I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed

Okay, I lied. I’m angry and disappointed. I also feel tired, defeated and fed up. (Women, eh? Always with the multitasking.)

Why? Let me set the scene:

First, here’s a list of all the initiatives the University of Leicester has joined or set up to promote gender equality, including but not limited to:

The HeForShe initiative is promoted on the University’s home page. So is the fact that ‘Leicester retains the Athena Swan Bronze award’. Clearly, gender equality features prominently on the University’s agenda.

With this in mind, let’s now turn to the recent news that Leicester University finally came out top in a ranking:

‘The University of Leicester has the biggest pay gap for academic staff for any UK university, once small and specialist institutions are excluded, with women earning £9,793 less than men on average, according to the UCU report, titled Holding Down Women’s Pay, published on 8 January, to coincide with International Women’s Day.’

And how did the University of Leicester respond?

In a statement, Leicester said that it “aims to ensure that staff are treated solely on the basis of their merits and abilities” and had recently extended its Athena SWAN scheme for improving employment conditions for women to all university departments.

Pay differences had arisen owing to “changes in responsibility, promotion, length of time in post, distinctions, productivity and other non-discriminatory factors”, it added.

A recent analysis by Leicester showed the average salaries for full-time female staff are “not significantly different” to those paid to men, with difference reflecting “annual progression through the salary scale from time of recruitment or promotion”.’ (Source: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/international-womens-day-universities-pay-gaps-highlighted)

When I read the statement for the first time I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of women’s voices suddenly cried out in exasperation, and were suddenly silenced.

Because there it is again: the meritocracy myth. It’s the idea that we can achieve gender equality by treating men and women perfectly equal. Sure, this would work if there were no structural inequalities, no power differentials, no persistent gender stereotypes and prejudices. But there are. And if one gender starts with a head start, it’s not a fair race simply because both genders have to reach the same finishing line. This highlights the difference in equality of opportunity – everyone has a fair chance of competing for the same opportunities, and equality of outcome – every has to the same chance of achieving those opportunities.

If promotion and pay are decided purely on merit, and women then happen to end up underrepresented in higher positions, and underpaid regardless of where they end up, then what the University’s statement really is saying that women are just a bit … less. Less qualified, less able, less productive. But even a cynic like me doesn’t believe that anyone at the university would put this forward as an argument.

What’s more likely is that women may have equality of opportunity but not yet equality of outcome. Here’s a list of just a few hiring and promotion criteria which may disproportionately favour one gender over the other:

And let’s not forget the possibility of conscious and unconscious biases which may also affect an interviewers’ panel’s perception of applicants.

Identifying those factors isn’t easy. But, how great would it have been if, in response to the ‘Holding Down Women’s Pay’ report, the university had said:

‘We recognize that we still have a long way to go, and we will work hard on identifying and eliminating the factors still leading to a gender pay gap.’

I would have been delighted. Grateful, too. Encouraged and invigorated. But then again, I’m a woman. Always so emotional.

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