Friday, August 29, 2008

Minding the Extraordinary Gap

One of my uncles recently told me that one of his daughters had discovered that a newly-hired man at her workplace (a state institution) was being paid an "extraordinary" amount more than she or other women at the same level. My cousin initially assumed that this man must have some extra credentials or experience, but she did some quiet investigating and found that he did not.

My cousin talked to her boss to ask him why the new guy was being paid so much more than women who were his equals in experience and credentials. She assumed there was a good reason, but wanted to know what it was. It turned out there was no good reason, and my cousin and the other women were given "extraordinary" raises so that they were making the same (or more) than the new guy.

My uncle was shocked that his daughter had questioned her boss, but was impressed with her for getting such a big raise. He said to me "What I can't figure out is why she and the others got such a large raise when all she did was ask why this guy was being paid more." I told him that I thought my cousin and the other women could have sued and won, and that would have cost the state more and gotten the supervisors in trouble. In the end, the women probably would have gotten the big raises anyway. I said "You can't pay men more than women for no reason." Well, OK, you can, but I didn't feel like saying that.

This really surprised my uncle. He said he assumed that the salary you were paid was the salary you "deserved". I don't really know what he means by "deserved", and he couldn't explain it. He said it wouldn't have occurred to him to question why a man was being paid more than some women ("girls").

In many jobs, including some academic jobs, you get the salary that someone else thinks you deserve, and they may think someone else deserves more, but not for any particular reason that makes sense.

The mechanism for determining academic salaries varies widely from institution to institution. For state universities, the mechanism varies from state to state, and may also vary within a state if there is more than one university system. Even in systems that have salary ranges for specific ranks, there are ways that these ranges can be adjusted.

On two occasions I have acquired the salary data for faculty in my department. All of the highest paid faculty are men, but these are all men who have been or are administrators and/or are the department superstar. There is one outlier that makes my gnash my teeth when I think about it.

If you consider my individual salary compared to my department colleagues, there are some senior men who make less than I do (owing to their long-term lack of productivity), and there are coeval men who make more than I do (owing to nothing obvious). In the latter case, the difference is enough to make me annoyed and to point out the disparity to my department Chair, but not enough to make me call a lawyer.

In response to my query, the department Chair gave me a significant raise, in part from supplementary funds provided for this purpose from higher levels of university administration. This raise was nice but not enough to bring me to the same level (or even within spitting distance) as the more highly paid coeval men, but it did close the gap a bit. I think the Chair wants to lessen the chance that I will leave and/or be very unhappy about the inequality, but he isn't about to do anything too daring.

What impresses me about my cousin's case is that her boss brought her and the other women up to salary parity. I think a lot of people in the same situation would toss the women a bit of money to make them less likely to sue but not do anything too "extraordinary".


Drugmonkey said...

the love of science should overcome such quotidian concerns. And why are the wimmins always gotta complain? The mens need it more 'cause they gots families to support.

The_Myth said...

I really don't mean to be rude...and certainly hope you do not take this in any way personally, but...

The men in your family are really, really dumb.

Did they somehow sleep through the 1970s?

Maybe they need to have you purchase [and force them to watch] The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Maude...with a little Murphy Brown thrown to demonstrate "effect."

As to the content of the post: You also point to the reason why so many workplaces tell employees not to discuss salaries with one another. It makes this sort of disparity much more obvious.

and, finally, Kudos to your cousin! I'd be curious to find out where her employer got all that extra $$$ in the budget for the parity raises.

plam said...

Our salaries are basically public: those above a (not indexed to inflation) threshold must be published every year due to provincial law. I have tried to figure out whether salaries are equitable or not, but being new to my department and all, I can't yet figure out who is especially productive and who isn't (of course, I have some suspicions).

We also have a salary equity fund for salary adjustments.

Lynne said...

Thanks so much for this post. It's a really good reminder that there is still a very serious problem. I'm really glad that your cousin had the courage to say something to her chair, too, because it is really hard for women to negotiate on their own behalf *and* to have that looked on favorably (probably a big part of why female new hires are still paid less than male counterparts).

