pay gaps.

Sticks and stones

The issue is clearly society-wide. Perhaps more than any other paper, The Guardian has used the data to cover their front pages and website with a campaign stretching over many weeks. Its own 11.3% gender pay gap was published in the paper back in mid-March, though nowhere near the front page. Clearly this is a time for all to reflect, and perhaps use a mirror to do so.

Trade unions, often claiming to be the drivers in addressing this important issue, have themselves got some difficult figures to consider. Of those represented in higher education, three of the five are big enough (with over 250 staff) to report. The median gap at UNISON is 15.8%, Unite’s is 29.6% (though it missed the deadline), while GMB’s is 32.4%. The academic unions, UCU and EiS, are sufficiently small not to have to report.

Of course, any HE sector coverage has focused on providers, pointing to those with the largest gender pay gaps, and only giving some of them a chance to provide any response.  

What can universities do?

But, before we kick our already severely bruised sector any further, it is important to take a step back to understand the data. First, as Wonkhe readers likely understand, a gender pay gap is not the same as unequal pay. Further, while any gender pay gap is not good, it can’t be made to disappear at the drop of a hat, as much as we wish that were possible.

By contrast, unequal pay can, and regular equal pay auditing should make sure of this. The Equal Pay Act made it against the law nearly half a century ago that men and women, with the same or equivalent jobs, have to be paid the same wages. The gender pay gap uses a percentage to measure the difference in the average earnings of men and women – regardless of the nature of their work – across an organisation, sector or industry. What it casts a light on, and rightly so, is the failure of many organisations to progress enough women into their senior roles, and indeed to change the gendered ‘occupational segregation’ that is so often a feature of the lower-paid parts of their workforces.

It is these percentages that furnish the headlines, with our own sector showing a median gap based on the median hourly pay of 16%, and with some of our HE institutions showing gender pay gaps in excess of 30%. One figure that hasn’t been scrutinised is that an impressive 121 out of the 129 HE institutions who posted their figures also included a report that sets out some meaningful scrutiny of the figures and – crucially – what they are trying to do to address them. If journalists took time to read these they may discover a new honeypot to report on; the positive gender pay gap action planning and interventions being taken, to ensure that women can progress in their careers and move into senior levels in their workplaces. This would be a refreshing, novel and, we think, inspiring read.

New angles on an old story

The examination of the gender pay gap is not new to our sector, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) has been undertaking work in this area to support our 171 members over many years, much of it jointly with the sector trade unions. The steps that HE employers have been taking appear to be bearing fruit, as the sector’s gap continues to narrow. Analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on the gender pay gap in HE has shown the marked narrowing of the gap – a downward trajectory that reflects HE institutions’ achievements, and one that is often overlooked.  

HE institutions are continuing to take steps to address the causes and to ensure that women can progress in their workforces. There is also a need to ensure that we do not unconsciously preclude males from lower-graded roles. It is at the institutional level that the gender pay gap numbers and actions really matter, and HE institutions must try to communicate the facts surrounding their gender pay gap challenges, and the positive work they have in place to close their gaps.

Time for action

UCEA’s Gender Pay Gap ‘Toolkit’ has been well-used by HE institutions and it provides links to all the joint work done with HE trade unions at sector-level, including the 2015 New JNCHES Gender Pay Working Group Report (with institutional case studies to understand the nature of gender pay gaps and how to address them), and the 2016 New JNCHES Higher Education gender pay gap data report (a detailed look at sector-level HESA and ONS gender pay gap data with its commitment to publish benchmarks annually).

There is of course much more work to be done, and while gender pay gaps cannot disappear overnight, the recent and ongoing work in HE is developing a better understanding of the data and how to address them. We welcome new data on this important issue and encourage everyone to work together, rising to the gender pay gap challenge.


2 responses to “Tackling the HE sector’s gender pay gap

  1. Thanks for these interesting insights Andy. I was particularly interested in your comment that ‘if journalists took time to read the gender pay reports that HEIs have provided, they may discover a new honeypot to report on’, in terms of the positive gender pay gap action planning and interventions being taken.

    Interestingly, this is a route I have been considering exploring myself, with a view to getting a better understanding of the actions that institutions are taking to address their pay gap, as well as any interventions they have already taken that have worked, and could be successfully replicated. Separately, I’ve been doing a lot of work myself around female academic progression in particular and recognise the complexity and the interrelation of issues that affect this.

    Before I spend (however many hundred weekends!) manually locating and reading every HEIs report based on the list of employers that David and Louis helpfully drew together in their article (, I wondered if you were already aware of anyone undertaking this type of analysis?

    Many thanks, Sophie

  2. Thanks, Sophie. Further joint work is commencing later this month which will examine HE institution action planning and ECU are doing an analysis of the GPG narrative reports and expect to publish by July. I’m sure Ellen Pugh (ECU/ Advance HE) won’t mind me recommending her as a key contact for this: Also, I trust you are accessing and using all the ‘tools’ available in the UCEA GPG toolkit to dig efficiently.

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