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OPINION | Ending side deals would help address gender pay gap at Canadian universities

These side deals lead to stipends, salary supplements or market supplements, which over time result in men earning more than women.

Deals lead to stipends, salary or supplements that all help lead to men earning more

'Many of us have gone through the stages of denial and disbelief, then anger and resentment, upon discovering that a male colleague is paid more.' (Ruben Sprich/Reuters)

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This week, CBC News reported that there remains a persistent pay gap between male and female professors at Canada's universities.

For women professors, this comes as no surprise.

Many of us have gone through the stages of denial and disbelief, then anger and resentment, upon discovering that a male colleague is paid more. Indeed, provincial compensation disclosure laws make this an annual event.

Going forward, there are steps that can be taken to address the pay gap.

One option is to stop the use of side deals that give some professors an increase in pay, often through processes that are neither open to all, nor transparent.

These side deals lead to stipends, salary supplements or market supplements, which over time result in men earning more than women.

Terminology is, however, part of the problem.

If salary supplements are to be retained, universities must undertake a gender-based plus analysis of their overall impact, writes University of Alberta law professor Joanna Harrington. (Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images)

At many universities, there are in effect two kinds of market supplements, one of which is more well-known than the other. To attract folks in certain fields, universities need to add a "market supplement" to starting salaries as part of the hiring process. Those make sense.

After hiring — and when times are good — professors may then receive an annual salary increase in accordance with whatever process and terms were negotiated by their union with the employer. The amounts available for an annual salary increase might be, say, $2,500 or $5,000 per year, with competition tight for larger sums given the limited pot of money available.

But behind-the-scenes, there is another more pernicious, and more lucrative, kind of market supplement — and it is only paid to a few.

'Individualized increase'

A professor who does not like what the faculty's bargaining agent has secured can go out on the "open" market and obtain an offer of employment from another university to pressure the current employer to match the offer. If successful, the professor receives an individualized increase in salary to match their market value.

Those from the private sector will recognize this process as a retention measure. But its use has public policy consequences when private universities, or universities in cities with expensive housing markets, are used to ratchet up the salaries at Canada's publicly funded universities.

And the amounts are not insignificant, with a $40,000 market supplement being eight times an annual raise of $5,000 for a job well done.

These salary supplement deals also create pay inequities.

Men are more likely than women to apply elsewhere, and the marketplace is hardly fair given the pervasive pay equity gap identified by the Statistics Canada data reported by CBC News. If we could trust the marketplace to set salaries, there would be no need for equal pay laws.

The inequities in the salary grid are then compounded over time, year after year, if the salary supplement never goes away.

So what can be done?

End post-hiring supplements

Universities could abolish the award of post-hiring salary supplements. For professors that get a better offer elsewhere, perhaps that is where their interests are best served.

But if salary supplements are to be retained, especially as permanent increases to pay, universities must undertake a gender-based plus analysis of their overall impact.

There must also be rigorous oversight to prevent abuses. (CBC reported here on the use of a market supplement to increase the pay for a professor's son-in-law.)

And there must be refusals of requests that will cause serious pay disparities between those performing the same job in the same academic unit.

And there is the option of awarding temporary rather than permanent market supplements. Or a university could require an evaluation after, say, five years to determine whether the extra monies being paid are still deserved.

Thankfully, a number of universities already do some of this. Others should follow suit. 

But what is also needed is data.

Universities need to disclose how many men and how many women receive these special pay deals, and the amounts paid. This data could then help determine just what are the structural aspects within Canadian universities that contribute to the pervasive pay inequity gap.

About the Author

Joanna Harrington is a law professor at the University of Alberta.

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