Gender Pay Gaps: Is Comparable Worth the Solution?

Image: Lestatdelc, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons 3.0

by Linda Grant

A recent report by a steering committee at University of California-Berkeley, praised for its methodological rigor, provides gratifying news that gender gaps in faculty salaries appear to be diminishing on that campus. At the same time, the report underscores the complexity of the issue as one looks across disciplines and highlights the difficulties in devising effective strategies to eliminate lingering inequalities.  

An article about the report appearing in Inside Higher Education suggests strong administrative commitment to gender pay equity. Vice-Provost for Faculty, Janet Broughton, commented that UCB sought to create a “richly inclusive culture” and a “ salary program that can let us progress toward our equity ideals.” I find it heartening that her comments acknowledge that salary equity and supportive institutional climates are properly the responsibility of administrators and not, as too often has been the case, problems that must be addressed by the victims of inequities.

The report contains excellent suggestions for advancing equality, among them increasing hiring equity, expanding work-life balance policies, scrutinizing the increasing number of faculty who leave their positions, and paying attention to the widening pay gap between minority and nonminority faculty. These strategies should enhance gender pay equity but they stop short of a more radical program needed to eradicate gaps: comparable worth across as well as within disciplines. Broughton defined UCB’s commitment to pay equity as one of achieving “salaries as similar as possible for the faculty within each discipline who are of equal accomplishment” (emphasis mine). Since recent studies of gender pay equity consistently identify differences in women’s and men’s locations in disciplines with different pay scales, remedies that ignore this reality will not eliminate gender pay discrepancies.

Like all U.S. labor markets, college and university faculty are gender segregated, with women disproportionately located in fields such as humanities, foreign languages, and education where pay is lower than in men-dominated fields such as business, engineering, or physical science. Sociologist Robert Hironimus-Wendt, labels these advantaged disciplines “gated communities” (here). These communities successively reconstitute themselves as mostly- men enclaves, despite availability of women job candidates. They also receive more resources for faculty from external donors as sponsors—perks such as named professorships or opportunities for lucrative external consultancies. Women in less well-funded fields instead suffer what UCB’s Mary Ann Mason terms “progressive” economic losses that affect not only their working-life salaries but also their retirement benefits.

Higher salaries for faculty in advantaged disciplines typically are justified on the basis of market factors. Because engineers and business professors have more opportunities to work in high-paid jobs outside of academia, colleges must pay more to hire “the brightest and the best.” French professors have fewer lucrative options, so equally talented faculty in French can be hired for less. Most administrators regard these market factors as gender-neutral and/or beyond the scope of consideration when addressing gender equity in faculty salaries. Such a stance is faulty. First, the labor market outside academia is not gender neutral or gender equitable. When universities pay more to men faculty because of their disciplinary locale, they are perpetuating occupational segregation and the devaluation of work identified as feminine.

Second, academic administrators are ignoring that within the context of a college or university, there is considerably more similarity in faculty work across disciplines than among workers in most large organizations. Regardless of discipline, faculty jobs typically involve combinations of teaching, research, and service. Many institutions have specific rubrics for measuring these activities, although even within departments there can be squabbling about the value of particular contributions. Academic institutions give similar credit for courses with varying disciplinary prefixes and charge the same tuition for a full undergraduate load, whatever the specific course selections. Valuation of diverse perspectives is embodied in the frequent requirement that students complete a broad range of courses to qualify for a bachelor’s degree.

We already know a great deal about the origins of inequity in faculty pay. It is clear from many studies, including the recent UCB study, that occupational segregation in disciplines and a devaluation of women-dominated fields has the largest impact on remaining gender pay gaps. Comparable worth-type strategies offer the greatest promise for overcoming these barriers. What is lacking is not the knowledge of how gender inequality in faculty pay occurs, but rather the will on the part of universities to truly challenge discriminatory practices that perpetuate gender inequality in pay, within their walls and beyond. But comparable worth through comparable pay across, as well as within, disciplines has never been popular politically. Let’s hope that the apparent good will on the UCB campus can be translated into bold action.

Linda Grant is professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Georgia.

Cross-posted at the Gender & Society blog.

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