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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.

“Publication is the stumbling block for most seeking tenure and promotion,” UCA President Lu Hardin said. “To get published in a scholarly journal is very competitive. … If you're turned down for tenure, you leave and go to another institution and try to do better.”

“You need a Ph.D. for a tenure-track job,” Estes said. ”It takes five to seven years to get a Ph.D. When you finish and take your first job, you'll be 28 to 31. If you're going to have a family, you need to do it by then. There are health and fertility risks in delaying children.” So a woman is under the greatest pressure to have children — if she wants them — at the same time she's under the greatest pressure at work, straining for tenure. “Those things don't go together,” Estes said. But the conflict is common now that more women are in the higher-ed labor pool. “The first women who came into the professoriate either didn't have children or had them before they entered the professoriate.”

And while there's been a revolution in the workplace in terms of the number of women working, there's been no accompanying revolution in the division of labor at home, Estes said. Men help more than they used to, but women still take on most of the domestic responsibilities.

For whatever reason, women academics are more numerous in certain fields. “I'm a sociologist,” Estes said. “The social sciences aren't very well remunerated compared to something like chemistry, which is very male-dominated.”

The Office of Institutional Research and Information Management at Oklahoma State University compared the salaries of full professors of English language and literature at a number of universities with the salaries of full professors in other disciplines at those same universities. It found that almost everybody makes more than the English professor. A business administration and management professor makes 46.5 percent more, a law and legal studies professor 54 percent more, economics 32.4 percent more, computer and information sciences 27.5 percent more, health professions and related sciences 18.1 percent more. One of the few people who makes less than the professor of English language and literature is the professor of foreign language and literature — 4.5 percent less. Others below English include education and “communications.” (Journalism — that figures.) In virtually all of the highest-paying fields, men greatly outnumber women.

A similar phenomenon can be found in public education, Estes said. The higher grades pay more, and that's where most of the male teachers are found. Teachers in the lower grades are almost all women.

Why aren't there more women professors in business, law, economics and the other higher-paying fields? One theory is that women are inherently unsuited for certain areas of study, like mathematics. That's widely believed, probably, but very controversial. Another possible explanation is that boys are encouraged, by family and society, to excel in certain areas and girls are encouraged in other areas, if encouraged at all. And both are discouraged when they cross the lines. Still another theory is that fields like engineering have been dominated by men for so long that a woman seeking to enter finds no on-the-job support.

Of Arkansas university presidents, Lu Hardin of the University of Central Arkansas at Conway is the most eager to talk about gender equity. When he was a professor himself (at Arkansas Tech), he wrote papers on Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination in athletics. The goal and the principles of Title IX carry over to the elimination of discrimination in the employment of faculty, he said.

In a 2003 speech to the UCA faculty, after being hired as president in 2002, Hardin listed certain of his goals. One was to improve the lot of female faculty. According to UCA data, he's delivered. In the fall of 2003, the average salary of a female professor was 93.3 percent of a male professor's. In the fall of 2005, it was 94.5 percent. A female associate professor's salary went from 93.4 percent to 94.6 percent of a male's. A female assistant professor went from 97 percent to 99.9. Still not good enough, Hardin said, but he added that in all three ranks, the difference between female and male at UCA was less than the national average difference.

More UCA women have gotten tenure under the Hardin administration. In 2002, 29.8 percent of the tenured faculty at UCA were women. In 2006, the percentage was 34. The national average was 35.

Hardin plays a direct, hands-on part in the granting of tenure. At UCA, a professor's application for tenure and/or promotion goes first to the dean of her college. The dean makes a recommendation to the provost, who is the chief academic officer. The provost makes a recommendation to the president. The president accepts or rejects the recommendation.

“The bottom line is, I did not discriminate in favor of women, but I examined the application very closely and made sure that if an applicant was qualified, she was not rejected,” Hardin said. Also, he said, he and Dr. Gabe Esteban, the provost at the time, encouraged more women to apply.

“I'm not suggesting that anyone was treated unfairly in the past,” Hardin said. Tenure, for men and women, was a controversial subject in the administration of Hardin's predecessor, Win Thompson. Thompson proposed changing the tenure system, as have many conservative educators around the country, offering higher pay to faculty who'd forgo tenure. The proposal eventually died out, but disagreement between Thompson and the faculty over tenure was a factor in UCA being censured by the American Association of University Professors. Under Hardin, UCA has been removed from the censure list. That was one of his early goals, too. The Thompson controversy also involved a female English professor that he'd denied tenure. Hardin has given it to her. But he's denied tenure to women too. “You'll get calls,” he said.

