Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

What does Dagenham have to do with the Higher Education sector?

Posted by Athene Donald on October 4, 2010

This week sees the release of the film ‘Made in Dagenham’ , a film about a group of women sewing machinists at Ford in Dagenham who went on strike to get equal pay with men doing the same job. And it raises the question, is equal pay the right target? Anne Perkins in the Guardian has used the film as a basis for saying ‘it’s the wrong cause at the wrong time‘ to work to close the gender pay gap. Germaine Greer, also in the Guardian, seems to believe that focussing on the idea of equal pay for equal work has meant ‘a generation has been sent off at a tangent’. Are they right? And why should that matter for us in Higher Education?

My university is one of the few in the UK that publishes its Equal Pay Review (e.g.2009 report).  To my mind this is a crucial first step in establishing what is going on in any organisation, but it is only a first step for many different reasons.  Esther Haines has taken this debate about equal pay (though not in the context of the film) through a statistical analysis, and concludes an institutional gender pay gap is an incomplete and ambiguous measure of inequality.’

Absolutely true, the figures in themselves – like any statistics – cannot be used without thought and interpretation about what they mean. There will almost always be vertical segregation in a population such as a university – in other words women are over-represented in the bottom grades which include cleaners and clerical staff, but under-represented at the top where senior professors and administrators are overwhelmingly male. Different numbers and different proportions in the various grades can distort the value of the ‘gender pay gap’ in several misleading ways.  So, such an equal pay review must simply be used as a kicking off point. Nevertheless, it is predicated on the basis that people should receive ‘equal pay for equal work’, exactly what those women in Dagenham fought for and for which we in the 21st century should be grateful.

The reality is that they didn’t actually succeed, they had to settle for receiving 87% of the men’s rate, an increase equivalent to a mere 2p an hour, but they did make a real difference. In part this was because they provided ammunition for Barbara Castle to move towards the 1970 Equal Pay Act.  Just like Rosa Parks they awoke consciousness in places not awake before and started off the politicians – and society – on a long, tortuous path which appears still to have no ending. I find it rather patronizing to be told that this was the wrong cause, because to my mind that is looking at it from the (relatively) comfortable position of 2010 and shows little recognition of the 1960’s reality when there were, for instance, entirely different pay scales for men and women. Equality was so far away it must have seemed unimaginable in a way that is hard to envisage now.

So why do I believe Dagenham is relevant to the Higher Education sector? The mathematician in me tells me that equal pay for equal work is a necessary but not sufficient condition for equality, despite the limitations that are implicit, and the myths that Esther Haines identifies that have become associated with the phrase.  For academics it is actually quite easy to see that rather simple ideas and hypotheses can be examined in some cases. At lecturer grade for instance, the gender of the lecturer is irrelevant, the work is ‘equal’ for all and we are not trying to compare sewing machinists with spray painters as at Ford in the original case.  So, if there is a gendered distribution in pay, that must be telling us something about the organisation’s practices.  Perhaps men are systematically being appointed at a higher point on the pay scale; or women are progressing more slowly through the grade (you will note I am making the tacit assumption that women are being disadvantaged if there is a pay gap).  Identification of any pay differential should enable us to analyse why, and in principle do something about it. In practice, in Cambridge University if I am interpreting the tables correctly – and the payscale here is sufficiently complex  (even if formally transparent) that I should issue a health warning – there is less than 2% difference. This is sufficiently small there is no statutory duty to do anything about it. But we can still just pause and think if there is an underlying issue we need to consider.

However the problem for academic pay here – and I would hazard in most universities – lie at the upper reaches, where the number of women in the professoriat are small, the bands cover a wide range and we have market supplements on top of this which can be negotiated to aid recruitment and retention. All of this information is publicly available as statistical information, but of course not the details of any actual deal. When numbers are small it is extremely difficult to draw any meaningful conclusions, except that the numbers are small. But we cannot readily say there is anything systematic about the way women are or are not rewarded.  A lot more work needs to be undertaken (and will be) to explore that.

I also believe that there will be issues within my own university (and I doubt it is alone) about non-academic pay where it is not so easy to see if there are systemic problems because of our grading system. In particular, historically there were separate pay-scales within the University for clerical and technical staff.  In practice, of course, women populated the former pay-scale much more than the latter though this didn’t add up to actual different pay-scales for men and women. These pay-scales have now all been assimilated onto the single spine, but one can imagine that in some way this assimilation may have continued to favour the historic assumption that technical staff ere ‘more skilled’ than clerical staff. This situation is much more closely equivalent to the original Dagenham case; at that time the crude view was undoubtedly that anything a woman did was inherently less skilled than a man, and this was a view the Unions at the time fully supported (a  useful description of this position is presented by Beatrix Campbell in the second half of the article I mentioned above).  So here, even more than in the academic part of the university workforce, there will be a need to monitor, gather data and then analyse to see whether a substantive pay gap exists and if so why.

The University has set up a Gender Equality Group, as a direct response to last year’s Equal Pay Review, to look at the full spectrum of grades across the university in order to assess how well we are doing. This work will, one hopes, ultimately provide the ‘sufficient’ condition to go with the ‘necessary’ element of equal pay for equal work. Maybe then, to continue the mathematical metaphor, we will asymptotically approach equality. In the process we should not forget or demean the original women at Dagenham who made a stand and made a difference.  I don’t think I need to see the film to understand that much.

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One Response to “What does Dagenham have to do with the Higher Education sector?”

  1. Melinda J Duer said

    Wow, we’ve come a long way since the 1960s. I knew there hadn’t been pay equality; it never occurred to me that ANYTHING women did was considered less skilled than a man’s work

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