Durham’s gender pay gap: Symptomatic of a wider problem

By Saoirse Walsh

Last week, Durham disclosed its 29.3% pay gap – the worst of all the Russell Group universities. Vice-Chancellor Corbridge was quick to respond that men and women in equivalent roles do in fact have equal pay, and that the statistic actually highlights that the University’s “higher paid roles” are commonly assumed by men.

These findings come amid a plethora of similar reports. Following the April 4th deadline that required all institutions to declare their gender pay difference, it came to light that women at Google are paid on average 16% less than their male colleagues. The company’s response to the published figure echoes that of Corbridge’s: “The under-representation of women in senior leadership and engineering roles is a challenge for us and for the entire technology industry – and it’s one we are working hard to address.”

Apparently, the statistic can be explained by men occupying “higher paid roles”

Similarly, in the media sector, the Telegraph reported a median hourly gap of 23%, with the top quartile at the publication made up of only 27%. They too clarified that the gap was driven by a the now seemingly familiar “lack of female representation at the most senior levels”.

Clearly, inequality exists; clearly, it is structural. However, the underlying questions of why and how are diverse and contentious. The root causes and specific manifestations of workplace gender discrimination are highly complex and, correspondingly, the best way to address inequality is frustratingly hard to pin down.

These pay gap revelations arise amid an implicit general feeling that the fight for women’s rights is, at least in Western democracies, a thing of the past. It has therefore become incredibly hard to find the terms to adequately and productively discuss issues relating to gender inequality.

Clearly, inequality exists; clearly, it is structural

Statements about gender equality — in this case, speculations about the reasons that women are not reaching these “higher paid roles” — also tend to provoke anger and defensiveness. “But what can you really not do because you’re a woman?”, is the prevalent tenor of responses to claims of discrimination. Speculations that women do not reach higher positions and leadership roles because they are subliminally conditioned not to speak up immediately triggers an anecdote about a female CEO. If she can do it, women are technically, legally capable and there is, therefore, no problem.

The problems and gender stereotypes that create the structural inequality in the workplace are increasingly indiscernible because they are so often overtly denied. But the discrepancies revealed by the pay gap report incontrovertibly show that a problem exists.

It is difficult to discern the causes of inequality because its existence is so overtly denied

Addressing the issue is problematic — it would be a misleading and severe oversimplification to posit any single ‘cause’ or ‘reason’. But I would tentatively claim certain tendencies do still emerge as ‘gendered’. Walk into any English lecture theatre and you’ll find a room of women; any engineering one and it will be overwhelmingly male. There is too a tendency, often awkwardly emerging in ordinary conversation, to suppose that a surgeon or astronaut is a man; that a secretary or a nurse is a woman.

No matter how inscrutable the reasons why, the pay gap report confirms that society does still subliminally perpetuate distinctive images and expectations of men and women. And, as shown in one instance by the recent spike in young male suicide, such gendered expectations can be as damaging for men as they are for women.

There is a tendency to suppose a surgeon is male, a secretary female

For many women, particularly those in competitive academic settings, this implicit conditioning happens alongside explicit encouragement that you can and should “do anything you want”. Society sends complex and contradictory messages. Schools encourage young girls to speak up and be more self-confident in their own abilities, yet a Lean In/McKinsey & Company study in 2016, surveying 132 companies, found that women who negotiated for promotions were 30% more likely than men to be labeled intimidating or aggressive. The word ‘bossy’ applied to a female is an insult and one that you would infrequently, if at all, hear being levelled against a man. It’s not difficult to see, on this level, why it’s men who become the ‘bosses’.

Similarly, companies consistently highlight discrimination policies that publicly stress the importance of equality. Corbridge’s report stresses that Durham is “committed to embedding equality, diversity and inclusion in everything we do”. This strikes a familiar tone with other institutions, but also seems to ring somewhat hollow.

Because the forces at play in gender discrimination are highly complex and often subtle it takes very particular moments to expose the unequal framework and gender bias of our society. The pay gap report constitutes one such moment, revealing how habitually gender conditioning continues to operate and dominate. The subordination of women in the work place is not sporadic or sector-specific, but a universal problem that we must keep calling attention to.

Photograph: Zoë Boothby

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