In 1968 it took the defiant strike action of women factory workers in the machine shop at Ford Dagenham to force gender inequality onto the national political agenda. As we all know now, their successful strike was heralded as a landmark in the struggle of women and a critical contributing factor to the Labour government’s introduction of the Equal Pay Act (1970).
Progressive change for women, however, has still not reached as far as it should have, and it has been predominantly women who have borne the brunt of the continuing attacks on public services, all carried out in the name of austerity.
The education sector provides a unfortunate example of the existence of persistent inequality between men and women, with members of the University and College Union (UCU) at the University of Leicester drawing attention to the fact that their “University ranks as the 5th worst in the country for gender pay inequality”. They add:
“This gender pay gap means that female academics at Leicester earn on average £9,793 less than their male counterparts. This is all the more shocking given the university’s commitments to campaigns such as Athena SWAN and #HeForShe.”
For those who don’t know, the Athena SWAN Charter, which the University of Leicester apparently supports, is based on ten key principles, one of which is a pledge to “commit to tackling the gender pay gap.”
Leicester’s connection to the high-profile United Nations HeForShe campaign for gender equality makes it even more shocking that our University is failing to defend women’s rights in the workplace. Indeed, with much fanfare the University of Leicester “officially launched its HeForShe partnership with the United Nations” in September 2015 as one of just ten universities worldwide to be chosen as HeForShe Impact Champions.
But the systemic problem of gender inequality is being further compounded by pay cuts for staff (but not for bosses) – hence the recent national UCU strike action — and job insecurity. On the latter issue, casual contracts are an endemic problem at the University of Leicester, where 58.5% of academic staff are employed on insecure contracts.
What makes this abuse of casual contracts even worse is that the University has, as the UCU put it in a recent newsletter, failed to engage “with their unions to work towards eliminating both gender pay inequalities and use of casualised contracts.” This is why the UCU are currently demanding that the management at the University of Leicester “discuss these issues with us.”
On top of these growing communication problems between workers and their management, the University is presently putting forward something they call “institutional transformation”, which is an Orweillian way of describing 150 job losses and compulsory redundancies (“University of Leicester set to axe 150 jobs,” Leicester Mercury, June 15).
At the same time we now know that the University plans to close the Vaughan Centre for Lifelong Learning. A closure that the UCU oppose and have noted “will affect around 100 staff, and …have a serious impact on the university’s efforts to encourage local people to consider higher education.” Commenting on the 150 proposed jobs losses and the ongoing attempt to close the Vaughan Centre, UCU regional official, Sue Davis, made clear:
“The planned job losses are devastating for staff, and the union remains wholly opposed to any compulsory redundancies. Closing the Vaughan Centre will also be a massive blow to the local community, and will have a serious impact on the university’s efforts to widen participation and encourage local people into higher education.’
“The best way to attract more students to the university is not to cut staff numbers and close courses. The university management urgently needs to halt its plans and sit down with UCU to look at alternatives to these damaging job losses.”