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Women professors, pay, promotion, and academic housekeeping

Writing ahead of the Advance HE Aurora conference, Bruce MacFarlane asks whether academic women are picking up too many administrative, service, and citizenship tasks.
This article is more than 5 years old

Bruce Macfarlane is professor of higher education at the University of Bristol

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.

6 responses to “Women professors, pay, promotion, and academic housekeeping

  1. “Male academics do ‘housework’ too but women contribute excessively.” Source?

  2. PWC analysed the data and came to a different conclusion to the one presented here:

    “Whilst the private sector pay gap can, for many organisations, be explained by a large disparity in the proportion of higher paid roles being occupied by men and women, the factor that really opens up their gap is the extensive use of bonuses at high values in those organisations. In the university sector by contrast, there is less of a representation gap and bonus use is relatively uncommon. When we also consider that there appears to be a low likelihood of there being equal pay problems in universities following the 2016/17 UCEA work which examined gender pay gaps by job level (and found none) and the focus over the past few years on the professorial pay-gap e.g. the ‘not enough senior women’ explanation is looking somewhat flaky.

    This suggests then, that for universities, a significant part of the explanation for the gap lies not only on the ‘where are the senior women?’ side of the equation but also on the ‘why do women outnumber men two to one at the lower end?/where are the lower-paid men?’ side.”

    In other words, were it legal to do so (and it should be stressed that it would NOT be legal), a university could obtain a better median result by ensuring that it hires more men than women in entry level positions. Conversely, any tendency to attract more women than men into early career roles will inevitably (because of how the gender pay gap is calculated) cause a deterioration in the headline figure.

  3. one of the big problems though which this article does raise is that women get promoted at a later point in their career than men. As far as I’m aware, Universities do not publish figures that relate career stage with age/stage (not even approximately). So if there are 20 male professors and 10 female professors in any School, for the sake of argument, not only have the 20 male professors probably been promoted far earlier in their careers than the women, and are, relatedly, likely to be on a higher Professorial pay scale, but the true extent of the gender gap here is not even hinted at.

  4. Plus, from my own observations, this is true from the very start of climbing the ladder: women wait far longer than men in general to be promoted to Senior Lecturer, etc. Even if you appointed more men at the bottom, they’d likely soon rise, and leave behind the women. This is true of every industry, not just academia, as the Harvard Business Review has repeatedly observed.

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