The University of Newcastle, Australia

All things being equal

Friday, 29 September 2017

Sometimes there are national conversations about equality where it is both surprising and disheartening that there is a need to have such conversations in 2017.

For the vast majority of people, the concept that women and men would not receive equal pay for work of equal or comparable value is untenable. Sadly, however, the need to have a conversation about gender pay equity is borne out by national data, which shows that the national gender pay gap has been stuck at between 15 and 18 per cent for the past 20 years. This is in the face of decades of research into gender pay equity. For example, one study highlighted by the Workplace Gender and Equality Agency (WGEA) found between 65% and 90% of the earnings gap between male and female  full-time managers could not be explained, even controlling for a large range of demographic and labour market variables. In effect, the study concluded, a primary contribution to the earnings gap was ‘simply due to women managers being female’.

Across industry sectors and organisations – and universities are no exception – the gender pay gap also exists because women are predominantly  in the lower paid roles, or they are employed at less senior levels in their fields. For example, a recent report “Women in Engineering: Realising Productivity and Innovation through diversity” published by national association Professionals Australia, confirms that women earned only 89 per cent of the average earnings of their male counterparts and that this was driven by a concentration of women in lower level roles. Fifty per cent of female respondents reported being employed at lower level roles, compared with only 27 per cent of male respondents. On top of this ‘occupational segregation’, there was also a significantly higher attrition rate of women in the 20 -29 and 30 -39 year age groups, compared to an attrition rate of only 1.4% of men in the same groups.

Gendered pay disparities in like-for-like roles can also arise, even for organisations such as UON where the majority of staff are employed under Enterprise Agreements. There can be a perception that universities are ‘immune’ from gender pay equity issues, but factors such as unconscious bias, institutional processes, and approaches to recruitment and promotion can all influence decisions on pay that have implications for fairness and equity.

Earlier this year, I – along with members of our UON Executive – undertook unconscious bias training. This training, which will be rolled out to our broader leadership in the coming months, was facilitated by an independent company that specialises in working with organisations to unpick the various assumptions, stereotypes and ways of thinking that contribute to decisions we make as leaders. This was both challenging and an illuminating session. Perceptions about a lack of gender bias were challenged through insightful evidence based on why sometimes assessment of ‘merit’ can be made unconsciously on the basis of ‘people like myself’ rather than ‘people who are different to me’. These are important messages, as it has been shown in studies across boardrooms, executives and organisations that it is diversity within teams that builds greater productivity and outcomes for organisations. As the 2014 Credit Suisse Report stated after analysing the data for over 26,000 company directors and board performance across the world  "….CEOs who are not promoting diversity are not acting in the interests of their companies or shareholders and should be held accountable…".

Some organisations across Australia have taken innovative approaches to tackling this issue. Last year, spurred by the recognition that only 21 per cent of its senior executive management was female, the Australian Bureau of Statistics took a ‘blind recruitment round’ for 19 senior roles. In this process, names, genders and other identifying details of applicants were concealed from recruiters, and family-friendly aspects of the roles were emphasised. As a result of this process, 15 out of the 19 roles were secured by women – effectively doubling the number of senior women in the agency.

Here at UON, our work under the SAGE Athena SWAN pilot is helping to identify where disadvantage exists for women in our workforce so we can take steps to mitigate issues to achieve equity and diversity at all levels. Gender analysis is undertaken on recommendations for senior staff and adjustments made to ensure “like for like” comparisons are equitable and women are not disadvantaged.  UON also uses Mercer Job Evaluation methodology to ensure roles are equitably assessed and remunerated, which mitigates opportunities for unconscious bias regarding gender equity in salaries.

One area for future work of is a ‘deeper dive’ into UON’s pay equity data to understand where hotspots may exist and where there is opportunity to drive real change, such as addressing the need for balancing work and family responsibilities.

Times have certainly changed in universities – when I look back to having three children under five, working as an academic and biomedical researcher, it was a surprise to many of my colleagues that I came back to work in the lab at all and it became clear over time that being a parent appeared to be more of a career challenge for women than men. It is great that we have moved on and I am proud to belong to an organisation that has been active in supporting flexible work arrangements. There is more to do, however, to ensure that our commitment to flexible work arrangements is ballasted by appropriate career planning to support staff  to succeed in highly competitive academic and professional careers.

We are currently working on our application for re-accreditation as an Employer of Choice for Gender Equality.  Leadership, policies and targeted initiatives are all important – and we will continue to develop these further at UON. However, creating an equitable workplace is not simply the remit of those in leadership roles across the organisation. While uncomfortable, it is great to become aware of those very unconscious responses to ‘difference’ that are part of our own behaviour - no matter our role in the university. Looking at current processes with ‘fresh eyes’, or opening up sometimes uncomfortable conversations about inequalities that may be embedded in our systems, processes or ways of working, is a great start.

Best wishes


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