More than a decade of data from 6000 university staff shows a gender performance pay gap exists in New Zealand’s universities even when men and women have the same research performance scores

Over a lifetime, a female scientific researcher in a New Zealand university earns up to $400,000 less than a male.

New research out of the University of Canterbury shows less than half of the disparity can be explained by research performance and age.

The gender performance pay gap varies by field, but averages about $200,000 over a career– or about 40 percent of the average price of a Christchurch house.

For female academics in the medical field the lifetime pay gap adds up to an entire house. 

“We found a man’s odds of being ranked – and paid – as professor or associate professor are more than double a woman’s with similar recent research score, age, field, and university,” lead author associate professor Ann Brower said.  

She said previous studies had suggested women might publish less research, so not surprisingly their performance and pay might be less.

“What is surprising is even when women perform at the top level they don’t get paid the same.”

The research is the largest of its kind and looked at detailed individual performance data of 6000 researchers across New Zealand. 

Brower said if people realise the size of the study they’d be surprised at its findings.

“If they understand them as ‘Oh my goodness, this study was able to measure precisely the productivity of each and every one of nearly 6000 people across an entire population and entire workforce – that’s phenomenal’.”

Other studies which have linked pay and rank to performance and productivity have been far smaller, said Brower, and had looked at around 15 to 20 people. This study looks at an entire country.

The paper’s co-author, associate professor Alex James, said the research also dispelled the theory the gender pay gap between men and women in academia was down to male-dominated ‘superstars’ earning extreme high amounts.

“Indeed, women whose research records resemble men’s still get paid less than men.”

The usual suspects

Often the lack of women in the top roles of academia is explained away as likely to be due to men being older and having published more, a career break taken by women for family, women not applying for promotions  – or sexism.

Studies have shown women do ask for promotion as regularly as men but are less likely to get it. It also shows young women are as ambitious as men, but perceived inequities in their ability to advance in their career curb ambitions more than having children does.

This study shows perception is reality, with odds for promotion to top positions weighted in the favour of males even when women have the same research performance. 

How did they get detailed data on 6000 researchers?

New Zealand has a unique system called the Performance-Based Research Fund. This is used as a tool to work out how to distribute government funds across universities. 

Every six years, researchers put together a portfolio of their recent work and this gets ranked by assessors. Each researcher is then assigned a score and grade and the university gets money based on the grade each researcher receives.  

Globally, it’s the only system which measures an entire country by individuals, with the same metric.

Research scores explain away less than half of the gender pay gap.

An average female scientist at the University of Canterbury has a lower research score than an average man. She will earn $397,000 less than an average male scientist over her career. To match his lifetime earnings she would need to work another three years at peak earnings. 

However, even if her research score matched the average male’s she would still earn $194,000 less than him. 

The gap between what can be explained away by a lower research score differs by field. For science, there’s an unexplained 51 percent pay gap. For engineering, the gap is 58 percent. In medicine, it’s 32 percent but adds up to $470,000 over a lifetime. 

The ivory tower’s glass ceiling remains intact

The question then, is if it’s not research scores, what’s being considered when decisions are made about who to promote and give a pay rise? The paper concludes:

“Taken singly, the internal logic of each hiring or promotion decision might cohere. But taken together, they reveal a strong pattern in which a man’s odds of being ranked associate or full professor are more than double those of a woman with equivalent recent research score and age.”

A University of Auckland associate professor, Dr Nicola Gaston, said the comparison of the research scores from the PBRF with promotion data reveals unambiguously that women are under-promoted relative to men on the basis of research performance.

“That women with equivalent research quality scores are under-promoted by a factor of two compared to men means that something other than research score is holding women back from being promoted, and this suggests that a more systemic underlying bias is responsible.”

She said the findings suggest it could be time for universities to look at the current process around promotions. 

“The counterargument from our universities will be that the promotions evaluations are somehow of better quality than our PBRF assessment data. However, the weight of the scientific literature demonstrating gender bias in CV evaluations and publication acceptance rates now makes that defence very hard to swallow.”

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