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For at least two decades, Vassar College has paid its full professors differently based on gender, according to a new class-action lawsuit that alleges women faculty receive lower average salaries than men performing similar work.
Filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by Equal Rights Advocates (ERA) and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein LLP, the lawsuit names five full professors as plaintiffs: Wendy Graham, Maria Höhn, Mia Mask, Cindy Schwarz and Debra Zeifman. With 35 other women faculty as supporters, the suit states that Vassar — which was a women’s college for more than 100 years before going coed in 1969 — knowingly engaged in pay discrimination and has long refused to rectify the problem, a claim the institution denies.
“It is incredibly disheartening that Vassar — the second degree-granting institution of higher education for women in the United States, and one that purports to embrace equity and inclusion — not only systematically underpays its female faculty, but also knowingly refuses to correct this injustice,” the 35 women faculty members supporting the plaintiffs said in a joint statement. “Vassar’s repeated failure to remedy the ongoing gender wage gap, and the implication that our professional contributions are less meritorious than those of our male counterparts, constitutes a profound institutional betrayal.”
Melvina Ford, ERA’s national legal director and co-counsel on the case, told The 19th that the lawsuit is based on Vassar’s own salary data, which reveals a 10 percent pay disparity between women and men full professors at the college in Poughkeepsie, New York. The gap has widened with time, Ford said; in 2003 it was just under 8 percent.
“It really starts when people are hired — reliance on past salary, for example, where there may already be gender inequities, reliance on what people are able to negotiate when we know empirically that men are able to negotiate more than women, and, frankly, women are often penalized when they negotiate,” Ford said. “So once you have those kinds of discrepancies walking in the door, they get baked in, and every year when people are getting increases, it grows and grows and grows.”
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At Vassar, Ford said, some long-tenured women professors earn 20 percent less than comparable men on the faculty because their starting salaries were much lower. She added that it’s particularly disappointing that this pattern has played out at a college that began in 1861 to give women an education equal to that of men. Vassar is one of the Seven Sisters colleges, a collective of historically women’s colleges that began with a mission of gender equity.
“Plaintiffs — and all Vassar female full professors — are leaders in their fields and highly regarded by both their contemporaries and their students,” Kelly Dermody of Lieff Cabraser said in a statement. “For too long, Vassar has refused to equitably value their contributions to the college. We hope this case will prompt Vassar to finally live up to the storied role in the movement for gender equality that it so publicly claims.”
When asked to comment on the class-action lawsuit, a Vassar spokesperson referred The 19th to a statement about the litigation attributed to Anthony J. Friscia, chair of its Board of Trustees. The statement contends that Vassar has been transparent about how it pays faculty and believes that it compensates them fairly. It notes that Vassar has been working toward pay equity with a group of professors since January 2019.
“The Board of Trustees is proud of Vassar’s thorough performance review process,” Friscia stated. “Faculty salaries are set by a faculty-led, peer-review process, per Vassar’s governance structure. Vassar faculty produce path-breaking research, foster exceptional teaching, and provide professional service and leadership. Rewarding faculty achievements, as determined by their peers, is integral to Vassar’s mission and contributions to the larger society.”
Vassar aims to resolve this dispute with faculty members, the statement concluded.
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Lieff Cabraser and ERA, which has fought against gender discrimination in workplaces and schools nationwide since 1974, dispute Friscia’s characterizations of Vassar’s approach to gender equity. So does the joint statement by Vassar’s 35 women professors, as it accuses the college of repeatedly ignoring collaborative efforts to close the gender pay gap. The lawsuit states that the college has not addressed the issue and responded by being less transparent about pay instead of more transparent about alleged disparities.
“These professors tried for many years to get Vassar to handle this on a voluntary basis until it became clear that that was not going to happen, and this lawsuit needed to be filed,” Ford said. “There just comes a point where you can only ask nicely so many times.”
To close the gender pay gap in the state, New York on January 6, 2020, enacted a new law prohibiting public and private employers from asking prospective or existing employees about their salary history. In 2019, the state amended its equal pay statute to not only ban reliance on salary history, but also to make it clear that it’s a violation to pay men and women differently when they are doing substantially similar work, Ford said.
ERA and Lieff Cabraser argue that Vassar’s gender pay gap is just one example of the college’s inequitable practices. According to the lawsuit, women professors there advance more slowly than men due to gender biases in Vassar’s merit ratings and promotion systems.
Women professors get lower merit scores than men do despite how they actually perform, Ford said. Contributing to this problem is that students have their own gender biases and tend to evaluate women professors more harshly than men.
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“On the flip side of that, we’re seeing that the women at Vassar actually have higher student enrollment than the male faculty,” Ford said, indicating that women should not be ranked lower than men at the college.
Now that a lawsuit has been filed, the women plaintiffs would like to see Vassar take immediate action, including making faculty salary ranges and scales public, Ford said, adding that Vassar used to share reports with the faculty that included the mean and median salaries for each professional rank. The plaintiffs also want clearer guidelines for performance evaluations and an independent body to facilitate faculty salary negotiations and service expectations.
The 35 women professors supporting the plaintiffs said that they hope the lawsuit inspires Vassar to investigate gender pay disparities among all employees at the college.
“Despite the very real obstacles to equality we face in our workplace, we continue to dedicate ourselves tirelessly to our students, our research, and our shared mission of serving the college at the highest level and to the best of our abilities,” their statement said. “We remain steadfastly committed to our professional pursuits and to ensuring that Vassar becomes a more equitable, just institution with practices better aligned with its purported foundational values and ideals.”
While this lawsuit focuses on Vassar College, Ford would welcome a ripple effect throughout the nation’s colleges and universities.
“We hope that one of the outcomes of this lawsuit is that other universities will look at their numbers and if they have pay gaps, which I’m sure a number of them do, they will actually do something about it,” she said.