Women professors, pay, promotion, and academic housekeeping

Recent news that the gender pay-gap in British universities averages 15% led to plenty of hand-wringing, but few ideas about how to address the problem.

On average universities pay men 15% more than women, with some institutions exposed as having a gap of up to 37%. The figures represent an embarrassment for the sector with universities faring little better than many other large organisations, with the exception of outliers such as Ryanair and JP Morgan. Universities lay claim to the moral high ground on many social issues but are hardly in a position to lecture anyone on this subject.

Fifty-six percent of university students are female, as are around 40% of academic staff. But the feminisation of the campus has not converted into many women breaking through the ivory ceiling. Less than a quarter of university professors are women, showing that there is clearly a serious leak in the pipeline.

Boy-jobs and girl-jobs

Part of the problem is that women tend to do too much academic ‘housework’. This is a self-mocking pejorative that refers to administrative, service and citizenship tasks that keep things ticking: advising students, mentoring colleagues, reviewing for journals or grant-awarding bodies, serving on committees, contributing expertise to civic and charitable bodies, and so on. Whilst such activities make an essential contribution to the life of the university and wider society it is not generally glamorous or attention-grabbing work. Male academics do ‘housework’ too but women contribute excessively.

Academics largely get rewarded and promoted as a result of their research success – prestigious grants and publications in top journals count for a lot. Evidence of teaching excellence is getting more attention now too. But academic housework – less disparagingly known as service or academic citizenship – remains a poor relation. Research shows that women get promoted to senior lecturer or associate professor later than men as a result of taking on more of this work than men.

Only around 15% of British academics are full professors of which less than a quarter are women. It’s the pinnacle of the academic profession, yet the problems women face do not end once they become a professor. It’s just the start of a whole new ball game.

Late career professorships

By the time women get to become a full professor, if they make it at all, they are often late career having been held up by doing a lot of academic housework. As a consequence many women professors tend to see their role more strongly in terms of mentoring others who will succeed them and pass on the baton. They also want the next generation of female academics to get the access to the insider knowledge they felt denied, which slowed down their own careers.

This means that many women professors feel morally obliged to continue to do too much academic housework especially in subject areas where they are as rare as hens’ teeth. The demands on, say, an Asian woman physics professor to serve on working groups and committees will tend to be disproportionate. However, if women professors do not resist pressure to do more than their fair share of academic citizenship they will end up having less time to do things, such as research, that will help them get better paid as a professor. This is one of the key points made in a report I co-authored entitled Women Professors as Intellectual Leaders published last month by Advance HE.

Transparency needed

Pay scales for professors can vary enormously, commonly ranging between £60,000 and £120,000. Professorial superstars can get even higher salaries linked to their ability to attract large research grants, contribute significantly through their publications to the periodic audit of university research quality which determines government block funding, and add to the institution’s international reputation.

Most universities are not as transparent as they could be about professorial pay and the criteria that they use to judge performance. What determines where a professor sits on the pay scale tends to have little to do with academic citizenship. It will more usually be determined on the basis of individual research success. This means the women professors who see their role more strongly in terms of academic citizenship work will tend to stay down the bottom end of the pay scale.

A lot of attention focuses on how someone becomes a university professor rather than what they should do when they become one. The fact that women professors define their role more strongly in terms of academic citizenship should be understood as a strength not a deficit. If universities are serious about tackling the gender pay gap they need to put academic citizenship on a par with teaching and research. The other benefit in doing so will be to educate senior academics about what it really means to be an academic.

Bruce Macfarlane is professor of higher education at the University of Bristol and is writing ahead of Advance HE’s Aurora Conference which takes place on 7 June.

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