Equal pay for equal work

Turner’s faculty equity study should address potential gender discrepancies in workplace compensation

Last week Education and Economics Prof. Sarah Turner gave a presentation to the Board of Visitors’ Special Committee on Diversity about the faculty salary study group, which was recently created to assess salary equity. According to Turner, the group is studying 910 professors and will try to compose an initial report by the end of the semester.

University President Teresa Sullivan said this study has two purposes: to balance a peer review system that will determine merit-based faculty compensation, and to make sure the University upholds its “legal duty to see that our faculty are equally compensated.”

The faculty salary equity study is bound up with the issue of the merit-based compensation system and also — it seems, given the committee the study was presented to — with the issue of diversity. Given what we know about the data on equal pay for equal work, or lack thereof, it may be time to ask the question which seems to be the elephant in the room: are female faculty paid just as much as their male colleagues for the same amount of work?

Sullivan has said that peer reviews better reflect the amount of work that faculty members put into their professions, making them a good method of determining how much they should be paid in a merit-based system. But she has also admitted that this equity study is a necessary comparison tool to have, because bias can taint the assessments written by peers.

“Bias” is a loaded term. It comes in many different forms. And we cannot discount the possibility that the University falls in line with larger trends of gender bias in workplace compensation. Hopefully this faculty equity study will address that issue, if it indeed it does exist.

Perhaps there is no need for alarm. Perhaps all demographics of faculty do earn what they deserve. But if this study finds that there are unwarranted disparities, particularly among certain groups, the University needs to own up to it.

Turner did admit that there are limitations to how equity can be quantified. The word “equity” means “the quality of being fair and impartial,” but impartiality can be difficult to define when simultaneously admitting that different faculty members deserve different compensation based on their various accomplishments. How do you put a monetary value on student instruction, research and academic publications?

Further, if the study does find inequity between male and female faculty, what is there to defend against the argument that male faculty accomplish more than their female colleagues and therefore warrant more compensation? This is a dangerous assumption that could be made in a world where women are given significantly less opportunities to succeed in certain professions, as evidenced by the investigation of the philosophy department at Colorado University.

Even if the methodologies of the research team are not perfect in making these assessments, this study still has crucial value, and we must be prepared to examine the findings both open-mindedly and critically. We hope that the findings will be equitable compensation across all demographics, but if they are not, the Board’s number one priority should be to remedy that. This study has consequences that could extend beyond just measuring whether or not a crony writes a conflated positive review of a colleague. It measures whether or not the University is just toward its employees, and that is a necessity if we are to remain a high-standing institution.

Published February 25, 2014 in Opinion

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