Professor Gender Pay Gap: Colleges Haven’t Fixed It. Will Courts?

Vassar professors filed a lawsuit demanding equal pay for equal work. And that only scratches the surface of the gender pay gap problems in higher education.
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An award-winning historian and writer, Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D., has published multiple scholarly articles and a book with the University of Chicago Press. She currently works as a writer and consultant. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Northwestern...
Published on September 15, 2023
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  • Recent lawsuits have alleged wage discrimination against women professors.
  • Across academia, women professors make 82% of what their colleagues who are men earn.
  • The gender pay gap has been surprisingly stable over the past several decades.

Long before it became co-ed, Vassar College in Upstate New York was one of the country’s leading women’s colleges. In 2023, five women professors at Vassar sued the liberal arts college for wage discrimination.

The lawsuit, filed in August 2023, claims that Vassar pays women less than men. Salary data indicates a pay disparity. At Vassar, men with the highest academic rank of full professor earn an average of $154,200, while their female colleagues with the same rank make $139,300, per reporting by the Washington Post.

Vassar’s problem isn’t new. In fact, it’s getting worse. According to the Post, in 2003, Vassar’s women full professors earned 7.6% less than the men, but in 2022, the wage gap had grown to 10%.

Vassar is far from the only college dealing with pay equity issues. At the University of Michigan, studies from 2005 and 2011 found that women earned 4% less than men. More recently, Michigan stopped releasing salary data broken down by gender.

The gender pay gap has negatively affected women professors for decades. Rather than improving, the situation may be growing worse. But taking equal pay claims to court could pay off for women in academia.

The Gender Pay Gap in Academia

Women earn lower salaries than men across higher education. In 2023, full-time women professors make 82 cents for every dollar their counterparts who are men earn, according to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

That gender pay gap persists across academic ranks, growing wider at higher ranks. And while the AAUP notes that the gender gap has shrunk compared to 40 years ago, the gap still remains.

Men professors from 3,577 institutions earned an average salary of $97,000 per year in 2021, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Women professors earned an average of less than $81,000.

Rather than narrowing, the gender pay gap in higher education has been surprisingly consistent. The National Center for Education Statistics began tracking faculty salaries by gender in 2011. That year, men working at four-year public institutions earned an average salary of $85,600, while women made $69,650.

Researchers at the University of Missouri examined faculty salary data as far back as the 1980s, discovering a 20% wage gap that persisted into the 2000s. The gap shrunk when accounting for field of study, experience, and research productivity, but it did not vanish.

Pay equity is also a problem for faculty of color, particularly women of color. People of color hold less than one-quarter of faculty positions across the country, according to 2021 AAUP data. Black and Latino/a professors made up only 6% and 5.2% of full-time faculty, respectively, in 2020.

While data sources do not break down faculty salaries by race, the AAUP concluded that the underrepresentation of people of color implies the existence of a racial pay gap overall.

What Caused the Gender Pay Gap?

So why is there a persistent gender pay gap in academia? Several explanations rest on personal choice and scholarly achievements: Men negotiate higher salaries. They receive higher merit raises because of stronger academic records. And they earn salary-boosting promotions earlier in their careers.

But 35 Vassar professors who filed a statement in support of the lawsuit see the situation differently. Their college’s pay gap, they argue, results from substantial differences in the starting salaries of men and women, a subjective merit ratings system that is biased against women, and a discriminatory promotion system that systematically prevents or delays the advancement of women professors relative to their male counterparts.

In fact, the myth of male productivity falls apart under scrutiny. The American Association of University Women (AAUW) points out that multiple studies show bias against women in peer review. Women also receive less credit for their scholarship than men.

Academic discipline does account for part of the gender pay gap. Women are more likely to work in lower-paying departments, such as the arts and humanities. However, women STEM professors still earn less than their colleagues who are men, according to a 2022 Science article.

Women received lower pay bumps for strong publication records. Highly productive women professors earned roughly $6,000 less than men with similar scholarly publications.

As Ohio State University economics professor Bruce Weinberg told Science, One wants people to be compensated comparably for comparable work.

Will the Gap Decrease as Women in Academia Increase?

Women have been underrepresented at the faculty level throughout the history of higher education. As the number of women in academia increases, will that resolve the gender pay gap?

Colleges employ more women faculty members than ever before. In 2003, women made up 31% of full-time faculty members, according to the Brookings Institute. By 2019, that number had increased to 45%. But, critically, much of the growth came at untenured ranks.

In 2003, women made up 27% of tenured professors. That number slipped to 26% in 2016.

Untenured professors typically earn the lowest salaries and hold the least institutional power. And while women make up a larger fraction of the student body, their numbers persistently lag at the faculty level.

In the past 75 years, the number of women earning college degrees has tripled. However, according to the AAUW, the percentage of women faculty members has grown only 5%.

The Negotiation Myth

In 2003, the book “Women Don’t Ask” claimed that women fail to negotiate their salaries, creating a gender pay gap. Recently, research by Berkeley professor Laura Kray showed that the negotiation explanation is a myth.

Kray found that professional women negotiate salaries more than men. But, critically, women get turned down more often.

While men in the past may have been more likely than women to negotiate, the gender difference has since reversed, Kray explains. Continuing to put the blame on women for not negotiating away the gender pay gap does double damage, perpetuating gender stereotypes and weakening efforts to fight them.

In a survey of MBA graduates, Kray and her co-authors found that women earned 22% less than men even though 54% of women negotiate their salary offers compared to 44% of men. But employers were less likely to bump women’s salaries.

A 2023 Pew Research Center study uncovered similar results. In the Pew survey, slightly more men asked for higher pay — 32% of men compared to 28% of women. However, women were less successful in their negotiations, with 38% of women not receiving a higher salary compared to 31% of men.

Legal Action Could Achieve Pay Equity in Higher Education

Higher education has a pay equity problem. But academia is far from alone when it comes to pay issues. Across industries, the gender pay gap has remained stable for the past 20 years.

In 2002, women made 80 cents for every dollar men earned, according to the Pew Research Center. Twenty years later, the pay gap stands at 82 cents.

With barely any progress made over the past two decades, how can colleges close the gender pay gap? As the Vassar lawsuit demonstrates, if colleges fail to address the persistent problem, professors may seek legal remedies.

Equal pay laws have given faculty a new tool to negotiate with administration. In 2021, Syracuse University faculty won a $3.7 million settlement using the same New York law that requires equal pay for substantially similar work, per the Washington Post article. Princeton paid back wages to over 100 women professors in 2020 when a federal investigation identified pay disparities.

Women in academia will continue to advocate for equal pay. If colleges cannot solve the problem, the courts might.