Last semester, as a sophomore at Georgetown University, I was horrified to learn that my Intro to Justice and Peace Studies professor, a tenured professor and one of the highest ranking members in the department, was paying money to Georgetown to be a professor. Although she is a renowned international lawyer with a husband who has a well-paying job, the cost of daycare in D.C. for her daughter was so high and her salary so low that she paid more for childcare for her daughter than she earned teaching Georgetown students about conflict resolution and social justice. Societal expectations led to my professor’s taking time off to have a child, then spending time and money caring for her. Now it’s almost impossible for her to catch up to her male colleagues’ salaries. And with awards for her work, tenure, and a working husband, my professor is one of the lucky ones.
According to the American Association for University Professors, Georgetown University’s salary equity is better than most colleges and universities in the United States, with female professors earning 91.9 percent of a male professor’s average annual salary. Yet my professor is still unable to pursue her career and still live comfortably.
Female professors across Georgetown and the United States have been at a disadvantage since women were allowed to teach. And for the past 30 years, colleges and universities across the United States have conducted studies researching the gender pay gap among their professors. Yet today, the gap has only slightly decreased. Female professors still only earn 85 to 95 percent of male professors’ yearly salaries. Many earn as low as 73 percent, which is even lower than the national pay gap of 77 percent. Additionally, the Chronicle reported that women professors’ average yearly increase in salaries were higher than men’s, but because women’s salaries were consistently lower, the pay gap stayed unchanged or even widened. This initial disadvantage in salary makes it almost impossible for women to then catch up.
How, in 30 years, has the pay gap stayed so significantly large? Salaries and numbers don’t tell the full story of the ongoing devaluation of our women professors. Women professors are consistently underrepresented in higher faculty ranks and in STEM fields, making up only 8 percent of full time faculty, which incidentally are the highest-paying departments. Societal norms have pushed girls away from STEM subjects and teachers and parents have (consciously or unconsciously) reinforced this bias, allowing girls to think they’re not as smart as their male counterparts in math or science. As adults, then, women pursuing careers in academia are concentrated in humanities fields, which are lower paying and often less valued by large research institutions. Young girls, as well as female college students, then don’t see female role models in their higher-ranking professors or STEM educators. This decreases the likelihood of these young women becoming professors in STEM fields, reinforcing the pay gap and continuing the cycle.
The University of California – Berkeley found that the pay gap between male and female professors is equal to an average of 1 to 4 years of career experience. This means that female professors must work 1 to 4 more years than male professors to earn the same amount. Yet women often feel pressured to take off time to have children, and then stay home to raise those children, falling even more years behind male professors in experience and salary and widening the pay gap even further. In her 2010 TED Talk, called “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders,” Sheryl Sandberg highlighted the unconscious societal expectations that force women to never catch up. As soon as women start thinking about possibly “settling down,” getting married, and eventually having children, she said, they take actions to prepare for the event, which is often many years down the road. They stop speaking up at meetings, accepting larger projects, and taking on leadership roles. Men, who are always more willing to speak up in crowded meeting rooms, get the experience, tenure, and higher salaries instead.
But what do we do as a society to address this inequity? Blame the women! A recent CNN article told young women that if they wanted to earn as much money as their male counterparts, they had to pick “better” majors. Instead of working to ensure women professors’ work is as valued as male professors’, society pushes female professors to strategically choose a field of study they may not even enjoy, compete with other female professors for recognition, and still not earn as much money as men.
If we are to finally, after decades, close the pay gap among university professors, we must start by empowering young girls to pursue STEM fields and speak up for themselves and their work. Universities must not punish women for taking time off to care for children, and simultaneously award women professors leadership roles, make it easier for them to achieve tenure, and value their work in humanities fields just as much as work in STEM. Like Sheryl Sandberg, we can keep our feet on the gas pedal and lean forward.