Jeanette Findlay became a Professor of Economics this year. Credit: University of Glasgow

We don’t talk about sex discrimination anymore, says Professor Jeanette Findlay

By Kimberley Mannion

The Glasgow Guardian talks industrial action, sex discrimination and devolution with UCU Scotland presidential candidate Professor Jeanette Findlay.

In her own words a “serious and realistic trade unionist”, Jeanette Findlay, a Professor of Economics at the University of Glasgow is running for presidency of the Universities and College Union (UCU) Scotland branch. After recently losing an employment tribunal against the University, she is standing on a campaign of tackling sex discrimination in higher education, seeking greater devolution for the Scotland branch of the UCU, and focusing on negotiations at a local level.

For almost two years, Findlay has served as Vice President of UCU Scotland, and has also been chair of the Glasgow branch. UCU Twitter circles have given rise to suggestions of not voting for a certain candidate due to views on outside issues; namely the Gender Recognition Reform (GRR) bill recently passed by the Scottish Parliament, with which Findlay has expressed disagreement on social media. She admits that despite her experience, this view may stop members voting for her: “Oh, it does. It does and it will. But it’s a democracy. If somebody thinks that my position on that particular piece of legislation is sufficient not to want me to represent them, then they are absolutely entitled not to vote for me.” 

On this issue within the UCU, Findlay says: “The problem with this whole debate is that very few people actually want to debate it. They just want to shout slogans and accuse people of various things. We’re academics. We should be able to talk about very difficult issues in a rational and calm way.”

Since she began working at the University of Glasgow in 1987, Findlay has challenged her employer over what she calls sex discrimination three times; a fact she calls “disappointing and dispiriting”. In 2004, she won a tribunal which was settled within a week, and also settled an equal pay case internally a number of years later. In her most recent tribunal, however, her claim of being discriminated against in the promotion process to professorship was dismissed. 

Drawing on personal experience, which she insists is the reality for almost all women working in the sector, Findlay has placed tackling sex discrimination at the centre of her campaign for the presidency. The gender pay gap in higher education stood at 9.9% in 2022, and Findlay says it is “still the key inequality”. “There’s just no question about it. It’s still the thing that matters to most people. And, of course, that can become exacerbated when you are a disabled woman, a woman of colour, or of a different ethnicity. So I’m keen that we reset a little bit and prioritise. I don’t mean to the exclusion of anything else, but I don’t think people talk about women anymore, they don’t talk about sex discrimination inside universities and it is massive,” she adds.

At the tribunal, the University’s Vice-Chancellor Anton Muscatelli called it “shameful” that so few women are promoted to senior roles at the University – two thirds of senior leaders are male. Over 30 years earlier, Muscatelli and Findlay were starting out as young lecturers in the Economics department together. On hearing this from her early colleague, Findlay reflected: “He’s right it is shameful, and it’s right he should acknowledge that. He then tried to say it’s a problem with the sector; but he’s not responsible for the sector, he’s responsible for this institution. When you run an institution like this and are paid very handsomely to do so, you have to take responsibility. He knows rightly what the position is and he has done nothing to improve it within Economics.”

Sex discrimination does not happen so much at promotion procedures themselves, but in the day-to-day; in the types of jobs and opportunities women are given or not given, as Findlay sees it. Having herself spent 16 years in a grade nine role at the University, the step before a professorship, Professor Findlay suggests it should be policy to pull up staff who have been sitting there for a while, unable to get over the professorship line, for a conversation about their progression and work out what is going on. In her own case, she states she was “completely ignored” when she asked for advice on how to move forward during her annual performance and development review. At the tribunal, she claims the University’s witnesses appeared to have “forgotten” this was policy. “You can go and find people with names who are employed by this institution, who have been stuck on a grade for a while. Go and ask them, why are you still here?”

Despite the case ultimately losing, Findlay stresses it was not in vain, with the tribunal having issued 14 recommendations for the University of Glasgow to implement to improve equality. This is something she is “surprised” the UCU Glasgow branch has not made more of: “My reading of that is if the University doesn’t do something about that, then it will be vulnerable to another claim from somebody else. And I know there are people waiting in the wings to go.” 

These recommendations are something Professor Findlay sees as an opportunity for UCU Glasgow to take ground level, local action; something the campus branch should take to Senior Management and ask what is being done about them. If elected UCU Scotland President, empowering local branches to make sure they can bargain effectively would be a priority. The issue of the gender pay gap, for example, is one Findlay says will not be fixed on a national level, but through deals struck locally with employers.

Continuing on the theme of decentralising the UCU, Findlay would like to see more devolution handed to the Scottish branch. “Being part of a national union at UK level is important, obviously it makes us stronger – so I’m not suggesting that we completely secede the UCU. But I think UCU Scotland should actually have more control over some things. We really need more recognition inside the Union that we are a separate country,” Findlay argues. She points to the fact that Scotland has a different higher education system, with a different government making decisions on many devolved matters which affect the sector, and different sets of funding. It would also be helpful for Scotland to set its own strike dates, given term dates differ from the rest of the UK. 

On the subject of strikes, Findlay is clear they should be based on specific demands and with a clear understanding of what can realistically be achieved. Regarding the current wave of strikes, Findlay told The Glasgow Guardian: “Personally, I think 18 days was far too much.” She is also critical of branding together various issues into the one strike, with industrial action currently being justified by the UCU’s ‘Four Fights’ campaign (pay, workload, casualisation and equality). Not all of these issues will be resolved at a national level through strikes, but rather, she believes on a local level. 

“I’m not interested in standing on a platform in Buchanan Street and talking to a crowd,” Finlay says, although she has done this many times in the past. What she is interested in is what she calls  “low hanging fruit” – small deals achieved locally that make a difference to people in their working lives. 

Regardless, Findlay is abundantly clear that as a trade unionist, she respects the Union’s democracy and will go along with the action voted for: “I will never, ever, under any circumstances, cross a picket line. I just wasn’t brought up like that and it just won’t ever happen.”


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UCU is not strictly an academic trade union, as Professor Findlay should be well aware, and invisibilising MPA members discriminates against mostly…women. Addtionally, her personal views around trans rights go well beyond the GRR, including but not limited to explicit refusal to address members (and anyone) by their preferred pronouns if they do not align with her judgment of how a person presents.