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‘Narrow, unradical, wholly inadequate’: the Gender Pay Gap Report

Published: 28th March, 2018

Last week, University of Leicester employees were the lucky recipients of two reports. One contained the results of the 2017 staff survey – our response is here. The other was the Gender Pay Gap Report. Below, one ‘dejected but unsurprised’ colleague explains why the institution’s proposed strategies for change are ‘narrow, unradical, and wholly inadequate’.

My first response to the publication of the University of Leicester’s gender pay gap report was one of dejection, but certainly not of surprise. Back in 2016 we knew that Leicester is especially poor in this regard. My second response, upon a closer reading, was how narrow, unradical, and wholly inadequate the proposed strategies for change are. More than ever, we need an understanding of gender inequality that encompasses intersecting forms of discrimination and disadvantage. For example, there is a dire under-representation of black women at the professorial level in the UK. There is a mental health crisis among academic staff, who are over-worked, demoralised and systematically undervalued by their employers. These are all deeply gendered issues – and they aren’t going to be magically resolved by paying a small number of female professors a little bit more, or running leadership schemes, or having more women as members of Council.

Where in this report is the discussion about precariously employed members of staff, whose temporary and insecure contracts render them unable to plan for their futures, or access the full range of resources required to forge a sustainable academic career? And what about the absolutely fundamental question of class – as academic careers become increasingly insecure, and temporary contracts become the norm, only those with alternative sources of wealth can sustain themselves through the rough waters of precarity. That a report on inequality does not even take this into consideration is a damning indictment of how thoroughly unserious they are about effecting real, genuine, progressive change.

Gender inequality and the gender pay gap are produced, sustained and exacerbated by the wider context of university marketization. They are fundamentally connected to the issue of tuition fees and the assault on students that this represents. The particular roles that women academics assume – or rather, it is assumed that they should perform them – are more likely to encompass pastoral and care-related elements. And students, who are increasingly burdened with extreme levels of debt, and ever-diminishing hope for a secure and rewarding job at the end of their education, are – unsurprisingly – requiring additional levels of emotional and pastoral support throughout their university education. The time, energy and emotional labour that this takes – while others are more able to turn their attention to their own research – means that women are disproportionately affected by this.

Our political energies should not just be captured by the struggle to ensure fair pay at the top end of the scale. By merely focussing on this – as if that was all gender equality is about – we lose sight of the much wider, deeper problems.

The best thing you can do for gender equality in universities right now is not to focus on narrow, individualistic, well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate strategies for change. The fight for gender equality requires a more radical and collective response – and so the most feminist thing to do in this context is to join the union.