The UCU strikes: why Newcastle University has a problem

Ella McCaffrey on the gender pay gap, and why our lecturers refused to teach

Ella McCaffrey
17th March 2020
Image: Magnus Hagdorn on Flickr
To have not heard about the 14-day University and College Union (UCU) strikes that have just taken place at 74 UK universities would be quite a feat. Whether your lectures have been cancelled, you’ve stumbled across University picket lines, or you’ve overheard gossip in the Philip Robinson Library, the strikes have created quite a buzz. However, it is easy to forget the purpose of the strikes, which would undermine their purpose entirely.

Did you know that in 2018, only 37% of the Newcastle University staff paid above £46 924 were women? Equally, did you know that if a non-clinical female member of staff received an annual bonus, it was on average 31% lower than the male equivalent?

The Newcastle University gender pay gap is 4.4% higher than the average gender pay gap at other UK universities

Of course, these are not statistics that any institution would choose to promote, which makes a lack of knowledge across the student body completely understandable. However, the gender pay gap at Newcastle University is 4.4% higher than the average gender pay gap at other UK universities: this is something that can no longer be ignored.

Image: Nick Efford on Flickr

Why does the gender pay gap at Newcastle University exist? This is the key question, and a hard one to answer. The most obvious cause is that fewer women progress to senior, permanent roles within the University. Furthermore, when women do break through the glass ceiling - an invisible barrier that prevents women from progressing to the same occupational level as men - they are likely to earn less than them.

Of course, the glass ceiling can be observed across a range of labour markets. However, the UCU suggests that academic institutions place a particularly high value on uninterrupted career paths. This means that if women take a career break, typically to have children, they instantly fall behind their male-counterparts in terms of workplace progression, creating a gap that can be difficult to close. Nevertheless, discourses suggesting that this is an insurmountable problem must be challenged. For example, as of January 2020, Bristol University has actively promoted the career progression of its female staff; the introduction of flexible contracts, including flexible working hours, enable career progression based on merit, rather than sex. Perhaps it is time to ask why Newcastle University has not yet proposed similar contracts?

Why is a conversation about gender equality at Newcastle needed now? 

It is imperative gender equality is fought for

Actress and activist Emma Watson argues that "if we do nothing it will take 75 years, or for me to be nearly a hundred before women can expect to be paid the same as men for the same work". If universities continue to be male-dominated, then hiring discrimination will persist, promotional-boards will remain biased in favour of men and male academics will continue to shape the direction of academic research. Yes, strikes may entail cancelled lectures and problematic picket lines, but for Newcastle University to succeed, it is imperative that gender equality is fought for. After all, women represent half of our human potential.

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