Ivory towers and glass ceilings: The gender pay gap in NZ research – Expert Reaction

Over her lifetime, an average woman scientist at a New Zealand university earns about NZ$400,000 less than her male counterparts, reports a new study.

University of Canterbury researchers analysed a decade’s worth of data from research evaluations of every single university researcher in the country, finding less than half of the gender pay disparity can be explained by differences in research performance and age. The study, published in the journal PLOS ONE,  revealed that a male researcher at a New Zealand university has over double the odds of being ranked professor or associate professor than a woman with similar age and research score.

The authors conclude: “Although equity policies in hiring and promotions will narrow the gender gap over time, the ivory tower’s glass ceiling remains intact.”

The SMC asked experts to comment on the research. Feel free to use these comments in your reporting.

Dr Isabelle Sin, Senior Fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, comments:

“This is an important study that combines detailed data with careful analysis to show large gender pay and seniority gaps among New Zealand research academics. The study investigates whether these can be explained by age, field, and research performance and finds that they can’t.

“This is a disappointing finding, but not surprising. Large gender pay gaps and a dearth of women in senior positions are well-known issues in many occupations in New Zealand. The relatively structured nature of the promotion system in academia might be expected to disadvantage women less than more ad hoc systems, but is clearly insufficient to achieve gender equality.

“The authors adjust for research score from PBRF (Performance Based Research Fund) evaluations to account for researcher ‘quality’, but it should be noted that research score itself is a subjective measure created by evaluators who may themselves be subject to unconscious bias. The weight of international evidence suggests that women are likely to have lower scores than men with equal research quality and quantity, meaning the adjusted gender wage gap may be larger than the authors estimate.

“Part of the importance of this study comes from the far-reaching impact of gender inequality in academia. Academics are the ones teaching and inspiring the next generation of university-educated New Zealanders; they are the ones choosing what research questions to tackle to advance knowledge and benefit the country. If women and women’s views are discounted in academia, the whole country loses.”

No conflicts of interest.

Emma Timewell, National Convenor, Association for Women in the Sciences, comments:

“The research findings are very disappointing, as many New Zealand institutions have expressed a desire to decrease gender disparity for a number of years, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths). We hope that this research will encourage Government, universities and other organisations to re-evaluate their policies and support for women in STEM to reduce the time it will take for New Zealand to have true gender equality in the science system.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Troy Baisden, President of the New Zealand Association of Scientists and Professor of Lake and Freshwater Science, University of Waikato, comments:

“Anyone who counts the number of men and women along the hallways of New Zealand’s research institutions or speaking at conferences, and compares their job titles, will tend to suspect we have lingering problems with gender equity. Yet, many remain blind to the issue, and assume we have a meritocracy.

“Institutions, including the New Zealand Association of Scientists, have already observed enough evidence in the science workforce to raise concerns about our problems with gender and other diversity issues. The study by Brower and James massively sharpens our view of the problem, and shows its lifetime impact. An extension of their powerful analysis shows that, with current settings compared, there will be little improvement in most areas of academia by 2070.

“Simply put, New Zealand’s academic and research hierarchy does not appear to be the meritocracy it claims to be. Those who start out ahead appear to stay ahead.

“The evidence for inequity in salaries and promotion provided in this work may also extend to the resources required to be successful in research. Further, gender is only the most easily quantified diversity and equity challenge. These results suggest that underrepresentation of Māori and Pasifika in academia also need action to correct inequity.

“Ultimately, these diversity issues matter because audiences and the public may dismiss evidence from research when they can’t see their own faces or stories represented among the experts speaking on an issue.”

Declared conflict of interest: Also an investigator in Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence, but not involved in the research or directly in current projects with the authors.

Associate Professor Nicola Gaston, University of Auckland, and Co-Director of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, comments:

“This study adds to a growing literature about the gender gap in academia, which manifests in numerous ways, but in particular in the relative representation of men and women in different fields, in leadership positions, and as quantified in this study, in rates of promotion and pay. A particular advantage to looking at the data in the New Zealand context is the availability of PBRF data, which provides a standardised research score for each individual researcher in the New Zealand university system. Comparison of promotion data with the PBRF data leads to the unambiguous conclusion that women are underpromoted relative to men, on the basis of research performance. The question of why this is the case, on the other hand, does leave room for interpretation.

“The system of academic promotions in New Zealand differs slightly by university, but is consistently based on three components of the academic job contract: teaching, research and service (largely administrative) activities. It has been suggested that women may do relatively more teaching than men, and that this is rewarded less when it comes to promotion. This is consistent with the existing stereotype and certainly the perception in academia that research activity is valued more; however, I do not find it consistent with the findings here. That women with equivalent research quality scores are underpromoted 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.

“I suspect the origin of this effect is the multi-factor nature of the promotions process relative to the PBRF evaluation. Studies have shown that where a decision is made on the basis of multiple criteria (in the case of academic promotions, teaching, research, and service activity), the relative importance of the criteria will be adjusted in the mind of the person making the assessment, in order to justify the conclusion that they feel is correct – such as that a man is more suited to a senior role in a stereotypically male profession (here, Professorship) [1]. This appears to be a very straightforward example of this phenomenon, and suggests that serious revision of our promotions processes is required across our University system.

“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. The PBRF system, while able to be critiqued on other grounds (in particular the cost of the exercise and the effect of individualised research scores on academic well-being) operates across New Zealand universities in a more transparent manner than promotions processes. Occam’s razor applies.”

Declared conflict of interest: I am a woman working in a New Zealand university. 
Note: Dr Gaston authored the 2015 book Why Science is Sexist.

Professor Gail Pacheco, Director, NZ Work Research Institute, AUT, comments:

“Brower and James (2020) examine the gender pay gap in the academic sector of New Zealand. They find that research scores from the PBRF exercise spanning 2003 to 2012 (along with age) explain less than half the gap.

“While there are a number of potential omitted variables such as experience in field, it is interesting to see that these findings align with the results about the gender pay gap found more generally outside academia. Pacheco et al (2017) found less than half the gender pay gap was explained by observables when using 2015 Income Survey data for New Zealand.”