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University Wage Gap part of Greater Issue

After the recent release of the University of Mississippi’s Pay Equity and Advancement Report, several issues surrounding female faculty members have come to light.

Dr. Karen Raber, a professor of English who has worked at the university over 25 years, is one faculty member who is speaking out. For Raber, the findings of the report are symptomatic of a much larger issue. For example, the English department currently has only one endowed professorship position, in Faulkner studies.

That position, like endowed professorships in other departments, she said, is disproportionately awarded to males. While she admits the current recipient is more than deserving of the title, Raber said the issue lies in the fact that this practice raises overall numbers for male professors, as does the larger proportion of men in department chair and other administrative positions, where salaries are higher.

“What this means is that a university needs not just to think about regular professorial salaries, but also how it recruits in the process of finding academic stars for its endowed positions, and how it hires for admin positions,” Raber said. “Perhaps when a chair, say, is being discussed within a department, or when a chair candidate comes to the attention of the upper levels of administers, someone needs to ask, “Why are there no women candidates in the mix?”

Raber admits her salary is still more than adequate, but said she often feels as though a man with her experience and credentials would earn “at least $20,000 more.”

While she feels things have certainly progressed since she began working at the university, Raber said there’s still a long way to go. Just because gender biases aren’t as apparent, doesn’t mean they’re not ingrained into society.

At two different points throughout her career at the university, Raber said comments were made to her along the lines of, “You don’t need a raise, because your husband earns money,” or “If I  give you a raise, I’m taking the money from someone else.” Both comments were made many years ago, and she said they reflect those individuals’ thoughts on gender. However, she said she doubted comments like that were ever said to a male faculty member with a spouse who worked.

“In the first case, the idea that one’s salary is tied to family resources, rather than individual merit, is only applied to women with obvious outcomes of lower salary; and in the second case, the idea that any individual should have to consider his or her merit in light of the greater good of the whole faculty is putting an impossible and inappropriate onus on that person,” she said. “I should qualify that the second instance was said in a joking manner, but it was a kind of small shock to me that it was even possible to joke about such a thing.”

While the English department does employ the use of a merit-based raise increase rubric which was designed to prevent or minimize wage discrimination, Raber said the rubric only does so much.

Those who were hired before the rubric was put into place five years ago might still be behind. Also, because raises are based on a percentage of salary, the chances of catching up are small.

“If you start at a lower point because of past discriminatory salary increases, then the rubric doesn’t clearly address how that should be factored into raises going forward,” she said. “But I’m emphatic that such a system (or the use of a committee to decide merit raises like History uses) is a great way to begin to handle the problem of both gender and racial and other kinds of bias in salary raises.”

In the Pay Equity and Advancement Report, one of the issues addressed that affects women across the board was the fact that the university does not provide onsite childcare or maternity leave for faculty and staff. According to the report, women at the university are required to use personal and medical leave to cover the 12 weeks off they have a legal right to.

The report also describes the lack of onsite childcare as an “undue burden” for women, which scholars have described as the “motherhood penalty” and “fatherhood bonus” – that is, academic women with children tend to lag behind childless academics in terms of pay scale, while academic men with children do slightly better. The report said providing reliable, high-quality, affordable childcare in close proximity to campus can “increase productivity, minimize absenteeism and cultivate a workplace where parents (particularly mothers) can be successful and advance.”

Dr. Katie McKee, associate professor of Southern Studies and English, said she has personally experienced the challenges of juggling motherhood and her career as a professor at the university. McKee came to the university in fall 1997, and had both of her daughters before she was eligible for tenure.

Having children while on the six-year “tenure clock,” she said, is something many women at the university try to avoid. However, those years often overlap with the time when women are ready to have children, which can complicate things. To remedy this, many professors try to plan to give birth during breaks.

“My oldest daughter, my first go at being a mom and a professor, was born in August two weeks before the semester started. And I did start the semester. There’s no maternity leave,” McKee said. “Because I’d only been here a year, I hadn’t accumulated much off time. This was a long time ago, so I’m not necessarily saying this is the way it is now, but I felt uncomfortable asking for something special. I’d just gotten here, and this came from me as much as anybody else, I felt like I wanted to demonstrate that I could do the job and that I could manage it somehow. And it was awful, it was really hard.”

McKee added that she believes department chairs today are more willing to work with expectant mothers. However, she still said lack of childcare is an issue that periodically comes up, but it “never gets anywhere.”

While Willie Price Lab School is located on campus, it is not an option for all parents and children. The minimum age of enrollment is 3 years old, and admittance is a selective process.

Raber added that providing childcare for faculty and staff is something that would benefit both men and women, as many professors who are fathers also face difficult choices when it comes to spending time with their families.

In addition to childcare, Raber said she had a few other solutions in mind to remedy what she sees as inadequacies.

Among the solutions she said she supports is a committee that reviews salary raises periodically to balance the often-unchecked decisions of chairs and deans about individual cases, official paid parental leave, and an official means to address the disproportionate effect of salary compression on women who entered under a system where bias might have been less recognized and less controlled.

“This might involve the administration reaching out to individuals who should be applying and make sure they are in the pipeline for such positions, or insisting that any search committee for an endowed chair take account of gender when recruiting candidates,” she said. “In general, I’d say the administration needs to be asking more questions of itself and its partners in departments about how compensation is structured and how decisions are made about compensation to prevent bias from taking hold at any point in the process. We might also ask of our administration, where are the women leaders at the highest levels we need to keep this issue before them?”

In Provost Noel Wilkin’s February 2018 response to the Pay Equity and Advancement Report, many of these same solutions were presented, but from an administrative point of view. However, the timeline for enacting these proposed policies has yet to be announced.