Delivering fairness in promotion policy: the Leeds story

At a time when the whole of the post-16 education system is under threat there is a danger of equality falling off the agenda.

On the one hand we have the defence of our jobs and terms and condition of service and on the other we have our fears for the future of the education system that we all care for passionately. Amidst this we need to be careful to ensure that equality concerns do not fall through the middle. This is an account of how women organising at the University of Leeds – one of our largest local associations – have managed not only to put the under-promotion of women high on the agenda, but also to be instrumental in processes leading to procedures and interventions that are designed to address this deep-rooted problem.

In 2005, as women’s contact on the then AUT committee, I finally did what I had been planning to do for a couple of years and initiated the setting up of a women’s group. Two issues immediately established themselves as priorities: childcare and the question of why women were so thinly represented in promoted grades. On promotion we realised instantly that our ‘feeling’ that women were not getting the promotions they deserved had to be substantiated if we were to get the issue taken seriously. Through our normal negotiating procedures we asked for data and we were given it; all staff in all grades broken down by faculty/service and gender. However what we were given was HESA data in the form of barely useable pivot tables and it was the hard work and expertise of one of our members in the computing service which enabled us to translate this into the instantly obvious evidence that confirmed that our anecdotal assessments had been absolutely correct.

We presented this data in the form of a series of bar charts by faculty/service; staff each grade represented by a red bar for women and a blue bar for men. And this showed in every case, whatever the gender balance in the entry grade be it social science or engineering, a rising tide of blue as you looked from left to right across the page from the higher to the lower grades. These graphs went into a PowerPoint presentation which was taken first to a general meeting and then to the joint committee. This faced university management with an undeniable and graphic representation of the scale of the problem and the university was unable to resist the pressure to do something significant in response.

It turned out that our timing was good.

We had a newly appointed pro vice-chancellor in post and I was newly co-opted to an officer vacancy in the local AUT (having realised that you can’t really complain about management unless your local committee and officers is as representative as you can make it) and jointly the university and the trade union engaged in a listening exercise to establish what the reasons for this were. This exercise concentrated on the boundary that seemed to be most problematic between grade 8 and grade 9 (lecturer/senior lecturer) and proved very important. A meeting was organised for women in each faculty alongside meeting that was held for BME staff who faced the same issues.

We were able to present our data along with a presentation from management demonstrating joint commitment to resolving the problem and the meetings then heard woman after woman telling their own stories about the difficulties and obstacles they faced. These were stories of the insidious impact of the ‘boys clubs’, the activities organised at times when they needed to be at home, the poor advice and support, the loading with low status tasks and a culture of overwork and presenteeism that many women either could not play a part in or simply refused to play a part in. The meetings resulted in a joint report with recommendations and resulted in several initiatives.

The University management held high level meetings with women who had broken through into senior positions to see how they could help to establish better pathways to promotion for their female colleagues. There was work on women in science that led to the award of an Athena Swan Bronze medal. Staff review processes were refocused on the need for timely advice on promotions and on the need to ensure that all staff would get the development opportunities that would help justify promotion in a timely fashion. Promotions advisers (male and female) were appointed in each school and service.
However the largest piece of work which came out of our initiative was for the University to completely rewrite promotions procedures to make these fairer and to ensure that the criteria were clearer and more transparent. This was also undertaken as joint work with the campus trade unions and by now as UCU we were able to have significant input into the shape and ethos of the procedures and their supporting guidance and documentation. The importance of the follow up work and union involvement has been that the lessons learned from an initiative that concentrated on one grade boundary for a group of academic staff was translated into action that benefits all staff on all grades. The listening exercise was never designed as an exclusionary activity (though some people felt it so at the time) but as one that used an area of obvious concern to make the case for change more generally.

Is it working?

It seems that as far as the grade 9 promotions are concerned it is. More women have proportionately been coming forward and their applications have been succeeding. Disappointingly however, recent data on professorial grade 10 criteria which have only been in place for a year shows more men promoted to professor than women. The reasons for this will need close examination but locally women are getting together to support each other to push for a concerted effort to break through this barrier. There will need to be ongoing efforts to review progress and to ensure that the supporting development and advice is being given and acted on and women members of UCU can be instrumental in agitating for this to take place.
Is our relationship with management on this always an easy one and are there no battles left? – no. Constant vigilance is required and we suffered a major blow with the decision, despite our best efforts, to abolish the readership title at Leeds which was seen by women as a manageable and valuable step on the promotions ladder to grade 10; one that granted status and visibility in the academic community. However overall the Leeds experience does illustrate what can be done with a little organising, some bursts of intense activity and a strategy that uses good data to provoke an institution into turning its formal commitment to equality into action. The strategy has been successful in part because it has exploited alliances with those in management who do have a genuine commitment to equality (they do exist) and it should be acknowledged that it has also been successful in part as a result of a modicum of good luck with the timing of the initiative.

Times may not be as good at present as when we started on this road at Leeds, but nevertheless this represents an effective model for women’s organising and of the power of a process that ensures that management do hear many women’s voices on a subject that affects them deeply and personally because of the injustice they are suffering. It is a model that many other local associations and branches in FE and HE could try, and if your branch or association is struggling to make this a priority a women’s group can be initiated by ordinary members working together. UCU’s women members standing committee would be glad to hear from you and to offer support in getting this off the ground.

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