Worlds of Education

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Gender equality

Credit: Sally Buck (Flickr)
Credit: Sally Buck (Flickr)

#8March: UK Union UCU addresses gender inequity head on

published 7 March 2018 updated 11 January 2023
written by:

Reducing gender disparity in pay and campaigning around issues of sexual harassment and violence against women in the workplace are two key areas focused on by the UK’s University and College Union (UCU).

With the gender pay gap running at around 12 per cent on average in universities and with ongoing sexual harassment and violence against women in workplaces, our union, UCU, has focused on these areas in the past year.

We represent over 100,000 members working in many kinds of post-school education and our work on these issues has also included looking at the situation of women in the UCU.


To that end, we have prioritised two issues in the colleges and universities where our members work:

Reducing the gap between women’s pay and that of their male counterparts, which is currently running at an average of around 12 per cent in universities. During 2017, we launched over 40 claims about gender pay inequity in higher education at institutional level, backed by our UK bargaining team, involved in industrial campaigns and bargaining and who work with elected committees and branch activists. And we have worked with other unions to revise and improve the guidance given to university employers about conducting effective gender pay audits. The main issues to be tackled are women’s unequal access to career development and promotion, as well as long-established patterns of prejudice and unconscious discrimination.

Sexual harassment and violence against women in our workplaces. In November, UCU issued a major new statement condemning all forms of harassment and violence, offering support to women who have experienced such abuses, and raising awareness in our branches about union campaigns and advice about combatting harassment in the workplace and the union. We have developed a range of model agreements for dealing with harassment and other bargaining tools to assist branches in that work. UCU branches are also engaged in challenging the “lads-based” culture in many workplaces, a culture that reinforces gender discrimination and inequity and adds to the stress and disadvantage faced by women members.

Cross-cutting inequity

UCU’s work in these two areas has shown that gender inequity cannot be fully understood or reversed without considering all its aspects. In the UK, gender inequity is reinforced and entwined with racial, age and disability factors, so that women staff from black and ethnic minority backgrounds face worse discrimination than others.

The huge extent of casual and precarious employment in colleges and universities is also another central factor in gender inequity; women form a disproportionately large part of this insecure workforce of hourly paid, short-term, and zero-hours employees. We have been proactive in tacking this gender disadvantage with our extensive work on casual employment. Examples of successful work for precariously employed staff are the agreements about hourly paid staff at Bournemouth and Southampton Solent Universities, and ongoing campaigns at Oxford, Cambridge, Nottingham and Sheffield, as well as at a number of FE colleges.

UCU is also active in relation to ageism, another contributor to gender inequality. Just as younger women are more likely to work in low-paid precarious jobs in UK universities and colleges, facing hard choices about if and when to start a family, so too are older women more likely to leave or be pushed out of their jobs with inadequate pensions at a time when there are huge adverse changes to pensions schemes. UCU is campaigning on those issues together with the Trade Union Congress (TUC). Like other unions in the UK, the UCU takes an intersectional approach to women’s unequal situation, emphasising the need to understand and challenge the multiple aspects of gender inequality which are shaped by ethnicity, age and disability.

Looking within

We are also conscious that our union must be a model of best practice across our structures, training, advice and support to union branches. Five of the 11 equality seats on the National Executive Committee (NEC) are reserved for women, and the union also has an elected women’s advisory committee and annual women’s conference, which advise and inform the main committees on gender issues. In fact, two out of the five elected national officers for 2017-18 and 32 of the other 55 members of the NEC are women. In addition, our code of practice for our own meetings is specifically designed to prevent discriminatory and sexist behaviour by members. Larger college and university branches tend to have their own women’s officers and/or equality officers to support equality work and women members in individual branches.

Beyond that, gender issues are a key part of the training offered to branch officers and activists which covers gender and equality aspects of bargaining, and case work and harassment issues, as well as the practice of equality in branch organisation and activities. The union’s new recruitment and training initiatives are also designed to support women in joining and becoming active in the union.

In UCU we believe that equality is a central value that we must make into reality in our own union and in the place where our members work. This doesn’t just make economic sense, it is vital for society, citizenship, and for all those we educate.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.