Queen's University's gender pay gap sadly exposes a culture that's dominated by male academics
As our leading seat of learning, Queen's should be setting an example of excellence in equality, says Fionola Meredith
Dismaying news from my beloved alma mater this week. A substantial gender pay gap has been exposed between male and female professors at Queen's University Belfast (QUB). Figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that QUB's female professors earn almost 15% less on average than their male counterparts. That amounts to a gap of nearly £12,000.
I don't call that a gap, I call that a yawning chasm. And it only gets worse. According to Times Higher Education figures, the disparity is the largest of any of the Russell Group of leading UK universities, of which Queen's is a proud member.
By contrast, the gender pay gap among professors at Oxford is about £3,000, and at Cambridge around £1,500. At Ulster University, it's just over £3,000.
It turns out that this is not a new phenomenon. As far back as 2014, the University and Colleges Union, which represents the majority of lecturers, was flagging up the very wide pay gap between men and women professors at Queen's, describing it as "both shocking and profoundly worrying".
At that point, the gap stood at just over £11,000. Now it has crept up still higher.
So what problem does Queen's have with top female academics?
It must have been really embarrassing for Professor Yvonne Galligan to stand up and defend the university in the face of these woeful figures.
Galligan is director of the Gender Initiative at Queen's, which advocates for a "gender equality culture in the university". She's also the long-time director of the Centre for Advancement of Women in Politics.
Speaking on Radio Ulster, and sounding more than a little uncomfortable, she acknowledged "there is definitely a big problem" which the university is "determined to address".
I was surprised to hear Galligan dismiss the idea that female academics who take career breaks for family reasons may find this impedes their progress up the salary scale.
"Our findings show that this is not the case," she said. "The period of time from getting one's PhD and becoming a professor is pretty much the same for women and men."
If that's true, then the predicament is even worse. At least a career break is a quantifiable - albeit questionable - reason for slower advancement. But if women taking time out to have children isn't an issue, then what exactly is holding them back?
Queen's has almost four times as many male professors as female, and Galligan said that the disproportionate number of men in this senior academic role, many of whom are in much higher pay ranges than female professors because of longevity, contributed to more than half of the pay gap.
No doubt there is a legacy issue involved here. But that's only part of the story. The senior management of Queen's University is also predominantly male.
This raises the question of both conscious and unconscious bias against the idea of women in the highest, most powerful roles. After all, authority tends to reproduce itself in its own likeness.
Proposals put forward by Queen's to address the gap include changes to pay scales and mentoring for female professors.
The university claims to be "one of the leading institutions in the UK for tackling the unequal representation of women in higher education" and says it recognises there is more work to be done to promote equality.
But the University and Colleges Union says the proposals won't be anywhere near enough to close the gender pay gap, which is why it's calling for a root-and-branch review of salaries at Queen's.
Some people might dismiss all this as the niche concern of a small group of highly paid academics. Why should we care whether well-remunerated female professors earn less than their male colleagues when they're still bringing in substantial salaries, far in excess of the average wage?
The point, however, is not the amount earned, but the extent of the disparity. Queen's is our leading university, and it should set the highest standards of excellence in every respect. An embarrassment for Queen's is an embarrassment for Northern Ireland as a whole.
I learned many valuable lessons during my years at Queen's, and one of them was that a woman can carry and embody authority every bit as much as a man. I learned to hear authority in my own voice.
But if these ideas are to mean anything, they must not just be taught, they must be reflected in the structure of the university too.