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McMaster University is giving full-time faculty members a sizable raise this summer, with one qualification: they’re all women. The Canadian university is turning talk about its gender pay gap into action, tacking $3,515 (about $2,900 U.S.) onto the salaries of its female professors across ranks.

“Whenever you have a pay equity issue, you have to address it front and center,” said David Wilkinson, McMaster’s provost and academic vice president. “Then it just becomes a process of doing the work to actually develop a robust model for adjusting it.”

McMaster’s process began several years ago, following the publication of a lengthy report from the Council of Canadian Academies suggesting patchy progress for women within institutions and gender pay gaps that persist even at the highest professorial ranks, among other findings. The university began to study its own landscape by gender, and found a $3,515 pay gap -- about 2 percent -- between men and women that couldn’t be explained away by discipline or rank.

More Faculty Pay Data

Statistics on 2014-15 faculty compensation at 1,136 American colleges -- with breakdowns by gender -- is available from the American Association of University Professors here.

The McMaster gap parallels data from the American Association of University Professors. In its most recent annual faculty salary survey, AAUP reported that across ranks and disciplines, male professors made $95,886 and women made $77,417, on average. (Those figures aren’t controlled for rank and discipline, exaggerating the gap as compared to McMaster’s, however.)

Working with a subcommittee of the Faculty Association, the McMaster administration decided that rather than a 2 or 3 percent raise, it would adjust salaries through what Wilkinson called a “fixed dollar amount.” Faculty members and administrators generally determined that was the fairest method, he said, as it was unclear exactly what was causing the pay gap and because junior faculty members would enjoy a larger proportionate benefit from the bump.

With 340 women out of 1,000 faculty members total, the move will cost the university about $1 million in this and subsequent years.

Wilkinson said there’s been a lot of outside attention for the move, and that he's heard only positive reviews from faculty members. “This amounts to about 1 percent of our base budget, and certainly nobody, I think, questions that this is the right thing to do.”

McMaster isn’t the only institution to address pay gaps in recent years, but across-the-board pay increases -- as opposed to more targeted adjustments for specific women found to be paid less -- are relatively rare. The University of British Columbia granted a 2 percent pay increase to female faculty members in 2013, for example, and the University of California at Berkeley recently released a detailed study on pay equity by gender and ethnicity while committing to looking at closing those gaps going forward. According to the Berkeley study, women professors on that campus earn less than their comparable colleagues who are white men, universitywide: 1.8 percent less, controlling for rank, and 4.3 percent less, not controlling for rank.

John Curtis, director of research on the discipline and profession at the American Sociological Association, who for years studied faculty pay issues for the AAUP, said he thought flat-rate payments were a good way to address systemic pay gaps, since percentage increases can sometimes exacerbate the inequities in the long term. He attributed persistent pay gaps at McMaster and elsewhere to unconscious bias, as opposed to overt discrimination in most cases, along with the fact that women are more represented at the lower (and lower-paying) faculty ranks and in disciplines that pay less than more male-dominated ones, such as engineering and the natural sciences. Some data also suggest that men negotiate for bigger salaries when they accept positions.

So will the McMaster plan make a difference in the long run, or will gender pay gaps resurface in a few years? Curtis said that’s a “tough question, since we’ve been working on this issue for a long time and overall salary pay gaps for men and women faculty are roughly what they were 30 or 40 years ago.” Any lasting impact will be from McMaster keeping “working on the problem and asking these questions,” he said.

Charlotte Yates, a professor of labor studies and dean of social sciences who helped McMaster study gender-based faculty issues, said the university is committed to following up on the pay equity and other gender-based initiatives, such as revising a parental leave policy and creating training modules.

Faculty members also have a role to play, she said. “This requires not just leadership but women faculty to be engaging and pushing the administration to recognize continued inequities.”

Yates said she thought the McMaster initiative would help create real change for women outside academe, as well, based on the reaction she’s gotten so far from those in business and other fields. “I’ve been contacted by women across Canada, outside the university sector, who are really hopeful [about change]. For a number of years pay equity has been off the table, due to austerity measures and other factors.” 

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