How to tackle the gender pay gap: lessons from higher education

By Hayfa Mohdzaini, lead researcher for the New JNCHES Gender Pay Gap Working Group Report

Higher education employers have been conducting equal pay reviews for years so focus in the sector has shifted from measurement to identifying practices that help reduce the gender pay gap. As part of the New JNCHES 2014/15 pay agreement in higher education, UCEA and five trade unions – UCU, UNISON, Unite, EIS and GMB – worked together to investigate what approaches were being taken in the sector, what had been successful and what practical steps institutions could take to reduce their gender pay gaps.  Sue Milsome and I conducted the case study research for the report. Between us, we spoke with 36 senior managers, HR professionals and trade union representatives from six higher education institutions and a financial services organisation. The final report of the New JNCHES Gender Pay Working Group Report was published in July.

We found that employers tried a wide range of initiatives to address pay directly as well as other measures like job design and training. While there are ‘quick win’ opportunities, many are longer-term measures because some causes of the gender pay gap, such as career choices, happen before people even start working. The European Commission’s estimate of 70 years to close the gender pay gap should not be cause for apathy. Instead it emphasises that everyone has a role to play in resolving this issue. Not just the Government, families and the women concerned, but also employers.

Based on our research, here are five ideas on how employers tackle the gender pay gap:

1. Balance gender at all levels: Reducing the gender pay gap is often discussed in terms of increasing the number of women at the top. Our research highlighted that it is also about having more men at the bottom. One way to reduce the gender pay gap is to achieve a more even distribution of the number of men and women across the pay scale. Universities invest a lot of resources to develop more women to become ready for professorships, for example, mentoring and workshops on how to apply for a promotion. Unconscious bias training for managers is also popular. But there are also examples of universities attracting more men to apply for administrative and catering jobs which are disproportionately held by women.

2. Don’t pay over the odds for talent: Because you could accidentally create a large gender pay gap and increase market salaries, both of which are costly. Research on academic staff in the US finds that men receive more outside offers than women and this has an effect on earnings. Many universities make it a policy for academics to start at the bottom of their grade unless line managers can objectively justify otherwise. One top university told us they would rather let go of their talent than match well-above-market job offers.

3. Set targets to plug the leaky talent pipeline: While some initiatives such as the 30% Club have focused on board appointment targets, many universities are setting targets throughout the organisation. A university we spoke to has embedded equality and diversity into its organisational KPIs for over 10 years. By 2020, it aims to have the same percentage of female senior lecturers as female lecturers. This organisational target is translated into actionable KPIs which the university and faculty level management are accountable for. Annual performance reviews show figures are heading in the right direction.

4. Change how work is valued: In higher education, research contribution has traditionally been the primary consideration for becoming a professor. This practice disproportionately benefited men and currently only one in five professors are female. Some universities have bucked the trend by introducing a teaching career path to professorship, thereby lowering their gender pay gaps at professor level. A few universities went the extra mile to minimise research disruption by employing research assistants to carry out preliminary data gathering while their female academics go on maternity leave. Other universities gave their returning academics a term off from teaching so they could catch up on research. Money is a strong driver here because some funding bodies have asked universities to demonstrate support for advancing women’s careers, through the Athena SWAN programme, in order to be eligible for certain research grants.

5. Get buy-in from all levels: Good policies become good practices when employees are aware of the help available and line managers are supportive in making it happen. Roadshows to promote policies and ‘Did you know’ slideshow loops on plasma screens across the campus are examples of initiatives taken to increase awareness. More targeted approaches include a parent buddying scheme to support staff integrate back into work following maternity leave.

For more ideas on how to reduce the gender pay gap, see pages 13 to 16 of the New JNCHES Gender Pay Working Group Report.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.


  • Not over impressed with this: I find the pay gap now tends to be between industrial sectors rather than internal to the organisation. Most mature organisations now have proper instruments in place to ensure there is commonality between the genders within the organisation.

    The item marked number 2 seems to be poor advice; the point of being talented; hard working, good at your job, good skill set, transferable skills etc is to be attractive to the employer of choice. To attract talent the organisation must be prepared to pay for it and this has nothing to do with the gender pay gap.


  • Not over impressed with this: I find the pay gap now tends to be between industrial sectors rather than internal to the organisation. Most mature organisations now have proper instruments in place to ensure there is commonality between the genders within the organisation.

    The item marked number 2 seems to be poor advice; the point of being talented; hard working, good at your job, good skill set, transferable skills etc is to be attractive to the employer of choice. To attract talent the organisation must be prepared to pay for it and this has nothing to do with the gender pay gap.


  • Not over impressed with this: I find the pay gap now tends to be between industrial sectors rather than internal to the organisation. Most mature organisations now have proper instruments in place to ensure there is commonality between the genders within the organisation.

    The item marked number 2 seems to be poor advice; the point of being talented; hard working, good at your job, good skill set, transferable skills etc is to be attractive to the employer of choice. To attract talent the organisation must be prepared to pay for it and this has nothing to do with the gender pay gap.


  • Rob, a quick check of the ASHE figures by occupation reveal that significant pay gaps (greater than +/-5%) exist in many occupations. If you compare the median hourly pay of full-time males and females by one-digit standard occupational classification (SOC), there are significant pay gaps at every level except at SOC 7 - sales and customer service occupations. The median hourly pay gap at at SOC 1 - managers, directors and senior officials is 16.2% while at SOC 9 - elementary occupations it is 15.7%. In both cases ASHE estimates there are more than twice as many full-time men than women in these occupations.

    At organisational level, it means that the numbers of men and women may not be balanced in particular jobs or spread evenly across the pay distribution. In a university, the departure of a highly-paid female professor could widen the pay gap for professors because there are fewer men than women in this role. So it is not necessarily an equal pay for equal work issue but small numbers skewing the statistics.

    On number 2, if you read on it says 'One top university told us they would rather let go of their talent than match well-above-market job offers.' I am not implying that we should underpay staff. In this context, the university is paying competitively and the prestige of being a top university means that it has little difficulty attracting the brightest minds.


  • *Correction: In a university, the departure of a highly-paid female professor could widen the pay gap for professors because there are fewer women than men in this role.