Sondra Gordy of the history department and Franci Bolter of the writing department agreed there's been progress in gender equity at UCA. They said that some faculty members had received not only the across-the-board pay increases that everyone gets, but also merit increases, based on the recommendations of the department chairman and the dean of the college, and equity pay. A standing university committee on gender equity has been established, too.

In April, the faculty senate at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville released a report on faculty salaries that found “an increasing trend of disparity” between men and women faculty at the university. On average, a female full professor makes $89,000, the report said, compared with $94,000 for her male counterpart. In the lower ranks, the gap was even wider. The average female associate professor makes $63,000 a year, $10,000 less than the average male associate professor, the report said. A female assistant professor makes $55,000, compared with $66,000 for men.

But those figures don't give a clear picture of how discipline and rank affect salaries, the senators said, and they called for the university to do an in-depth study of those factors.

UA Provost Bob Smith told the Times that the university appeared to have some equity problems, but “a much more thorough study” is needed. The university has obtained new software to study equity issues, and hopes to complete a study this fall, he said. Depending on what the study finds, UA might make “equity adjustments” in the 2008 calendar year, he said.

After the faculty senate report was released, Stephen Smith, president of Local 965 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, wrote a letter to UA Chancellor John White. (Smith is a UA communications professor, but only a half dozen faculty belong to the union. Most of its members are physical-plant employees.)

The AFSCME opposes sex discrimination and supports equal pay for equal work, Smith wrote, and “We were both surprised and shocked to see the documentation of salary discrepancy that exists between male and female faculty on our campus.” He posed a group of questions for White, including “Are the data presented in the report reasonably accurate, and, if not, can the administration provide more accurate data?” and “If the report presents reasonably accurate data, how can you explain the recent increases in the salary gap between male and female faculty?”

White responded obliquely, as he commonly does. “Be assured that the University of Arkansas is committed to equal pay for equal performance for women. … Aggregate differences in salaries among men and women faculty members are due, primarily, to differences in salaries among academic disciplines; it is a national, market-driven reality, not a result of improper decisions made by deans and department chairs at the University of Arkansas.”

Arkansas State University at Jonesboro does not weigh down a reporter with excessive data on male and female faculty salaries. Efforts to discuss the matter with Glen Jones, said to be the interim vice chancellor for academic affairs and research, proved fruitless. But a little information trickled out, and it shows that in 2006, the average salary for a male full professor was $70,064, for an associate professor $58,700, for an assistant professor $53,167, for an instructor $39,701. A female full professor made an average salary of $73,444, an associate professor $58,359, an assistant professor $49,443, an instructor $35,343. The data don't show how many female full professors were on the payroll. Very few, most likely.

Charles Dunn, president of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia, said that HSU had made an effort with senior faculty to narrow the gap between men's and women's salaries. “There's very little difference, if any, in terms of initial hires,” he said. Initial hires in the same field, that is. Dunn, too, has no answer for the problem of higher salaries that are set by the market. An accounting Ph.D. makes $90,000 to $100,000 a year, he said; a political science Ph.D. considerably less. That troubles Dunn, a political scientist himself. But it's a buyer's market for political scientists. If a university wants to hire an accountant, it has to match what the other university is offering.

In an effort to reduce the disparity between men's and women's earnings, some institutions have changed their tenure policies, Estes said. One might give credit for outstanding contributions in the applicant's field, rather than just counting publications. Another might extend the time allowed to gain tenure. Rather than imposing a six-year term on everyone, an applicant might get another year for having a child, and still another year for having a second child. Additional time could be granted because of illness too. Such changes, which apply to both men and women, are found mainly at larger, research-oriented universities, Estes said. They're not at UALR.

As for the greater financial rewards in certain disciplines, efforts are being made, through grants and the like, to attract more women to fields such as science and engineering, Estes said. One possibility is finding mentors, men or women, for young women who want to work in these areas.

Even as these efforts are underway, some researchers have developed a new theory, Estes said. They're saying that the real question is not whether there's bias against women, but whether there's bias against mothers. It sounds awfully un-American, but some research has found that men and women in the same field make approximately the same amount of money if the woman is childless, but if she has children, she'll fall behind the man. Men don't suffer an economic penalty for having children, researchers say. Women do. Possibly something about motherhood causes people to believe that a woman will be a less productive employee because of it. Maybe they expect that a mother will miss work more often if she's taking care of children. Research on the “motherhood gap” continues.

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