by

There Is a Gender Pay Gap in Academe, but It May Not Be the Gap That Matters

The gender-based wage gap has been in the spotlight lately, as the Obama administration used a pair of executive orders this week to remind the country that women make 77 cents for every dollar men make, according to oft-quoted (and sometimes criticized) data from the Census Bureau.

New data released this week by the American Association of University Professors show there is a gender wage gap in academe, too. However, the bigger problem in academe—as in society at large—may not be a wage gap, but a representation gap.

Fewer Women at Higher Ranks

At doctoral universities, where the difference between male and female pay is the largest, women across all faculty ranks make about 78 cents on the dollar, nearly the national average ratio for all women. But, as critiques of the 77-cents-on-the-dollar data point will tell you, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

If you compare men and women at the same faculty rank, female full professors make 90 percent of what their male colleagues make. For associate professors, assistant professors, lecturers, and instructors, the numbers are 93 percent, 91 percent, 88 percent, and 96 percent, respectively.

All of those figures are better than 78 cents, though still not equitable. But how, you might wonder, can 88, 90, 91, 93, and 96 average out to 78 over all? To explain, we need to look beyond the percentages to actual salary figures and—more important—to the numbers of men and women they represent.

As illustrated in the graph above (which draws on AAUP data), the average male full professor at a doctoral university makes $141,883 per year, while the average female full professor makes 90 percent of that, or $127,858. But across all doctoral universities, male full professors make up 26 percent of the total full-time faculty, while female full professors are only 8.4 percent. That means there are more than three times as many male full professors at doctoral universities as there are women in those ranks.

At the other end of the faculty-pay spectrum, male instructors make an average of $53,722, while female instructors make an average of $51,379, or about 96 cents on the dollar. But there are about three female instructors for every two male instructors at doctoral universities.

That means the average salaries of all male faculty members at doctoral universities are pulled upward by the disproportionate number of male full professors. Likewise, the average salaries of all female professors are dragged down by their overrepresentation in the lower-paid faculty ranks.

Women also tend to make up a higher proportion of the faculties at lower-paying institutions, such as two-year colleges, according to the AAUP. So not only do men make up a higher proportion of the highest-paid ranks, but they are also overrepresented at the higher-paying institutions, like research universities.

Women’s underrepresentation in the upper echelons of the academic workplace could partly be the result of hiring practices at universities 20 or 30 years ago, when some of today’s highest-paid professors may have been hired and outright sexism in hiring was, perhaps, more common. If that’s the case, then the more-even proportion of women and men in assistant-professor posts, at the start of their academic careers, could be promising.

However, Kelly Ward, who studies academic leadership as chair and professor in the College of Education at Washington State University, cautions that women tend to drop out of the academic pipeline more often than men do, choosing to stay at the associate-professor rank due to discriminatory workplace practices, parenting choices, or being overlooked for promotion to full professor because of a focus on teaching and service rather than research. She calls it the “leaky pipe” phenomenon.

“If we just sort of keep doing what we doing, I think we will see the number of women [at the top levels] creep up,” she says. ”But it’s going to require a little bit more attention to the pipe, so to speak, and not just the pipeline.”

Inequality Across Disciplines

Another factor in the faculty-pay gap is pay disparity across fields. We know, for example, that professors of engineering at doctoral universities make, on average, 20 percent more than do professors of psychology. Furthermore, engineering is a male-dominated field, while psychology is dominated by women.

Ms. Ward cites mentorship programs for women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—the STEM fields—as one solution for getting women not only to go into higher-paying disciplines but also to stay there.

But the discipline-based discrepancy also highlights an inherent weakness in the data: We can’t compare similar female and male faculty members—women and men who teach in the same field and have been teaching for the same amount of time. If we could, then we could more easily determine if the wage gap was the result of wage discrimination.

Nevertheless, to deal with pay inequity in academe, institutions need to act on a more systemic level, Ms. Ward says. She notes that workplace policies, tenure and promotion processes, and the work-life balance pose challenges for women who want to work their way up the academic ladder.

To close the gap, “it’s going to take intentionality,” she says. “It’s not going to get better on its own.”

So while women rising in academic rank should begin to narrow the gender pay gap, it may take policy adjustments to close the gap completely.

Return to Top