Fran Amery (University of Bath) et al

As UK universities start to release their gender pay gap reports for 2019, new research examines the reasons behind the (often large) disrepancies, and considers what measures need to be implemented in the future in order to close the gap. 

The gender pay gap in academia is once again in the news, as universities start to release their gender pay gap reports for 2019.

Although there have been some improvements, as with 2018, the picture remains pretty depressing. Of the institutions that had released their reports at the time of writing, as the BBC reports, more than nine out of ten institutions pay their average male employee more than they pay their average female employee with the sector as a whole having a median pay gap 4.6 percentage points higher than the national average.

The reports also reveal wide discrepancies between institutions. In 2018, the mean pay gap of universities ranged between 1% and 45%, the median pay gap ranged between -1.9% and 37.4%, and the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay ranged between 22.4% and 64.4%.

What, then, lies behind these differences? Why are some universities doing not nearly as badly as others?

Why are some universities much worse than others?

To try to begin to answer these questions, we analysed the mean pay gap and the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay for all universities who reported their gender pay gaps in 2018. In particular, we compared the figures with broader contextual factors that might impact on gender issues within universities. These broader contextual factors are:

  • The gender and pay of university vice-chancellors;
  • The level of Athena SWAN award the university holds;
  • Whether the university has a medical school and a triple-accredited business school;
  • Whether the university was founded pre- or post-1992.
  • Whether the university is a member of a particular mission group;
  • The proportion of women who sit on two key university governance bodies: the executive board (or equivalent) and the council (or equivalent).


With regard to the mean pay gap, we found evidence that being a pre-1992 university, having a triple accredited business school, having a medical school and having a more highly paid VC were all associated with having a larger gap.

With regard to the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay, we found evidence that being a pre-1992 university, having a triple accredited business school, and having a more highly paid VC were all associated with having a smaller proportion of women in the top quartile.

We found no evidence that either measure was affected by the gender of the VC, Athena SWAN membership/award holder, mission group membership (beyond pre/post 1992), or the proportion of female members on governance bodies.

What does all this mean for the status of women in academia and what is to be done?

The results point towards a number of issues about the current configuration of UK higher education and its impact on the status of women in academia, as well as towards a number of potential solutions.

1. It’s not just a matter of numbers…

Having a female VC and/or having a higher proportion of female members on the executive board and/or council do not seem to impact on the mean pay gap or the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay. This suggests that increasing the proportion of women in the most senior management and governance positions within a university is not enough (on its own) to transform gendered cultures within an institution, even if we advocate such increases on the basis of fairness, equality and justice. The results point towards us needing to change institutional configurations and how we do things in universities, not (just) who is doing them.

2. Hierarchy is a feminist issue…

The gender of a VC does not seem to matter for these measures but their pay packet seems to. Simply put, the vast increases in ‘remuneration’ seen in some parts of UK higher education, especially since the introduction of fees in 2012, and the subsequent discrepancies in management pay across the sector appear, if anything, to harm women’s prospects. This suggests that the present heroic, hierarchical and feudal leadership structures, which we argue in part drive these trends, need to be replaced with leadership structures based on feminist, democratic and horizontalist principles. (It also suggests we need union representation on remuneration panels.)

3. Business is bad for women…

Firstly and related to the above point, we need to reject and replace the idea of UK higher education as a business within a (global) competitive market with one based on cooperation and collaboration. Secondly, we need to do something about Business Schools and the gender regimes that operate within them. These Schools are arguably the parts of universities, along with the executive boards, where market forces are most in play (or where it’s pretended that market forces are in play). As such, from our feminist perspective, it becomes even more imperative that we resist the imposition of ‘free market’ reforms to the rest of academia if we are to eradicate, rather than exacerbate, the patterns we have identified.

4. Medicine is bad for women…

Medical Schools seem to recognise they have a problem but, as yet, it’s not clear whether they’ve administered the correct course of treatment or if the patient is responding

5. History matters…

Feminists know that knowledge creation is gendered and to the dualisms of mind/body, rational/emotional, nature/nurture, etc. can now be added pre-/post-1992. This finding emphasises both the institutionalised nature of gender inequality within UK higher education and the difficult, dirty, hands-on struggle that is required to do something about it. 

6. What’s the point of Athena SWAN?

There is, of course, more to Athena SWAN than simply the gender pay gap and the proportion of women in the top quartile of pay. However, the fact that there is no evidence that Athena SWAN membership and award level have any impact on these measures is a cause for concern because, intuitively, they should have an impact. Our findings suggest either Athena SWAN need to adapt and strengthen their criteria for particular award levels, or that institutions need to find alternative avenues beyond Athena SWAN to address (certain aspects of) gender inequality within higher education.  An Athena SWAN award may not be enough to commit institutions to long-term structural change (and may only lead to moderate improvements which are not spread evenly across different groups of women within the academy).

Where shall we start?

Higher education trade unions have had a long running campaign to address the gender pay gap (and other aspects of unfairness in pay) but to little avail hithertofore. We suggest a good place to start for people working in higher education is here (and here or here or here or here).

There are also lessons for institutions. Possession of an Athena SWAN award, usually driven by internal institutional processes, does not seem to be enough, on its own, to address the gender pay gap. We suggest that if they have not already, institutions should engage external consultants to conduct an independent audit of the gender pay gaps and should publicly publish the results.

Another version of this blog with technical details concerning data collection and the results of the linear regression analyses we undertook can be found here.

Authors: Fran Amery (University of Bath), Stephen Holden Bates (University of Birmingham), Stephen McKay (University of Lincoln), Cherry Miller (University of Tampere), Zoe Pflaeger Young (De Montfort University), Taylor Billings (University of Birmingham), Rebecca Hayton (University of Birmingham), Marianne Holt (University of Birmingham), Jasmine Khatri (University of Birmingham), Molly Marvin (Independent Scholar), Lola Ogunsanya (University of Birmingham), Alice Ramdehal (University of Birmingham) and Rosa-Louise Sullivan (University of Birmingham). 

This research emanates from a larger project that explores the status of women in the discipline of political science. We would like to thank the Political Studies Association and the Department of Political Science & International Studies (POLSIS) at the University of Birmingham for funding the data collection for this larger project. We are also grateful to Eleanor Woulfe for organising the POLSIS Summer Internship Scheme.