Women's Salaries: Why the Wage Gap Worsens

After more than 10 years as a microbiology professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Dolores Furtado learned that she was being underpaid. "It was a routine audit by the university in the early 80's," she says. It showed that her salary was several thousand dollars less than that of two male professors with comparable qualifications. While Furtado did get a minor salary increase, in the form of a $1500 teaching award added to her salary, she says that today she still makes far less than the average for her department. "I still remain at the bottom, and I've been here 29 years," she says.

Furtado's experience mirrors the history of women's salaries all over academia. They were discovered to be underpaid many years ago, but they're still no better off today. A 1975 survey of faculty salaries in higher education by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) showed that women made 10% less than men, which wasn't bad, considering that the wage gap for all professions then was 41%. However, as the gap for all women shrank to 26% in 1997, faculty women fell farther behind--as of last year they make 15% less than the average man.

The most obvious explanation for the gap is that women faculty are over-represented in the lower paying, nontenure track jobs such as lecturer or assistant professor, and that relatively few women are tenured professors. And it's true that although women hold roughly 34% of all faculty positions now (up from 23% in 1975), they have managed to capture only 19% of the full professorships (up from 10%). They actually hold a majority of the instructor and lecturer positions (between 55% and 60%), and nearly half of the assistant professor jobs.

But even after controlling for rank, the gap persists. For full professors the salary gap has widened from 9% in 1975 to 12.5% in 1998; associate and assistant professors also have fallen farther behind. Robert Toutkoushian, executive director of the University of New Hampshire Office of Policy Analysis, says that in his studies of national data, even when he controlled for what might be considered justifiable causes of the difference--such as years of experience, the highest degree earned, years of seniority, and departmental affiliation--an 8% gap still remained. "I couldn't see any change at all over the last 20 years," he says.

Why are women in academia losing ground? And more importantly, what can be done to reverse the trend?

Some of the differential can be explained by changes in university economics. 20 years ago, colleges and universities were hiring an unprecedented number of new faculty to accommodate the baby-boomer generation, so the better jobs were more plentiful. Today, the job market is tougher for all faculty. "Women will never have the conditions that men once had," says Ernst Benjamin, research director for AAUP. Exacerbating this bearish market is the elimination 21 years ago of the mandatory retirement at age 65. "You now have more people hanging around into their late 60's and 70's. That may have slowed [women's] progress overall," says Toutkoushian.

Hanging around with some of the older professors are some subtle prejudices against women, says Myra Marx-Feree, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut. For instance, she says, many people may still be uncomfortable with women being the superstars in their field. "So much of the debate is phrased as women being equal to men. How about the women who are more qualified?" she says. In order to have true salary equity, she notes, half of all women faculty must be getting paid more than half of the men. "Some women and many men are still uncomfortable with that idea," she says. The salary gap will never fully vanish until we deal with these cultural prejudices, she says.

Women overall might have a higher average salary if more of them worked in the higher paying fields, such as engineering or physics. And while it's true to some extent that women aren't getting into the more lucrative departments on campus, studies have shown that even when they do break in to these fields, they don't reap the full benefit.

"The more women [working in a department] the lower the salaries," says sociologist Marcia Bellas, describing the findings of her study. Even after controlling for nonacademic salary and unemployment levels, which tend to drive up academic salaries in male-dominated fields like engineering or physics, Bellas found that more women faculty in a department translated to lower salaries. Professors earned $32 less for each extra percentage point of women in their field (based on 1984 salaries). Sociologists and economists are familiar with this so-called "feminization" of a field, in which a field's earning power is dragged down by the entry of women. "From a pure economists point of view, it doesn't make sense," says AAUP's Ernst Benjamin. "You should have to pay the same money to hire someone for a job, whether it's a male or female, but it doesn't really work that way," he says. Because women generally have fewer high-paying options in the labor market overall, they have no choice but to accept lower paying positions, Benjamin says. And, marriage puts women at an added disadvantage--the husband often makes more, so the wife is less able or willing to relocate for a higher paying job. And if he gets offered a better job somewhere else, she's often forced to sacrifice her job.

