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Why does the Gender Pay Gap Persist in Schools?

October 21, 2019, 20:51 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Men and women aren’t being paid the same for doing identical jobs, says Gary Webb – and without meaningful cultural change, the problem’s likely to persist...
Why does the Gender Pay Gap Persist in Schools?

Reporting around the gender pay gap has highlighted a persistent bias against women in the upper echelons of numerous business sectors. Women don’t tend to dominate company boards, so it follows that women operating at the highest levels of the private sector often don’t get the pay they deserve.

But in primary school education, where more than 85% of staff are women, there can’t be a gender pay gap – right? Not necessarily…

Across the education sector as a whole, women are currently paid 18.4% less than men. What’s going on? How can 14% of primary school teachers earn more, on average, than all the rest? Well, the truth is that for the most part, they actually don’t.

Primary schools are somewhat unique in the education sector, in that female teachers are paid more than their male counterparts. Problems start to arise, however, when we look at leadership roles. There exists a pay gap between the average salaries of male and female primary school headteachers of around £2,800.

Leadership roles

In state-funded primary and nursery schools only 14% of teachers are men, but they make up 27% of all headteachers. Despite holding a 73% majority of headship posts, pay discrepancies for women in said posts are larger than in other sectors.

Age compounds the issue. According to analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research, the average age for a headteacher in England is 50. The average salary for female headteachers in their 50s at state-funded schools works out as £11,300 lower, compared to their male counterparts. It’s reflected in other age brackets, too – female headteachers under 40 earn £5,400 less than their male equivalents, while those in their 40s earn £7,700 less and those aged 60 and over earn £13,500 less.

Education sector leaders should therefore consider the risks, opportunities and barriers involved in promoting equal opportunities for women across primary education. Stakeholders need to be engaged and encouraged to promote unbiased gender views. Leadership teams should denounce the normalisation of gender inequality, and set about systematically tackling any related disparities.

This can be achieved by doing the following:

• Ensuring that decision-makers have equality training

• Being open to flexible working and de-stigmatising parental leave

• Ensuring that gender bias plays no part in hiring and promotion decisions

• Promoting a culture of meritocracy

• Monitoring and regulating pay decisions – particularly at academy CEO and headship levels

Gender-neutral culture

Diversifying your decision-making strata and providing equality training to all key stakeholders will have positive knock-on effects throughout the organisation. Encouraging and promoting a gender neutral working environment is just the first step towards changing a culture to one that isn’t biased in terms of gender.

Part-time working has long been commonplace throughout the profession, yet despite this, more modern approaches to flexible working have struggled to gain traction. Yes, controlling a classroom of children via a video call is neither safe nor practical – but teaching staff holding additional responsibilities in other areas don’t necessarily need to be present in the classroom, or sometimes even on school premises, to carry out certain parts of their job.

Embracing more flexible ways of working can be good for staff morale, while helping to overcome the stigma attached to other entitlements, such as paternity leave.

How vacancies are advertised has also played a role in the earning disparities between male and female headteachers, so give careful thought as to how your job adverts are worded. Research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology has previously shown that adjectives such ‘competitive’ and ‘determined’ can sometimes discourage women from applying for a role, while words like ‘collaborative’ and ‘cooperative’ tend to attract more female applicants than male.

Other helpful actions include reviewing your interview policies, anonymising CVs and making use of use blind evaluation processes. These will allow you to judge prospective teachers and heads on their experience and merit, without succumbing to any forms of bias.

However, it would be unreasonable to expect schools to put in place a freeze on new hires and promotions until the culture is changed. It should be possible to implement such policies in a structured but fairly rapid way, so that a new and consistent approach to the school’s hiring and pay decisions can be put in place as soon as possible. The process might still take time, but it’s important to ensure that oversight during the transition remains unbiased

Helpful for everyone

It’s the responsibility of all primary school employers, be they LAs or trusts, to reverse the gender pay gap. Access to fair pay progression and opportunities for promotion should be neither determined nor influenced by an individual’s gender.

Moreover, pursuing a gender-equal policy within a primary school environment can produce long-lasting benefits for staff and pupils alike. Fair and equal pay will go a long way towards improving headteacher retention rates.

Given the ever-greater prominence of media reporting and social media discourse surrounding gender equality and pay issues, it’s something that’s now a key consideration for job applicants. Being transparent and fair with your pay offer should therefore help you attract a talent pool of high calibre candidates. The end result will be a happier and more satisfied staff cohort and a more positive classroom environment for pupils – after all, happy teachers typically make for happy pupils. But positive cultural change of this type usually needs to come from the top.

An end to pay discrimination?

A 2017 survey on pay progression among NEU members found that a third of teachers eligible for pay progression had been denied it. Why? Because they had been absent for all, or part of the 2016-17 school year due to pregnancy or maternity leave. Among female teachers denied overall progression, more than half reported being specifically told that it was due to such absences. This isn’t just bad policy – it’s illegal discrimination. The picture of employment within the education sector currently resembles a pyramid, with low paid women at the bottom, supporting a small number of male CEOs and headteachers. This is the model that needs to be changed.

It’s now up to primary leaders and decision makers to review their structures, systems and cultures, tackle gender bias and work harder at retaining their talented teaching professionals. Most importantly of all, they must demonstrate to women across the sector that they are valued. There need to be changes in culture, policies and approaches to recruitment at both staff and board level.

The gender pay gap in education won’t disappear overnight, but hopefully our education institutions are prepared to address this disparity – for everyone’s benefit. All being well, by next year we should be seeing clear signs of the gender pay gap closing.

The benefits of closing the gap

1. Boosts to morale and productivity
2. Improved headteacher retention
3. Attract higher quality talent
4. Teaching environments that are more stable and consistent

Next steps

1. Increase transparency and fairness concerning pay at all levels
2. De-stigmatise parental leave
3. Make hiring practices gender neutral
4. Educate, encourage and promote a gender-fair culture
5. Review all hiring and promotion decisions

Gary Webb marketing and communications director at FMP Global – a leading global provider of payroll and HR services