Reasons to vote YES in the HE ballots – Gender Pay Gap


University comms recently announced it was one of only 20 Universities to receive an Athena SWAN Silver award for their commitment to gender equality. This news will have stirred up mixed-feelings for many of our members. Of course, as an exec, we want to recognise the work (and good-will) that was integral to getting this award. We know that many of our brilliant members play key roles in equality work across the institution. Yet many of our members will see this announcement and feel frustrated, questioning how this supposed commitment to gender equality has failed to have an impact on their daily working lives – if we’re one of the few Silver awards, then what must other institutions be like? Others will be sceptical; the previous Athena SWAN award contained a significant number of actions that were never actioned. Our institution over-promised and under-delivered. Meanwhile, our significant gender pay gap remains pretty much the same, last reported in 2019 as 20.4%.


Many people we have spoken to are shocked by the gender pay gap figure for the University of Southampton, and the fact the institution is above the national average for HE. Some people have even presumed that it must be that University management simply doesn’t realise that the figures are so bad (and now that they do know, they will surely tackle it). Yet this trust in senior management to put things right is misguided. After some initial progress, our pay gap has plateaued. Your UCU officers take part in the annual equal pay review, where we’ve seen year upon year of monitoring without any meaningful action taking place. One previous internal equal pay report from the University even had the audacity to suggest that we weren’t making any progress closing the gender pay gap because we have “exhausted female talent pools for promotion” (Equal Pay Review 2017 p.13). Or to put it another way, the pay gap exists because there’s not enough ‘female talent’ at our institution to promote.





Year after year the gender pay gap remains at around 20%. Yet this is unsurprising given that management still fails to fully value the contributions that female staff disproportionately make to our institution (care work, collegiality, holding things together—often at the expense of our own career trajectories). The gender pay gap is about structural failures, but often it is treated as if it is solely cultural, an issue that it can be fixed by EDI training and learning about unconscious bias. Other fixes for the gender pay gap position women as the problem: they need to learn how to interview better, be more assertive, apply for promotions or increments. Yet the gender pay gap is not about women not knowing how to ‘sell themselves’ at interview, or about them not understanding what is needed to move quickly through the pay spine. The gender pay gap is more than this. It is a result of structural and policy failures.


One such failure is our institution’s policies around maternity and parental leave. Women with children are the most likely to see their carer progression stalled, because institutional support in this area is insufficient. Your local branch has been in discussions about maternity / parental leave for a significant number of years. We’ve heard many promises yet seen little action. Progress is so slow that it feels like work on this has ground to a standstill. Yet, week after week, your local branch handles case work dealing with the fallout from these policy failures: women who are at breaking point, anxious, undervalued, struggling with no automatic cover for their work while they are on maternity. UCU want our University management team to guarantee a central automatic fund to cover maternity – a simple scheme that many other institutions already have in place.


There’s also the significant issue of a lack of support for those returning to work after maternity. In part, the lack of clear cover for maternity means many people return and have to play catch-up with the work they have missed. Spiralling workloads, hiring freezes, and the pandemic all compound to make returning after maternity increasingly difficult, with many returners struggling to stay afloat. Other institutions offer periods of study leave on return from maternity, so staff can reboot their research, or specific training for line managers on how to support returners. We offer nothing. University management have failed to provide central financial support to help make some of the material changes that would actively support women’s careers.


The pandemic has highlighted how pressing these issues are, as women have become even more disproportionately burdened by care work and school closures. Parents of young children are at breaking point. The impact the pandemic will have on women’s career progression at our institution will be stark. Years of inaction on this from University management needs to end. We need to see action rather than words. Your local branch wants management not just to monitor pay gaps every year, but to set a clear target as to when these gaps will be eradicated, and a meaningful action plan to get us there. We need a plan that involves actual financial commitment and policy changes, not just performative words proudly pronouncing institutional commitment to gender equality.


The gender pay gap is a key part of the four fights dispute on which you are currently being balloted. If you want your local branch to have a strong hand to negotiate on this issue, then vote yes for strike action, and yes for action short of strike. A mandate for strike action is vital, on both a national and local level, for negotiating on these issues.


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