Equal pay? It’s not happening at elite universities

Study: Women continue to be underrepresented among the highest earners at institutions across the U.S.
By: | February 24, 2021
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A new study from the American Association of University Women and the Women’s Power Gap Initiative shows that tremendous disparities in compensation still exist between men and women – and most notably women of color – at top universities in the United States.

The report, The Power Gap among Top Earners at America’s Elite Universities, highlights that women comprise only one quarter of the 10 highest-paid positions at those institutions, despite the fact that they hold 60% of positions in higher education, earn 60% of master’s degrees and have 54% of Ph.D.s. There are almost no women of color near the tops of those lists.

“Money equates to power,” said lead author Andrea Silbert, President of Eos, which oversees the Women’s Power Gap Initiative. “This is not a pay gap study. This is about who is making the big money at the top, and ultimately, who has the power. It’s highly disturbing that so few women, and almost no women of color, are represented among the highest earners, which of course is where the power lies.”

In one of the first reports ever compiled on the demographics and pay differences among the highest earners in higher education, authors noted that true parity doesn’t exist at most universities. In fact, less than 10% of the 130 top reporting research institutions have achieved “equal pay for equal work”.  That is key because across society, where women are trying to close those gaps, where businesses are stepping up to address those inequities, they are facing barriers from an unexpected source – higher education.

Authors say the pay gap matters – women still only earn 80 cents for every dollar men make – but so does the power gap, and women increasingly are being left out.

Of the 11 institutions that have stood by those mission statements around gender equity, just one has more women in the top 10 of earners than men – the University of Nevada-Las Vegas – at 60%. Three Ivy League schools – Brown, Cornell and Princeton – have attained a 50-50 split, along with Duke, Syracuse, California-Santa Cruz, Louisville, Minnesota-Twin Cities, Virginia Commonwealth and the City University of New York Graduate School. New York University, Case-Western Reserve, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Miami were all above 40%.

There were eight institutions that had no women represented in their top 10s – Carnegie-Mellon, Penn State, North Carolina State, UMass-Amherst, the University of Florida, the University of Mississippi, the University of Oklahoma-Norman and the University of Texas-Dallas. Another 28 institutions had 10%.

“Academic leadership pays so much lip service to the importance of diversity and inclusion, so it’s especially disheartening to look at this data and realize how far we still have to go,” said Kimberly Churches, CEO of AAUW.  “This report is a sharp reminder that it will take proactive and intentional steps to improve this dismal representation of women and people of color in hiring, promotion and retention practices. We need action, we need accountability, and we need more than hashtags about equity, diversity and inclusion.”

The earnings gaps in detail

One number illustrates the struggle continuing to face women as they try to balance the pay gap – 82%. That is the percentage of men who hold the single highest-earning position at those research universities. So, less than a fifth of women at universities can say they are the No. 1 earners at their institutions.

Faculty and Dean positions also show great disparity and break down along both gender lines and related fields – “93% of the highest earners are in STEM, business and economics, all male-dominated fields,” the report says, while women who dominate in both education and social sciences pursuits are not in the top overall earners at most institutions.

But where the divide exists even more sharply is among women of color. The study notes that despite 16% attaining PhDs, less than 3% are among the highest-paid group at universities. Men of color don’t fare well either, with Blacks representing 3.5% of top earners and Hispanics at 3.1%, although they still outpaced women of color who traditionally have earned higher education credentials. Among 1,266 top earning positions across the reporting institution, only one high-earning position had been achieved by a American Indian or Native American man. And there were no Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders.

White men, meanwhile, hold 56% of top earning positions and Asian men 10.5%. Asian women were the least represented group at 0.6%.

There are colleges and universities, however, that are standing by their credos on inclusion regarding underrepresented minorities and have done a better job than most of recognizing them. Two of those institutions have 30% representation in their top 10s – Arizona State-Tempe and the University of New Mexico. At 20% are a host of others: MIT, George Washington, the University of Florida, the University of Illinois, the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Texas.

What can universities do to affect change?

The AAUW and the Women’s Power Gap Initiative offer a number of ideas within the study to university presidents, institutions donor and boards on leveling the field for women.

First and foremost, they say it is imperative that women of color are recognized by colleges and universities, both in terms of pay and in allowing them the freedom and responsibilities to lead.

There are several questions leaders can be asking to ensure that they are in fact honoring their missions of gender equity, diversity and inclusion:

  • Are our hiring and retention processes truly unbiased? Are we regularly considering, promoting and compensating women and women of color for top-paying positions?
  • Are the boards that represent us diverse enough?
  • Are we in position to eliminate the often biased “salary pay history” as part of the hiring and promotion process?
  • Are we doing audits to ensure equal pay for equal work … or addressing fields of study that should be compensated more fairly?
  • Are we being transparent with data around pay for top earning positions?
  • Have we done enough to publicly commit to say we are going to boost compensation for women and make women among the top earners at our institution?

“We think of education as a great equalizer, and we look to our elite universities to provide moral leadership and to model best practices,” Silbert continued. “Higher ed should and could be the first industry in the country to hit gender parity. What kind of example would that send to Corporate America if half of all university presidents were women? We could hit that goal within the next 5-10 years.”