Confronting Salary Inequity

C.K. Gunsalus offers advice to a senior faculty member who finds herself with excellent evaluations -- and a lower salary than her male colleagues.


June 5, 2009

Dear Survival Guide:

I am a senior faculty member at a large, well-known research university. I am on excellent terms with my colleagues and with the head of my unit. My productivity in teaching, research and scholarship has been consistently deemed to be high. Here is the problem: In my unit, I am the only woman at senior faculty rank and my salary has consistently been significantly lower than that of my peers. After consultation with various campus officials to understand the university’s policies on faculty salary equity, I now know that the discrepancy between my salary and that of my peers is greater, and has been for over five years, than the university threshold for filing a request for a formal salary equity review. I have remained on excellent terms with the head of my academic unit throughout his tenure here that includes all or most of that period. In the past, I have corresponded with him about this issue with what I thought were convincing letters documenting both salary inequities with my peers as well as my professional accomplishments and contributions to our unit, to the college, and to the university. Last year's response? "Money is tight right now and we just don't have enough to go around." I do not want to “play the game” of soliciting outside offers and I don’t really want to leave. Yet I cannot let this unfair situation -- a clear case of persistent gender salary discrimination -- persist any longer. What are my options?


Dear Underpaid:

You’ve done your homework and confirmed that a problem exists by the institution's metrics, not just your own sense of injustice. Now, you need to make some decisions about your priorities and devise a stronger negotiating strategy than you’ve used in the past.

You like where you are, both professionally and personally. You do not want to leave. You told me that you’ve often conveyed this to your unit head, as well as stated in writing each time you’ve written him about the salary problem that you do not intend to file a grievance. In essence, every time you’ve raised this topic, you’ve given him a pass to set aside your requests and go on to something else. In your commitment to being a strong and contributing colleague who plays nicely in the sandbox, you’ve labeled yourself as a “nice girl” who doesn’t require serious attention. It’s time to change that.

First, you need to decide what you most want. You have become serious about getting what you see as a serious injustice rectified. That means that you must stop saying that you’re neither going to file a grievance nor seek outside offers. Right now. Never say or write either of those statements again, because you don’t mean them and they’re not helpful. Don’t let your unit head off the hook before the process even starts.

Your goal is to bring your salary into parity with those of your senior male colleagues. You also want to get this resolved through informal methods, not a formal grievance, although you are sufficiently fed up that you are also ready to take that path if necessary. Your unit head is probably telling you the truth when he says that he doesn’t have money in his budget to make the adjustments that would achieve your goal. You respect and like your unit head and you have a good relationship with him. Working from that foundation, let’s reframe your requests for salary equity into a form in which he’s more motivated to do something to fix the problem and can see a way to do that. Help him see himself as the good guy in this situation who is righting a wrong for a valued faculty member and colleague. Sympathize with his difficulties while also pointing out the need to get it fixed now and while it is can still be handled internally. Keep in mind that even colleges adopting salary freezes and other budget-cutting measures are still likely to have both funds in reserve and a system for addressing potential salary inequities outside the regular budget process.

Start by acknowledging that he’s a good guy with the best interests of the unit in mind, and that he’s in a difficult situation. You and he are allies in this matter, not adversaries. Make an appointment to meet with him, and prepare documentation to take with you. Since you’re uncomfortable with talking, make yourself some talking points on a notecard or other small piece of paper so you can remember your main talking points and put them in order. It is essential that you do some of this in person and face to face. Do not rely only on paper; it takes both.

In your meeting, suggest to your unit head that you’d like to work with him to take this problem to the dean and, if necessary, to the provost, to seek funding from outside your unit’s standard budget to rectify it. After all, salary inequities present institutional liabilities and from a risk-management perspective, it’s in the interests of the college and campus to address them. Let him see himself as part of the solution, not part of the problem. At the same time, don’t pull your punches: gender-based salary discrimination is against the university’s policies and it is against the law. There is a documentary record going back some years that puts the institution on notice that a serious problem exists. The designated university offices have confirmed your calculations and agree that the numbers present a prima facie case of salary inequity. The time to act is now.

If you’ve done enough homework to know what number would satisfy you, be specific about it. Provide your documentation and calculations in a clear and concise format. Quote the threshold for the formal salary equity review from the policy at the top of a single piece of paper that has the comparison salaries over time, your salary, and the clearly calculated differentials. Put a big total in a box at the bottom of the page. Verify one last time that you’ve used appropriate comparisons that will stand up. Check and double-check that your numbers and calculations are accurate and use exactly the same methodology that the policy uses when triggered. Take a copy of the policy with you, with the relevant sections highlighted. Make sure you keep copies for yourself, and leave your letter and attachments with him when you go.

Start and end by stating what you seek, and ask for a response within a reasonable period of time, say two weeks. (If you were going to take your request at budget time or promotion time, the reasonable period of time would likely be longer; in the summer, two weeks should be sufficient.) If you do not hear within that time, check back about when he might be able to answer, and start preparing your formal grievance documents. If he’s had heavy travel or other commitments, give him an additional period of time to respond. Your problem is likely not the only one he is handling; at the same time, do not let this drag on indefinitely.

If you are not sure what number will satisfy you, don’t provide a specific number, as you may inadvertently anchor the negotiation too low. To provide some room for negotiation, do a calculation that shows what you’ve lost cumulatively. That is, use a number that would have put you at parity with your male colleagues going back to the first year the serious discrepancy emerges (or from which you’re making your claim), and total the difference over time. You’re not likely to recoup all of that, but it will help those who review this matter think in higher numbers than they might otherwise.

Practice what you’ll say in your meeting. Be sure that you can be calm and professional. This will be stressful for you, so practice exactly what you plan to say and also what you will say to predictable responses. If you need time to think, ask for it. If necessary, ask for another appointment in a few days after you have had a chance to think over anything your unit head proposes in the meeting. Do not feel obligated to respond immediately, especially if you are not quick on your feet in meetings. Do be prepared, if things do not seem to be going well, to ask whether it would help him in his endeavor to fix the problem, if you go ahead and file a formal grievance under the university policy. In some circumstances, it might be to his advantage if you do this. Be prepared to follow through if he says yes, or if he doesn’t respond at all within a reasonable period of time.

You are convinced of the justness of your cause. Don’t undercut yourself by being tentative or shutting down the second there’s any resistance. Make it clear that you have done your homework and your interest is in solving the problem. You prefer to solve it working through the system as allies, and at the same time, you are serious, resolute and you are not going to go away.

Good luck.

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