Paying for Inequity

Princeton settles with federal government in pay gap case and will pay more than $1 million to female faculty.

October 8, 2020
 

Princeton University will pay nearly $1 million to 106 female full professors, past and present, following a federal investigation into pay equity there. At least $250,000 more will be reserved for efforts to close additional gender-based pay gaps.

Princeton admitted no wrongdoing as part of a conciliation agreement, announced this week, saying it sought to avoid “lengthy and costly litigation.” But it promised to work to end pay disparities between male and female professors going forward, reflecting both the government’s and Princeton’s “shared interest” in equity.

“Princeton’s commitment to equity and equal opportunity for all is ongoing,” Ben Chang, university spokesperson, said in a statement.

Princeton is reviewing faculty salaries at the time of hire and in the annual merit increase process, engaging in hiring initiatives in fields with relatively few women, and “encouraging women to serve in leadership positions,” such as chairs and deans, he said.

About a decade ago, the Department of Labor Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs initiated a compliance review of Princeton faculty salaries, seeking evidence of gender discrimination. Chang said that the office said it was closing the investigation in 2016 but reopened it shortly thereafter for “unexplained reasons.”

Eventually, the federal office alleged gender discrimination in pay among full professors between 2012 and 2014. The university said the finding was based on a “flawed statistic model” that didn’t take department into account.

This “bore no resemblance to how the university actually hires, evaluates and compensates its faculty,” Chang said, referring to the fact that women are underrepresented in higher-paying fields. “In other words,” he said, “a professor of English cannot perform the duties of a professor in the physics department, and vice versa.”

Yet last month Princeton agreed to end the review with an agreement.

“Pay equity -- and all aspects of equal opportunity -- are of the utmost importance to the university,” Chang said. Princeton’s own statistical analyses, controlling for department, found no “meaningful” disparities.

The agreement itself, however, says that the federal office used a model that did control for professors' departments, along with years in current job, total years at Princeton, full-time status, highest degree earned and prior experience.

At the same time, the document notes Princeton’s contention with its analysis not being department-based, and its not taking into account market forces or performance and other factors.

Under the agreement, Princeton will allocate $925,000 to make payments to all 106 women who were full professors from early 2012 to 2014.

The settlement commits Princeton to reviewing the salaries of all full professors in each of the next five years and correcting any inequities found, to the tune of an additional $50,000 minimum per year, or at least $250,000 total. It must train department chairs and other personnel decision makers in pay equity issues and equal employment opportunity guidelines by 2022. Princeton also must continue its efforts to “enhance the pipeline” of female faculty into the full professor rank.

Historically courts and government agencies have been reluctant to remedy academic gender bias complaints with respect to pay because many variables do go into how professors are compensated. There are some recent exceptions to this tradition, in which universities have been held financially accountable for bias, however.

Jessica Castner, a researcher and consultant on safe working environments who has studied pay equity and is editor in chief of the Journal of Emergency Nursing, said that universities often make a “market adjustment” to women’s salaries to improve gender differences. Yet pay inequity is “so rampant” across higher education that meeting the market or benchmarking against another peer institution often serves to preserve the status quo, she said.

Many pay equity initiatives also fail to address what Castner called “multilevel discrimination,” or the phenomenon that when the share of women working in a program increases, salaries go down. Princeton suggests that pay is what it is because women tend to work in lower-paying fields than do men. But Castner said that multilevel discrimination happens regardless of field. In her own experience, for example, Castner has been paid more working in organizations with relatively high shares of male nurses than in organizations with more women.

Plus, Castner said that men and women are doing the same work much of the time, across fields, “when you’re talking about teaching students.”

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