Women working in higher education continued to earn, on average, 11.9% less than men across all roles in 2022, a report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) has revealed.

Models of tiny people sitting on stacks of coins. A man is on the tallest stack and a mother and baby is on the smallest with two other woman in between.

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The gap between men’s and women’s pay in higher education is closing but there is still some way to go

Although this is smaller than the national median gender pay gap of 14.4%, the data, which covers 2017 to 2022, shows significant variation between institutions with pay gaps ranging from zero up to 41%. In addition, data for some institutions showed that the pay gap widened over the five-year period.

Overall, the median gender pay gap across higher education has decreased since 2017 from 16.3% to 11.9%. This is a larger decrease compared with the national average which fell from 18.4% to 14.4% over the same period.

Five providers, including Regent’s University London and Staffordshire University, had eliminated their median pay gap completely and 16 had a median gap of less than 5%. However, eight institutions had a pay gap of over 20%, with Liverpool John Moores University and the University of Buckingham among those with the highest median pay gaps at 28.1% and 41%, respectively.

There were also several institutions whose median pay gap has widened over time, for example, Plymouth Marjon University, which recorded no pay gap in 2017, had a pay gap of 18.4% in 2022.

Presuming that the pay gap will continue to narrow at the same rate, the report estimates that the higher education sector as a whole will take 14 years to eliminate it, compared with 18 years across all UK employment sectors. However, calculations for individual institutions also suggest that some will take more than 50 years.

In terms of the structural barriers contributing to the gender pay gap, the report highlights that women are over-represented in the lowest pay quartile – shown most prominently in institutions with a large pay gap – and that opportunities for part-time work are ‘severely restricted’ in the higher education sector, particularly at higher pay grades.

It found that institutions that have successfully reduced their pay gaps tend to have a ‘deliberate focus’ on pay equality, backed by robust action plans and leadership commitment.

To help these institutions make more progress towards gender pay parity, the report makes several recommendations to higher education institutions, including increasing part-time and flexible working opportunities, ensuring that recruitment panels are gender-diverse, and encouraging and normalising the uptake of paternity leave, shared parental leave and flexible work for fathers.

‘Some institutions have made exceptional progress narrowing, or even eliminating their gender pay gap,’ said Rose Stephenson, director of policy and advocacy at Hepi and author of the report. ‘However, some institutions have made too little progress, or even seen their pay gaps increase over the last five years.’

‘What is clear from the report is that there are structural reasons for the gender pay gap – and these structural barriers can and should be removed,’ she adds. ‘A laser-like focus on flexible working opportunities, family-friendly policies that work for fathers, as well as mothers, and a detailed understanding of structural biases within recruitment processes will allow institutions to make more progress towards gender pay equity.’

Wendy Brown, head of the Heads of Chemistry UK group, says the figures in the report are ‘not massively surprising’. ‘It’s good that, in general, the university sector is better than the average in the UK and for the most part that’s unsurprising because universities, at least in my experience over the last five to 10 years, have made quite an effort to start focusing on all types of diversity issues,’ she explains.

‘Most universities are now actively making an effort to, at the very minimum, monitor [the gender pay gap]. But many universities are also enforcing diversity on interview panels and mandatory training, for example, unconscious bias training, before being allowed to be on interview panels. All of these things are going in the right direction. It is a bit disappointing that the gap is still there but it’s not that surprising because it takes quite a long time for it to change.’

Brown added that it would be useful to have more granular data, for example, at lecturer or professor level. ‘Academia makes it quite difficult for people to have stability in the earlier parts of their career … it often is a problem for women wanting to get established and get their research going and their career on track before having a family …. that will inevitably contribute to the gender pay gap because people are dropping out before they have the chance to move up to the higher levels … being an academic part time is pretty tricky.’