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7 ideas for narrowing your gender pay gap

19 June 2018      Sophie Harris, Assistant Director of Human Resources – Organisational Effectiveness


I was privileged to be given the opportunity to deliver a workshop at the UHR conference in May. The subject of my session was Women in academia: pay, progression and prejudice, writes Sophie Harris.

The workshop drew on my learning from a conference and study visit to the USA in September 2017, thanks to the UHR bursary I received.

In both the UK and US, female academic colleagues are less likely to be promoted than their male colleagues, and promotion takes longer. The lower representation of female staff at the senior academic levels is an important factor in the gender pay gap seen at the majority of HEIs. 

During my visit to the US, I explored the barriers to progression, and the work that is taking place to respond to and overcome these barriers. I was keen to identify tangible actions that we could learn from and replicate in the UK, and which would make a real difference to progression. While I didn’t think the US would have all the answers (and indeed I found that there are significant overlaps in the issues that we experience, even in spite of some important structural differences) I was keen to use the trip as an opportunity to step into the academic sphere, meeting academics who had either carried out research in this area, or who could talk about their personal experiences, and the interventions that had benefitted them personally. 

The UHR workshop was an opportunity to share some of my learning, as well as explore the experiences and ideas of colleagues at UK HEIs to identify practical interventions that we could all learn from and adopt at our own institutions. During the workshop, we had some really interesting discussions, and I picked up some new and valuable ideas. I’ve outlined below three ideas I took away from the US, together with a selection of ideas from colleagues at the UHR conference.  

Ideas from the US: 

  1. 1.     Action learning at the University of Massachusetts:

Female professors at UMass reported that the intervention that had the greatest impact on their personal career progression was mutual mentoring, or action learning sets. I discussed a proposed format for these sets in a previous blog.

  1. 2.      Cross institutional selection days at the University of Michigan 

Michigan recruited multiple posts across a diverse range of departments through a single selection exercise. The process enabled candidates and staff to build relationships and potential collaborations. I discussed the format of the process and its benefits to female progression in a previous blog

  1. 3.     Regular promotion reviews at the University of Massachusetts

UMass have introduced scheduled five yearly reviews of all academic staff to ensure that regular consideration is given to eligibility for promotion. This approach appears to overcome evidence from research that shows that where promotion criteria are perceived as vague, women can be more reluctant to put themselves forward.

Ideas from the UK:

  1. 1.     Advertising all academic roles on a part time basis

This turns on its head the standard practice of posts being advertised full time and candidates having to request part time hours, which staff may be reluctant to request for fear of a negative impact on their career. While the appointed candidate could elect to work full time, all posts are advertised part time as standard practice.

  1. 2.     Showcasing family friendly provisions through case studies

Through newsletters, staff bulletins, departmental meetings and web articles, showcasing real-life examples of how parents and carers have benefitted from your institution’s family friendly provisions. A good example might be how a couple have used the shared parental leave provisions, as these are still poorly understood and tend to have low uptake.

  1. 3.     Live debates

Use live debates as an opportunity for academic staff who have faced barriers in career progression to come together, discuss their experiences and explore solutions. 

  1. 4.     Pay for a researcher to continue research activity during parental leave

Often only teaching cover will be provided when a member of staff takes extended time out on family friendly leave. Paying for a researcher to continue with some of their research activity during the period of absence could enable the academic to prolong their leave in the knowledge that progress won’t suffer in their absence.



Sophie Harris

Deputy Director of Human Resources

SOAS, University of London



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