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NEA News

How Unions are Closing the Gender Pay Gap Among Faculty

At UMass Amherst, a study of faculty pay found something surprising: among full professors, women actually get paid more than men, on average. The reason? Their union.
women faculty pay gap
Published: January 22, 2021

Key Takeaways

  1. Across the board, women faculty still get paid less than men, especially in entry-level faculty positions.
  2. But things like equity pay raises, which the UMass Amherst union has fought for, can help close the gap.
  3. Other union-negotiated policies around parental leave and childcare also can help retain women in their jobs, where their decades of experience matter to students.

When University of Massachusetts Amherst professor Laurel Smith-Doerr and her team of researchers dove into the pay gap between men and women faculty on campus, they found something surprising.

Among the highest-ranking faculty at UMass Amherst, women actually get paid more than men, on average. And most likely, they have their union to thank for it.

For decades, the members of the Massachusetts Society of Professors (MSP), namely faculty and librarians at UMass Amherst, have raised their collective voice to demand equitable pay for women. They’ve also won on-campus policies that make it possible for faculty to balance the demands of their professional and personal lives. These things, such as paid parental leave and subsidized childcare, help all faculty—but especially women—to stay in academia and climb the career ladder to the best-paying positions.

“Gender equity is something I’ve spent a career looking at,” says Smith-Doerr, an organizational sociologist who has written extensively on “women’s work” in the sciences. “The focus on unions is new for me—but I’m a proud member of my union at UMass Amherst, so I was happy to work with them and administration on this gender-equity study.”

The study, which was published this fall in the “Journal of Collective Bargaining in the Academy,” found that many problems still persist: for example, women’s starting salaries at UMass Amherst are still lower than men’s, academic fields dominated by men are still better paid than “women’s fields,” and men are more likely to be full professors than women. But it also found, significantly, that early-career gender gaps are erased over time at UMass Amherst. 

The study looked at base pay, not grants, summer work, or other sources of income.

A World Ripe for Bias

Across the U.S., women earn about 82 cents to a dollar of men’s earnings. The same is true, overall, in higher education, where women faculty average about 84 percent of men’s earnings at public colleges and universities and 81 percent at private institutions.

But the picture gets more complicated when you zoom in. Women are more likely to work at two-year community colleges, which pay less, and less likely to work at research universities, which pay more. They’re also more likely to work as adjunct faculty, whose wages often are dismal. Even on the tenure track, women are more likely to be lower-paid assistant professors; less likely to be higher-paid full professors. Indeed, according to last year’s NEA study of faculty pay, women account for 31 percent of the best-paid faculty: full professors at research universities.

Pay also depends on the field that faculty work in. Men are more likely to teach in better-paying fields like business, engineering, and computer science, notes Smith-Doerr, while women are more likely to teach in fields that aren’t as well paid, like education. “We have these gendered notions about who fills these jobs,” says Smith-Doerr, “and then those notions get institutionalized in budgets and pay practices.”

Complicating matters, faculty merit raises also can depend on subjective factors, such as student evaluations, which have been shown to favor male faculty. “Gendered expectations of women faculty to be caring and friendly result in students focusing more on their personality than on their teaching ability and competence,” note the study’s authors.

This isn’t the way it works in K12 education. Math teachers don’t get paid more than English teachers. And educators don’t get paid more when students think they’re nice. Instead, in the highly unionized environment that is K12 education, school districts usually negotiate with union members for one salary scale for all teachers. The starting salary is the starting salary, and then educators move up with experience.

In higher education, new faculty negotiate their own starting salaries. “And we know from research that negotiation is a moment that is very gendered,” says Smith-Doerr. “Women aren’t expected to negotiate and when they do, they’re penalized for it.”

Once hired, the “tenure clock” starts ticking. Early-career, probationary faculty typically have seven years to conduct research, write and publish journal articles or books, mentor and supervise students, serve on campus committees, and otherwise impress the tenure committee that awaits. And often, if they’re women, they do this work while still shouldering primary responsibilities for childcare or eldercare at home.

With this in mind, it’s not surprising that men outnumber women among the ranks of full professors. The fact is that women faculty are more likely to quit first. 

Union Power

At UMass Amherst, union members and leaders are determined to help—and Smith-Doerr’s research points to a key factor that the union achieved to benefit women and also Black, Latino, and other faculty of color who are disproportionately underpaid. That factor is equity pay raises, which MSP first negotiated into practice about 25 years ago.

At that time, recalls MSP President Eve Weinbaum, also a professor of sociology, “we negotiated what we called an anomaly process.” The idea was to improve salaries for faculty who earned less than their peers in the same departments or colleges. Often, it was faculty who had been on campus for years, during times when state funding was poor and faculty raises nonexistent. When new faculty were hired, they were brought in at much higher salaries. “This was intended to counter that, but also to retain people who wanted to stay at UMass. Other than annual increases [which had been paltry], there was no way to increase their salaries,” says Weinbaum.

The process wasn’t perfect. In the beginning, faculty had to “raise their hand and say, ‘I’m an anomaly,’ or their department had to take up their case,” she says. But not everybody had the data that would have told them that their pay was poor and they should speak up. A department chair might have that information, but their advocacy might depend on a faculty member’s relationship to the chair or the chair’s perception of their work. Implicit biases around gender could play a part.

Even worse, “it was up to the university to put money into the process and when times were tough, they just didn’t,” says Weinbaum.

Recently, through contract negotiations, MSP has improved the process. “We switched to what we call a pay equity process, which flips the paradigm,” she says. Now, instead of an individual making their case for a raise, “the administration has to make the case for why a person isn’t on a standard pay trajectory.”

In other words, a line is drawn—this is how much money a typical person in this department makes after so many years. If a person is below the line, the university has to provide a reason to the union. If it can’t, then that person is a likely candidate for an equity raise, and the other thing MSP negotiated is a set-aside of $200,000 a year for those raises.

These are steps in the right direction. Equity pay raises can fix the salary gap between women and men, but pay alone isn’t going to keep women on the road to full professor, where students can benefit from their decades of experience.

At UMass Amherst, the union also has negotiated work-life policies that benefit all faculty, women and men. These include a semester of paid leave for new parents—through adoption or birth, subsidies for childcare, and an automatic year-long delay of the tenure clock for anybody who has a child. “When we first negotiated this, you had to ask for it in writing, and then it became clear that women were being stigmatized for asking. Now it’s automatic,” says Weinbaum.

The basics are in place, she says. But their work isn’t over yet. Women faculty, as well as faculty of color, carry a disproportionate burden to mentor students and serve on campus committees. “We’d like to get a system of points or credits that you would get for services essential to the university, and which you could trade for release or research leave,” she says. “We’re also talking about improving the criteria for promotion, especially to full professor. According to the formal policy, everything is supposed to be considered, but often is really just research—internationally recognized research—and other work, like improvements to curriculum, aren’t considered.”

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