Institutional challenges hinder equal faculty pay

Rachel Alexander

Over the past decade, the number of female faculty at Whitman has increased substantially. Women make up 60 percent of the student body, and the importance of gender equality is a topic brought up in classes across departments. On paper, the college seems to be an ideal place to be female. Yet across all levels of professorships, according to data Whitman self-reports to the Chronicle of Higher Education, female professors at Whitman consistently earn less than their male colleagues. What accounts for this difference?

There’s a short, two-part answer to this question. Part one is that it’s complicated. And part two is that no one really knows.

The service gap

On the surface, there are a number of simple factors that would seem to explain the male-female faculty pay gap. Female professors have often been hired more recently, so they have generally had fewer years to get promoted and receive raises than their male colleagues. In addition, a majority of the faculty are male in all of the science departments, with the exception of biology. Science professors often start out with slightly higher salaries than professors in other divisions, so part of the gap in averages across genders could be explained by this discrepancy.

“The compensation disparity is clearly related to gender, but much of this can apparently be explained by the fact that our older faculty, who are at the most senior rank and are paid more than those at more junior ranks, are predominantly male,” said Provost and Dean of Faculty Timothy Kaufman-Osborn.

Still, many female professors feel gendered expectations affect the amount of time they are able to spend on research and teaching.

“Students tend to expect women faculty to be more nurturing, so they come to women faculty with needs,” said Associate Professor of Religion Melissa Wilcox.

This type of informal mentoring is considered to be “service” by the college, and the female faculty I spoke to all believed that the service burden falls more heavily on them, as well as on faculty of color and queer faculty.

“I think service tends to be undervalued, and service is done quite differently by men and by women, and by faculty of color or gay faculty, because students will come and talk to us about things that they won’t come and talk to male faculty about,” said Associate Professor of History Julie Charlip.

Several professors said that they have had female students come into their offices to talk about being sexually assaulted or dealing with other traumatic incidents. Charlip said that students often come to her with academic needs that they won’t speak to male professors about.

“I guarantee that many male faculty don’t have students sitting weeping in their offices telling them about the various problems going on in their lives and how that’s affecting their ability to get their work done,” she said. “I tried to have this discussion with a male colleague who said, ‘Just send them over to the counseling center,’ but it’s not necessarily that kind of issue; it’s that the student needs to explain a current situation and needs academic advice about how to juggle what’s going on.”

In addition to this informal mentoring, female faculty said that they are often expected to perform other kinds of service as well, including serving on committees and attending college events. No one I spoke to particularly minded doing this work, but all felt that it took time away from other pursuits.

“Every time a woman faculty member is asked to sit with a student who’s going through a crisis, to be present at a presidential dinner, to serve on a search committee as the diversity outside search committee member, that’s taking time away from her research and that’s taking time away from her teaching,” said Wilcox.

Whitman’s system for both merit raises and receiving tenure relies on a three-part evaluation. The most important factor for professors is teaching, followed by publication. Service work is considered, but only as the least important factor.

One female professor I spoke to, who didn’t want to use her name because she doesn’t have tenure yet, said that Whitman doesn’t actually value service in the way it claims to. This, in turn, affects the raises many female professors receive.

“The things that attract attention for merit-based raises tend to be high-profile,” she said. “[Service is] the kind of work that’s hard to make visible in the review process we have.”

This hierarchy puts female professors in an uncomfortable position. Few wanted to do less of the mentoring work that they do, and many enjoyed the fact that students looked at them as a resource. Several faculty believed that better institutional support for gender issues, as well as race and sexuality, would help lighten the burden on female faculty, faculty of color and queer faculty. For example, many other colleges have a designated women’s center or queer center to provide advice and resources for students dealing with these issues.

Kaufman-Osborn said that the issue of gendered service expectations has yet to be studied at Whitman, though he would not be surprised if a discrepancy exists.

“I don’t know for a fact that faculty of color and [women] do more service work than white men,” he said. “If the claim is true, it’s cause for concern.”

Wilcox felt that institutional changes were the only way to make a significant step towards solving this problem.

“One thing that it might look like is placing a higher value on these unrecognized forms of service, placing a higher value on service in general, but also, to the extent possible, protecting women faculty from constantly being asked to do this type of service, not constantly asking them to be on search committees,” she said.

Still, Charlip felt that mentoring students was a part of her job that was unlikely to go away any time soon.

“Women are seen as more willing to be an ear. I don’t see that changing and I don’t see how you institutionally change that,” she said.

Maternity and other challenges

Service is only one of several institutional factors that can prevent women from being promoted and receiving raises as quickly as their male counterparts. Maternity was also cited as a concern, though taking time off to raise a child has gotten better since Whitman introduced a new maternity policy at the beginning of this year.

Prior to the introduction of this policy, Whitman’s family leave policy mandated a 25 percent pay cut for taking a two-course load reduction––a situation that made raising a child as the primary wage-earner in the household difficult for many female faculty. Currently, maternity leave is granted under a short-term disability policy, which allows for up to six months of leave at full pay.

“By adding that policy, we have made it financially easier for women to take longer periods of leave from the institution with higher levels of compensation,” said Kaufman-Osborn.

