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Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) - Show me the money: an exploration of the gender pay gap in higher education

The report, by HEPI's director of policy and advocacy Rose Stephenson, considers the persistent pay gap between genders within higher education and provides an institution-by-institution analysis. It uses figures for mean and median pay gaps reported by Universities UK members to the Government’s portal in 2017 and 2022.  From interviews with institutions and recruitment firms, the study offers insights into the barriers to pay equity, identifies good practice and highlights areas of concern.

The full report can be found here


  • The median gender pay gap across HE stands at 11.9 per cent, outperforming the broader UK average of 14.4 per cent. HE providers have seen a reduction of 4.4 percentage points in their gender pay gap since reporting began in 2017. Across the UK, the drop is 4 percentage points (p5)
  • Variations between institutions are wide-ranging, however, with median gender pay gaps in 2022 reported between 0 per cent and 41 per cent (p5)
  • Five institutions have eliminated their gender pay gap. At the current rate of progression, 26 institutions will close their median gender pay gap within five years (p19, p30)
  • Eight providers still have a pay gap of over 20 per cent, including one new university with a median gender pay gap of 41 per cent (p20)
  • According to the report, some 28 institutions will never reach pay parity at their current rate of progression as they have been moving in the wrong direction. Estimates of how long it will take some universities to close the gap range from 50 years to up to 680 years (p30)
  • Women are over-represented in the lowest pay quartile, and this overrepresentation is more prominent in institutions with a large pay gap (p6)
  • Institutions which have been successful at closing their gender pay gap have a deliberate focus on gender parity, backed by robust action plans (p6)
  • Good maternity leave provisions and flexible working for mothers should be standard, the report argues. Part-time and flexible working opportunities, particularly in senior roles, should be considered (p46)
  • Institutions should prepare for, communicate and implement the recent Employer Relations (Flexible Working) Act (p49)
  • A review and overhaul of recruitment metrics, particularly those that lead to further inequity, is recommended (p41)
  • Recruitment panels should be gender-diverse. Panels should avoid inquiring about salary history in recruitment processes, to mitigate historical pay biases (p45)
  • Paternity leave, shared parental leave and flexible work for fathers, should be encouraged and normalised. The government should consider more proactive forms of paternity leave, like those seen in Sweden (p57)
  • Russell Group and other research-intensive universities should pay particular attention to their pay outliers - those who get paid the very most, and those who are paid the very least (p57)
  • Institutions should monitor their gender pay gaps by a broader set of protected characteristics than gender. This should include ethnicity, disability, LGBTQ+ and religious-based pay gaps (p37)

Implications for governance:

As part of ensuring that their institutions are meeting equality, diversity and inclusion responsibilities, governing boards will be concerned with the size of the gender pay gap and the effectiveness of measures in place to try and tackle it.

The HEPI study shows some progress has been made across HE since the requirement to provide information on gender pay gaps was introduced in 2017 (as an amendment Equality Act 2010).

Perhaps most useful to governing boards considering their own institution’s progress compared to others, is the approach taken by universities with the most successful records. Institutions which have done well in this area have a “laser-like focus” on the issue, with a “culture of continuous challenge to the societal status quo”, according to the study.

Many have gender pay gap action plans that are closely monitored and reported on. Serious buy-in from leadership teams drives the approach, and they also tend to monitor not just gender pay gaps, but ethnicity pay gap, disability pay gap and, at some institutions, LGBTQ+ and religious-based pay gap. 

Institutions which have done less well in this work, and which agreed to be interviewed for the study, were upfront about the challenges they face. However, the study points to an “over-acceptance of the societal issues that build into the gender pay gap”. 

Some institutions face more structural barriers, such as a decentralised or collegiate structure which make it harder to drive change. Others with larger pay gaps point to inclusion in the in-house workforce of staff at the lower end of the pay scale, such as cleaners, accommodation and catering staff, rather than outsourcing these roles. Given that most lower paid workers are female, outsourcing could well reduce an institution’s pay gap without tackling the core issues, says the report.

The study makes a series of recommendations that universities can put in place to break down barriers. These include flexible working, which is now covered by legislation under the Employer Relations (Flexible Working) Act which comes into force this year. 

Strong maternity and paternity provisions, progressive family-friendly policies, gender-diverse recruitment panels and working with staff networks and trade unions are all highlighted. 

The fairness of common recruitment metrics is questioned in the report, such as the “H-index” which scores academic candidates on the number of published papers and citations, and the “M-index”, which divides the H index by the number of years since the academic’s first published paper. The report points out that women are classed as being research active while on maternity leave even though they are not working and the M-index does not take into account part-time working. There are also subject specific concerns in relation to promotion to senior positions. For instance, papers in STEM, a male-dominated area, are published and cited more often than those in other disciplines.

Institutions that have a smaller gender pay gap are more likely to use data dashboards for each department showing protected characteristics at each stage of the recruitment process - application, shortlisting, interview, offer and appointment - as well as having anonymous applications which remove names and identifying features from applications.

Mandatory gender pay gap reporting has successfully drawn attention to the importance of reducing pay gaps. The report gives governors the opportunity to consider whether their HR policies, recruitment strategies and more specific EDI action plans are making a difference. Governors should consider how and where they seek assurance on gender pay gaps within their committee structure.

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