Deference to the husband's job also makes it tougher for women to capitalize on one of the most effective ways for research professors to get raises--getting a job offer from another institution. When another school tries to lure a hot professor, the current employer will offer a raise to keep them. Because women often are seen as being tied down by their husbands' jobs, they're less likely to get outside offers, says Marx-Feree. "A system that says 'You have to get an outside offer to get recognition' is going to mean it's easier for men to get recognized," she says. Many universities have already acknowledged this problem and have started spending money on programs to recruit both halves of academic couples, a change that Marx-Feree says is one of the most promising shifts in university policy. As couples hiring becomes more of a standard practice, Marx-Feree says "it's going to have an impact on women's salaries."

Even when they do manage to get hired, women often get shortchanged in their starting salaries. The ratio of men to women among new hires is carefully tracked to satisfy affirmative action requirements. However, "there's less scrutiny given to the salaries at which people are hired," says Toutkoushian. Starting salary is crucial because of the way most universities give raises--an across the board percentage increase for all faculty. This means that if you start off at an unfair disadvantage, you'll fall further and further back with every increase.

Universities also are faced with the complication that it's in their best fiscal interest to hire professors the lowest possible salary, and unfortunately women often lose ground to men in the negotiating process. Studies have shown that, in their negotiations, women set lower aspirations, make less use of self-promotion, and often don't get as much in return, says Deborah Kolb, professor of management at the Simmons Graduate School of Management. Training women to expect more and to be more aggressive in negotiation can make a noticeable difference, Kolb says.

Moving away from straight percentage salary increases also could help out those women who don't get an appropriate starting salary, says Marx-Feree. She suggests switching over to merit-based pay increases, particularly one that measures several factors rather than only one, such as research output. That way, any gender bias that might exist in one criteria might be balanced out by others.

Interestingly, universities that place less importance on research output and more on teaching tend to have a much smaller gender salary gap. In a recent national salary survey, of the universities that had at least 100 women faculty, the five with the smallest gender gap were in the California State University (CSU) system. Teaching is heavily emphasized in CSU's mission statement. Peter Lau, who directs CSU Sacramento's affirmative action office says there's a big difference in hiring patterns between CSU Sacramento and the research-focused University of California campus where he worked 2 years ago. "In our new hires in the last 5 years, females outnumber males," he says.

This research disparity might also be traceable to negotiating differences, says Kolb. She says women at research universities aren't successfully negotiating for the things that would help them succeed in research, such as a lower teaching load, lab space, funding, and other resources.

When salary increases are handed out, women are undoubtedly hurt by the fact that it's men, predominantly, who make these decisions, says Nancy Hopkins of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At MIT, where salaries are kept secret, women have no way of learning what other professors make, because none have ever been in a position that helps decide salaries. "It's ridiculous. No woman in the history of MIT has ever seen the salaries in the School of Science," she says. She says women would have a different set of biases than men, and that might help to balance things out. And, because men tend to network more readily with other men, women often don't learn about critical issues, such as the importance of outside offers. "You have to be a part of the system to play the system," she says.

Despite the apparently gloomy picture, a few other universities across the country, like the CSU system, are starting to make a dent in the salary gap. The most common approach is to give salary increases to women who are found to be clearly underpaid.

Also helping to change the climate is the report released by MIT in March this year. The report, which was commended by MIT's president, concluded that women faculty in MIT's School of Science had been treated unfairly in the granting of research monies, salary, lab space, and other resources. "A lot of institutions are responding to that," says Marjorie Olmstead, chair of the American Institute of Physics Committee on the Status of Women. She says the report has helped a group of women at her campus, the University of Washington, Seattle. "We've been able to use that [report] as leverage in discussing salary issues with our president," she says.

Marx-Feree also sees the MIT report as a good omen, because a prestigious university is admitting that it has a problem instead of fighting every discrimination claim in court, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per case. Marx-Feree says that if universities worked to mend the gender salary gap instead of fighting expensive court battles, the salary gap would be smaller, and "they would've saved money in the long run."

The unwillingness to acknowledge the continuing problem, say many experts, has been the greatest setback to women in achieving salary equity. The gap will begin to narrow once universities can agree that gender salary discrimination, even if inadvertent, still holds women back several decades after it was first noticed.

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