Could longer maternity leave close your gender pay gap?

05 August 2019      Sophie Harris, Deputy Director of Human Resources

As HR professionals working in higher education, it can be remarkably easy to overlook the findings of research being carried out on our own doorstep, in favour of developing new solutions, writes Sophie Harris, Assistant Director of Human Resources (Organisational Effectiveness) at Queen Mary University of London.

Could longer paid maternity leave close your gender pay gap?

A key aim of my UHR-sponsored study trip to the USA was to engage with academic colleagues carrying our practical research, as well as those living the reality of life in the academy, to understand the barriers to female progression. 

As HR departments and wider institutions looking for answers to the difficult question of how to improve gender equality and reduce the gender pay gap, we often don’t look as near to home as our own academics and researchers, who are exploring these very questions.  

My hope was that that by engaging with academics about subjects that they are not only researching, but that also affect them personally, there would be a real opportunity to introduce some working practices that would have a meaningful impact on some of the areas we have been grappling with both as a sector and a society. 

My exploration of research on female academic progression led me to a project being carried out by Professor Vera Troeger, at the University of Warwick, who has been researching the impact of maternity policy on academic productivity.

Longer and higher paid maternity benefits lead to greater productivity and promotion 

Professor Troeger has correlated the maternity policies of all UK HEIs with the research output (used here as a proxy for productivity) of those academic staff who have taken advantage of them. The results are remarkable and led to the University of Exeter changing their maternity benefits to be the most generous in the Russell Group.

Recognising that the generosity of maternity leaves across UK HEIs varies greatly, the research sought to understand why this is the case, and the impact of the length of leave on productivity.

Key findings were that: 

  1. more research-intensive universities with a higher proportion of female professors provide more generous maternity pay.
  1. most female academics only take the ‘full pay’ element of maternity leave.
  1. Where the ‘full pay’ element of maternity leave is longer, this resulted in higher productivity. 

During my decade and a half or so in higher education, I have heard a range of horrifying anecdotes about academic maternity leave,  with a particularly troubling one being that some academics will plan their maternity leave so that it falls over the summer period, in order to minimise the impact on the academic cycle and consequently, their career. With this in mind, the idea that longer leave would positively impact productivity and career progression seemed to be counter to the practices being displayed. 

Nevertheless, the findings of the research are clear that the generosity of maternity leaves exerts a significant impact on the career path of female academics. More generous provisions are likely to lead to a higher proportion of female academics in the highest salary bracket, in particular at research intensive universities.

The rationale given is that access to more generous pay and leave entitlements will allow female academics to stay in touch with their research for an extended period, without the continuous burden of carrying out teaching and administrative duties. In a culture where research stubbornly remains highly valued in terms of promotion, this will enable female academics to maintain their research output and ‘hit the ground running’ when they return to the workplace. 

Could access to more KIT days further improve prospects for productivity and promotion?

I joined the HR team at Queen Mary earlier this year, however, in my previous role at SOAS I was involved in a series of working groups to explore parenting and caring. The recommendation of one of the working groups was that SOAS should consider increasing the number of Keeping In Touch Days that staff were entitled to access, in order that academic staff could, if they wished, engage to a greater degree with academic activity during the course of their leave, avoiding the requirement to curtail their maternity leave early and enabling them to take advantage of a longer period of maternity leave. This would have a clear benefit where institutions have less generous maternity pay schemes and seems to be implicitly supported by the work of Professor Troeger. Keeping academics engaged with their institution, while giving them the time away from their teaching and admin, could have a positive impact on research productivity and on consequently career progression. 

Regrettably, legal advice has confirmed that an organisation could not voluntarily offer additional KIT days and that work undertaken beyond the statutory limit would have the effect of curtailing leave and pay. This seems to me to be a bit of a missed opportunity, and perhaps an area worthy of further review if we are committed to achieving gender equality as a society.

Connecting the dots

While I see a lot of evidence that our universities are very good at translating research externally, into industry and public policy, I’m less clear that we are good at directing this internally, to our own policy and practice. I was struck by this when I visited the US last year. My sense was that that there was not a clear and informed link between the outcomes of the excellent research I saw on academic progression, and the policies and practice of the institutions. 

As HR professionals working in higher education, it can be remarkably easy to overlook the findings of research being carried out on our own doorstep, in favour of developing new solutions. This has the effect of us missing out on opportunities to transfer the outcomes of evidence-based research into our own organisational practice.

Martin Higgs, UHR Communications Officer:

In light of Sophie’s comments about the changes that the University of Exeter have made in the light of Professor Troeger’s work, we asked Imelda Rogers (Director of People Services – Exeter) for her thoughts.

Imelda Rogers writes:

At Exeter, we are committed to regularly reviewing our family friendly policies to ensure that they are fit for purpose and deliver the best outcomes for the University and our staff. This includes benchmarking ourselves against other Universities and local competitors. Earlier reviews had removed the length of service requirement needed to access occupational schemes and we had matched paid leave for shared parental leave and adoption leave to our maternity leave scheme. As a result, we already had an excellent return rate for parents in both academic and Professional Services roles. Prior to 2018, our paid leave of 8 weeks full pay and 16 weeks half pay plus SMP provided the equivalent of full pay for 24 weeks – this benefited mothers who were on lower grades and were part time due to the addition of statutory pay on top of the half pay. We were intending to conduct a further review in 2018 and Professor Troeger’s research did influence this (although we were concerned that this did not appear to take account of the half pay plus SMP benefit). Our review also consulted with staff about what the most important factors were for them and we based our decisions primarily on their responses. The outcome of the review was an increase to 26 weeks full pay to ensure all our staff benefited. We also extended paternity leave at full pay to 6 weeks and introduced paid fertility treatment leave. We are committed to supporting our staff during this key time in their lives and we will continue to review our policies and adapt to business needs, employee feedback and government policies.


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