Gender Pay Parity in Academia Can Come with Pitfalls

Zach Schonfeld
October 31, 2013
Gender Pay Parity in Academia Can Come with Pitfalls

If you doubt that gender pay disparity is an issue in academia, you have probably not spent a lot of time on the Internet. If you doubt that fixing gender pay disparity and related issues in academia can be harder and more fraught than it looks, you have probably not spent a lot of time in academic administration. 

That, anyhow, is the gist of a Chronicle of Higher Education report regarding a minor brouhaha at Western Michigan University, where a provost has been censured for failing to follow through, at least in a timely manner, on a promise to increase more than 300 tenured female professors' salaries. The provost claims he was in the process of letting the faculty members know the money would be there shortly, but he was too slow to stem the outrage:

At Western Michigan, administrators had said the salary adjustments would be reflected in the first paycheck of the academic year, but the money didn't show up and faculty members weren't forewarned. The delay—coupled with what affected faculty members say has been a lack of communication about the issue—led the institution's faculty union to approve a measure censuring the provost, Timothy J. Greene, this month.

The slowness, it seems, is becoming as much a scandal as the disparity itself. "Coming up with a process to [fix the disparity] was more complicated than we once thought," Greene defended himself. Turns out the university has been meaning to address the issue since a 2011 contract with the faculty union mandated that it do so—but administrators reportedly left the union in the dark as to who would receive raises, how much, and why. The University of Maine and University of Texas at Austin have done better at approaching pay gaps, Chronicle adds; the University of Minnesota, meanwhile, has set about appointing salary-equity review committees for each college.

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What of the opposite—drawing scorn by addressing gender inequities in an academic setting swiftly and aggressively? Just last month The New York Times ran a longform look at Harvard Business School's grand "experiment" to "remake gender relations," among both students and professors, at the notoriously male-dominated program. Predictably, there was pushback, unanticipated issues, and chest-beating cries of "social engineering": 

And yet even the deans pointed out that the experiment had brought unintended consequences and brand new issues. The grade gap had vaporized so fast that no one could quite say how it had happened. The interventions had prompted some students to revolt, wearing “Unapologetic” T-shirts to lacerate [HBS administrator Frances] Frei for what they called intrusive social engineering. Twenty-seven-year-olds felt like they were “back in kindergarten or first grade,” said Sri Batchu, one of the graduating men.

To some critics, the experiment was a misguided one, because "the more exquisitely gender-sensitive the school environment became, the less resemblance it bore to the real business world"—a defeatist proclamation, because where else does the "real business world" change if not in its training programs?

The conclusion is unambiguously hopeful, zeroing in on a graduating woman's triumphant address at a luncheon for the top students in the class, which contains more women than ever before. Hitches and setbacks dotted the trail—but no one censured a Harvard administrator for tackling sexism too effectively. 

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Top photo of Western Michigan University by heKuLeR via Wikimedia Commons.

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