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Women still trailing 

click to enlarge AT U OF A: Faculty Senate found increasing disparity.
  • AT U OF A: Faculty Senate found increasing disparity.

One thing women want is equal pay for equal work, and there's considerable evidence they aren't getting it in an area where one might expect the most enlightenment on this issue — higher education.

“The salary advantage held by male faculty over female faculty persists across all ranks and all institutional types,” was the conclusion of an American Association of University Professors study.

But higher education is also where the harder questions are found, and the question of gender equity isn't fully answered by a simple comparison of men's and women's compensation. True, all the data show that women faculty, on average, don't make as much money as their male colleagues. But are there legitimate reasons for that difference, something other than simple bias against women? That's the tricky part.

(Older workers can remember when sexual discrimination was easy to see. Bosses in just about every line of work paid women less than men, openly and routinely. Some claimed that female employees weren't as valuable as males, in one way or another. Others justified the difference on the ground that men were more likely to be supporting a family. No college executive would make such an arguments nowadays — at least not since Jerry Falwell died — and he'd find himself on the losing end of a lawsuit if he did.)

Sarah Beth Estes is a sociology professor and co-ordinator of the gender studies program at UALR. “Women make about 78 percent of what men make in the professoriate she said in an interview. “Research has shown that when you take into account all the possible explanations — institutional affiliation, teaching load, academic field, rank, et cetera — you can reduce that gap to about 7 percent. But it's still a gap, and researchers are still trying to find out why it exists. People who believe there's gender bias say it's gender bias. People who don't believe in gender bias say there must be something else out there we haven't factored in.”

Gender bias is not necessarily either conscious or evil. Good people can have it. “Bias doesn't have to come from some pernicious place,” Estes said. “It comes from cultural pathways, from our experiences with the world, and it influences how we think about things. If a man is demanding in a meeting, that's taken as a sign of strength. If a woman is demanding in a meeting, she's shrill, she's a bitch, that kind of thing. When you show test subjects pictures of men and women of the same height, the subjects perceive that the men are taller. It happens over and over again, no matter what trait you choose. Men are perceived to have more and better.”

The cultural disadvantages of women lead to lower pay in almost every occupation, Estes said. In higher education, the problem is exacerbated by tenure.

Most Americans hold jobs from which they can be fired at will. Higher education is different. Tenure is the practice of granting protected status to certain valued members of the faculty. It's virtually a lifetime guarantee. A tenured professor can be fired, but only with difficulty and for a few, serious reasons — moral turpitude of an egregious sort, insubordination, budget cuts. And even if budget cuts require the dismissal of some faculty, the tenured professors will be the last to go. The rationale for tenure is that it promotes academic freedom. A professor with job security can express unpopular ideas, can challenge his students intellectually without fear of persecution. Young faculty try very hard to get tenure. Usually, they have to teach 5 to 7 years at an institution before they qualify, and during that time, they must meet certain goals, including the publication of scholarly writing.

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