equity · turgid institution

Gender Pay Gap Narrows! (er….)

If you subscribe to Ken Steele’s Academica list, you will have been heartened, Monday morning, to read the following:  

Gender pay gap for academic staff narrows, CAUT study finds: According to a new report from the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the gender pay gap for academic staff in the country narrowed significantly. According to the data, the overall gender pay difference was just less than 11% in 2006, down from nearly 19% in 1986.


But wait a second. If you trouble to click through to the report itself, you might want to hold that buoyancy in check. While the report does say, “The male-female salary differential amongst university teachers, when adjusted for academic rank and age, has narrowed slightly in the last twenty years,” it goes on to say, “However, a persistent gap remains, one that cannot be explained by rank or age.”

[Sidebar: Academica apologized “for suggesting anything different than what was outlined in CAUT’s study. We had based our summary on the Bulletin article, not the full report. We have edited the item on our website to include further information contained in the full report. We are considering issuing a postscript in the Top Ten on the report’s conclusion.”]

Connect this to the story in last week’s New York Times about the ambivalent consequences of MIT’s about-face, or to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s recent anemic coverage of women in academic leadership, and it feels like we may never win: as Erin said on Monday, it’s one step forward, two steps back.

The CAUT report, available here, is worth reading in its 8-page entirety. It is significant for adjusting StatsCan data to control differences in academic rank and age. The review finds that salary differentials between men and women are smallest at the lecturer levels, highest at the full professor level, and that salary inequity grows as a cohort moves through the rank. (The study compares women to men only; there is no analysis of race, national origin, sexual orientation, or disability. There is some disciplinary and regional breakdown.)

What is most interesting, if also unsettling, is the review’s (short) discussion of why salary inequity persists: 

Overt discrimination may play a role, but it is more likely that the remaining salary differential between men and women is a by-product of university salary structures and procedures which have the effect of disadvantaging women on average. Differences in negotiated starting salaries, though small at first, accumulate over time and generate greater gaps in later years. Most university salary structures also include market supplements and merit awards. It may be that women face discrimination in decisions taken with respect to supplements and merit pay.

Women may also be disadvantaged by the traditional academic salary grid system with the numerous progress through the ranks (PTE) steps. The steep lifetime compensation curve characteristic of such systems tends to reward those with significant occupational tenure. Since women are more likely to experience career interruptions related to childbearing, their progress through the salary grid may be slower and may result in lower earnings compared to their male colleagues.

What troubles me here is the rock and the hard place: on the one hand, the corporate-university model of free-market entrepreneurship (“market supplements and merit awards”) where women apparently don’t promote themselves sufficiently as individuals; on the other, the noble tradition of faculty associations and unions (“the traditional academic salary grid system”) that leaves women disadvantaged as a group. This double bind reminds me why I am always skeptical of critiques of the corporate university (Stanley Aronowitz, Cary Nelson, Randy Martin, e.g.): agreed, the free-enterprise model is dangerous for teaching and learning, but is it really worse, as a workplace, than the old boys’ network? Just think about the actually-existing organization, work style, recent decisions and executive membership of the union or faculty association at your university, and tell me it’s unequivocally good for women. (Really: if yours is good for women, let’s hear about it.)

The CAUT report is at its weakest in suggesting what is to be done:

First, universities should provide for greater gender equity in hiring… Secondly, universities and academic staff associations must … address the fact that … the gender salary gap rises with years of experience and progress through the ranks. Further, institutions and faculty associations will need to assess how current merit awards and salary grid systems may be contributing to the gender pay gap, particularly in later years.

It concludes, “Ultimately, the academic community may need to explore alternative salary systems that will ensure greater parity.”

What would those look like?

For me, answering that question should follow some imaginative feminist thinking about what our universities should be like as a whole. How do we imagine our citizenship in the academy? What should collegial governance look like? What kind of structures do we want to build? What is the right pace for academic life: fast feminism / slow academe, as this blog purports, or something different? What do we want to reward, and how?

And then, of course, the biggest question: how do we get there from here?