Faculty also have the option of delaying tenure review for up to two years for a variety of reasons. Kaufman-Osborn said this option is most commonly taken by mothers in order to care for their children. This is helpful for women who choose to have children, but is also another factor contributing to the wage gap, since a delay in receiving tenure means a delay in wage increases.

Charlip pointed out that these challenges have much to do with the shifting role of women in academia and, to a broader extent, American society. Expectations about realistic work loads for professors have largely been built around the model of a heterosexual couple raising children, with the man acting as primary wage-earner while the woman stays home to cook, clean and raise the kids.

“That doesn’t exist anymore. It doesn’t exist for male faculty either,” said Charlip.

Now, male professors are more likely to participate actively in child-rearing, and female professors are more likely to be primary wage-earners while trying to raise children. These facts make the expectation to engage in good teaching, regular academic publication, service work and household duties problematic for many professors, particularly women. While equitable leave policies can help bridge this gap, challenges inevitably remain.

Kaufman-Osborn said that while the new policy has been beneficial, it’s not perfect.

“These are important steps,” he said, adding that the college will continue to work at addressing this issue.

Institutional problems

Many female faculty I spoke to felt that the wage gap numbers were symptomatic of larger institutional problems related to gender. The fact that Whitman’s higher-level administration positions, including President, Provost and Dean of Faculty, and Dean of Students are all filled by men was a source of concern.

Kaufman-Osborn agreed that this was a problem.

“As a matter of symbolism, I think it is a problem,” he said. “By symbolism, I don’t mean to dismiss the importance. I take symbolism very seriously.”

For example, he said many female students would be able to look to women in leadership positions as role models.

Three of the female professors I spoke to felt that having high-level female administrators has a more tangible value. Prior to Kaufman-Osborn becoming Provost, the college had a female Provost, Lori Bettison-Varga. One female professor said that Bettison-Varga was more active about combating institutional sexism.

“I don’t think that we’ve done very well under the current administration,” she said. “The previous provost actively mentored women. She understood gender problems and she was willing to take them seriously,” she said.

Another female professor agreed. She cited the fact that 11 of the college’s 15 trustees are male, as are 18 of 25 endowed professor chairs.

“The college is not doing very much to turn that around,” she said. “They could make a better effort.”

Nobody felt that the current Provost or any other members of the administration are actively or consciously sexist or discriminatory against women, and many pointed out that Whitman is better on gender issues than many other institutions. Still, they said that there’s value in having women in higher-level positions, because they are more likely to understand the issues female faculty face and work to address them.

One example of this is entrenched cultural norms that may prevent women from negotiating for higher salaries. Most pay increases for faculty, whether for merit or cost-of-living, are based on percentages of their base salary. This means that a woman coming in to Whitman who negotiates a lower salary than a male peer will see ramifications throughout her career.

Associate Professor of History Lynn Sharp said that when she came to Whitman, she was told explicitly by her department head to negotiate for a higher salary.

“Had he not told me that, I never would have had the guts to negotiate,” she said.

Additionally, Whitman’s merit pay increases are based largely off of a yearly self-evaluation in which faculty are asked to list all of the work they’ve done during the previous year. Wilcox believes that this model disadvantages women, who are often socialized to be more modest than their male peers.

“You really have to be able to say, ‘Look at how cool I am, you should keep me and you should pay me well.’ Women are not trained to do that,” she said.

Charlip agreed, and felt that mentoring of junior faculty would help improve this discrepancy.

“Despite any reluctance people might have to [advocate for themselves], you sort of have to get over that,” she said.

Whitman’s response

Kaufman-Osborn stressed that the college takes gender issues seriously and is working to investigate them and improve policies. He has been asked to look into the pay gap by the Compensation Committee, and says he should have results by the end of the summer.

“If one controls for age and/or academic rank, are there compensation disparities that appear to be correlated with gender? That is something I simply don’t know at this point,” he said.

Several professors said that a lack of discussion about this issue has been problematic in and of itself, and are hopeful that the investigation might create more dialogue. They also stressed that a gender pay gap is only a symptom of these larger problems female professors often face.

“Part of the problem is that the other problems are less concrete,” said one professor who asked to remain anonymous.

Kaufman-Osborn agreed, and said that it’s important to consider the more subtle ways in which gender might affect Whitman’s culture.

“National studies of university and college faculty tend to support the idea that women find the pressures of balancing home and work more significant than do their male colleagues. In some institutions, faculty have described a “chilly climate for women” and perceive that women are more likely than their male colleagues to feel a need to demonstrate their expertise and competence,” he said.

He added that Whitman needs to seriously address these issues in order to continue to attract and retain female faculty.

“This is a conversation that I have begun to have with several members of the faculty in addition to administrative staff, and we are now determining the best way to address these kinds of questions,” he said.

Sharp said that it’s important to keep the pay gap in perspective, recognizing that while it is a serious issue, Whitman’s female faculty enjoy more privileges than many other women in the world.

“This is a good job that we have here,” she said. “I don’t think you should ignore injustices, but we have an awful lot of privileges in our jobs here.”

Ultimately, Charlip looks at the issue through the lens of history.

“We live in a sexist society. It’s gotten better, but we’re constantly reminded of the ways it hasn’t gotten better. I’m a historian. I believe change comes, but frequently it comes more slowly than one would like.”

Infographic by Berfield