Pay Equity In Higher Education

Blatant forms of discrimination against women in academia have diminished since the Equal Pay Act and Title IX became law in 1964 and 1972, respectively. Yet gender differences in salary, tenure status, and leadership roles still persist among men and women in higher education. In particular, wage differences among male and female professors have not been fully explained, even when productivity, teaching experience, institutional size and prestige, disciplinary fields, type of appointment, and family-related responsibilities are controlled for statistically (see here).

Scholars have argued that the “unexplained” gender wage gap is a function of less easily quantifiable (supply-type) factors, such as preferences and career aspirations, professional networks, etc. In fact, there is extensive evidence that both supply-side (e.g., career choices) and demand-side factors (e.g., employer discrimination) are shaped by broadly shared (often implicit) schemas about what men and women can and should do (a.k.a. descriptive and prescriptive gender stereotypes – see here)

Regardless of the causes, which are clearly complex and multi-faceted, the fact remains that the salary advantage held by male faculty over female faculty exists across institutions and has changed very little over the past twenty-five years (see here). How big is this gap, exactly?

An Uncertain Time For One In Five Female Workers

It’s well-known that patterns of occupational sex segregation in the labor market – the degree to which men and women are concentrated in certain occupations – have changed quite a bit over the past few decades, along with the rise of female labor force participation.

Nevertheless, this phenomenon is still a persistent feature of the U.S. labor market (and those in other nations as well). There are many reasons for this, institutional, cultural and historical. But it’s interesting to take a quick look at a few specific groups, as there are implications in our current policy environment.

The simple graph below presents the proportion of all working men and women that fall into three different occupational groups. The data are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and they apply to 2011.

What Do We Do When Second Graders Think Math Is Not For Girls?

Although the past several generations have seen declining gender inequalities in educational attainment, gender-based differences in the fields of study we choose seem to persist (see here). For example, the percentage of women obtaining degrees in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields has remained exceedingly static in the last few decades (see here).

In trying to explain this persistent trend, some conclude that (1) women are not as interested in these fields, and/or that (2) women just aren’t as good as men in these domains. But how would one tell whether these explanations are right or wrong?

One problem is that people share specific, culturally based ideas about what men and women are and should be. Numerous studies demonstrate that the dearth of women in STEM fields can be directly linked to negative associations regarding girls and the sciences, and especially girls and math ability (see here and here).

The High Cost Of Caring

The field of early childhood education (ECE) is riddled with contradictions. Bluntly, when those we love the most—our children—are at the most consequential stage of their cognitive, social, and emotional development, we leave them in the hands of the people we pay the least. According to the latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, childcare workers earn about 4 percent less than animal caretakers—$20,940 and $21,830 per year, respectively.

I am far from the first to make this embarrassing comparison; more than a decade ago, Marci Whitebook provided an extensive overview. Unfortunately, the comparisons still hold.

Over the intervening years, there have been many determined efforts to regulate and improve the working conditions of early childhood educators, including raising the qualifications and wages for the profession. Indeed, the demand for worthy salaries is often discussed in combination with workforce development efforts. In other words, we want early childhood workers to be both better trained and better paid. While this may seem to be a perfectly reasonable approach, it suggests that the low wages are a result of inadequate qualifications. Perhaps. But I believe that this obscures another important explanation for these workers’ persistently meager pay.