Boy, is this a classic case of “Do what I say, not what I do.”
As reported in The New York Times, Reuters, The Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed, a host of other publications, and even Vassar College’s own student newspaper, The Miscellany News, the prestigious liberal arts institution in Poughkeepsie, NY, is being sued by five current or former full female professors in a class action lawsuit, alleging it underpays women on its faculty, delays their promotions and unfairly evaluates their work. The lawsuit claims that Vassar, “one of the first institutions of higher learning for women in the United States and which prides itself on being a pioneer in women’s education and deeply committed to equality between the sexes…has systematically paid its female full professors less than their male counterparts for the past two decades,” according to The Times.
One woman who has taught at Vassar for many decades and is closely following the legal proceedings estimates that the College’s policy of underpaying its female faculty has cost her a million dollars.
“I felt very cheated by Vassar.”
Recently on September 13, over 500 students in red shirts protested en masse at the first faculty meeting of the year “to show support for the pay inequity litigation against the College. The protest was the first of an ongoing movement started by student-led ‘HearUsOut’ to ensure that awareness of the lawsuit stays in the campus conversation and mainstream media,” reports The Miscellany News. Female faculty members in attendance wore white, and the support from the students visibly moved many.
What is particularly galling from the students’ perspective is Vassar’s hypocrisy. When recruiting prospective students, Vassar actively promotes women’s advancement in higher education and gender equity. Says The Times, “On a campus where the promise of gender equality is a draw for students seeking a college culture steeped in diversity and equity, many students said the issues raised by the suit had left them feeling betrayed.”
Solaar KirkDacker, a senior who helped organize the student protest, said she was “enraged” by the allegations. “They really capitalize off of this idea of promoting the advancement of women in higher education, and that was something that really attracted me,” she told The Times. “I felt very cheated by Vassar.”
Unsurprisingly, Vassar administrators have issued several statements defending the College but have declined interview requests.
Vassar’s president, Elizabeth Bradley—A WOMAN—wrote in a letter to the editor of The Miscellany News: “The matters raised by the lawsuit are important. Vassar has always been committed to gender equality and seeks to promote equity in all that it does. The faculty members who brought this lawsuit have a different understanding of the relevant facts and law that is at issue in this dispute.”
The problem is bigger than Vassar.
But what is even more enraging is this fact, also from The Times article: “The gender pay gap at Vassar is smaller than the average in academia: Female professors in the United States earn 17.7 percent less than their male peers, according to data published by the American Association of University Professors.” So, Vassar is bad, but other colleges are worse.
The plaintiffs’ lawyer, Jessica Stender, said it best: “That such problems could exist at Vassar is indicative of how deep and pervasive pay discrimination problems are in our society.”
This has got to change. But will it?
On January 29, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which established employer accountability for pay discrimination to ensure that future generations of workers will be treated fairly. That was almost 20 years ago, as long as Vassar has been underpaying its female professors.
I imagine lawyers on both sides of the lawsuit are aware of the Fair Pay Act, and I hope that Vassar will be found in non-compliance. But why did the discrepancy happen in the first place? Why has Vassar basically been telling its female faculty, “You’re worth less than men” for all these years? And why, in 2023, are women still having to bring lawsuits to be paid the same as men, who are often more junior than them or are underperforming comparatively?
Isn’t it time for a new perspective?
At SAMC we work with all types of organizations that sustain old cultural habits despite even their best intentions to change them. In 2016, at the United States of Women Summit, President Obama launched the White House Equal Pay Pledge. A group of rather significant companies pledged to pay men and women the same for like work, including Accenture, Airbnb, Amazon, American Airlines, BCG, Buffer, Care.com, CEB, Cisco, Deloitte, the Dow Chemical Company, Expedia, Inc., Gap Inc., Glassdoor, GoDaddy, Jet.com, Johnson & Johnson, L’Oréal USA, PepsiCo, Pinterest, Popcorn Heaven, PwC, Rebecca Minkoff, Salesforce, Slack, Spotify, Staples, and Stella McCartney. But it is not easy to take a pledge and live the promise.
Just Capital shows in their data that as of “September 2022, 130 Russell 1000 companies, or 14%, disclose an adjusted women-to-men pay ratio, and most companies report a ratio at or near parity (1:1).” But that is just 130 of 1000.
We have to ask, why is this so difficult? What does that suggest for places like Vassar, other universities, and employers throughout the U.S.?
Time to change, maybe now? Soon is not soon enough.