One thing I think you chose not to get into but that is also important is how the disparity grows over time, making these extraordinary differences even more possible once a number of years have passed. Particularly if raises are awarded as percentages of your income, and if men of equal standing start out at a larger income, they're going to race ahead of their female coworkers' pay. And when you factor in that men's raises also tend to be just larger than women's (percentages or not), probably because their performance is evaluated based on standards designed with an eye toward conditioned male behavior, it's even worse. The cumulative difference after 5 or 10 years is staggering.

Your cousin may have gotten an extraordinary raise and reached parity with the new hire, but unless she got to this job very recently, she will still never catch up to the cumulative lifetime income of their new male hire. Over a typical academic career this can lead to a lifetime disparity of millions of dollars.

(Of course, sometimes new hires of either gender come in with staggeringly high starting pay, period, because they have some bargaining chip like another job or job offer. That shouldn't necessarily be ignored, but I think sometimes the advantage that awards gets out of hand. It leads to such a drastic income gap between members of equal standing in the department.)

Anonymous said...

I agree with the_myth here... this amused and irked the heck out of me:

"He said he assumed that the salary you were paid was the salary you "deserved". I don't really know what he means by "deserved", and he couldn't explain it. He said it wouldn't have occurred to him to question why a man was being paid more than some women ("girls")."

Me man. Me earn big bucks because me deserve it. [pumps chest]

Susan B. Anthony said...

I was pleased to hear Obama say in his speech last night, "Now is the time to keep the promise of equal pay for an equal day's work, because I want my daughters to have the exact same opportunities as your sons." How many people out there don't even know these inequities still exist?

landsnark said...

This also touches obliquely on an oft-cited reason why men get paid more: women don't ask. Anecdotally, according even to women in high positions in the academy and industry, women tend to be more likely to take the salary that's offered and be thankful for it; men tend to be more likely to negotiate for more. Women are also less likely to ask for raises.

This has led me to adopt the following policy: never accept the first offer for any job. (There are exceptions, but it's a good rule.) Nobody actually puts their highest possible offer on the table on the first try. They have more to give; get at least some of it. If they give you an offer of a squillion dollars, be cool, knit your brow just slightly, and say, "Well, I was expecting more than that, given my qualifications x, y, and z and the fact that the going rate for this job in this area is q."

Yay to your cousin for actually sticking up for herself, and bonus points to you for using the word "coeval" and making it look natural.

Anonymous said...

"You also point to the reason why so many workplaces tell employees not to discuss salaries with one another. It makes this sort of disparity much more obvious."

I've had this discussion with someone recently -- that we're very nervous about talking about salary in this country, but that the net effect might be to keep salaries low and increase inexplicable disparities.

Many state universities (and institutions) have publicly available salary data, and one should really make oneself familiar with this data and be aware of salaries.

Becky said...

Kudos to your cousin! Especially considering the attitudes she was raised with!

As for your uncle:
He said it wouldn't have occurred to him to question why a man was being paid more than some women ("girls").

Would it have occurred to him to question why a woman was being paid more than some men?

AsstFemaleProf said...

Out of curiosity, how did you find out the salaries? You said two occasions - I'm assuming you were put on two committees whose responsibility it was to collect certain data which gave you an excuse to look into this without being conspicuous about it. What types of committees were those? I would like to find out this type of information, without looking like I'm digging for ammunition.

PhysioProf said...

I think the Chair wants to lessen the chance that I will leave and/or be very unhappy about the inequality, but he isn't about to do anything too daring.

Why the fuck would he do anything if you don't make him? Get some fucking credible job offers, and then he'll be forced to at least match them. Of course, you have to be prepared to accept one of these other offers if it becomes necessary. If it becomes clear that you were bluffing, your department will fuck with you severely for the rest of your career.

Candid Engineer said...

I think a lot of people in the same situation would toss the women a bit of money to make them less likely to sue but not do anything too "extraordinary".

I would agree. Good for your cousin, and good for you for attempting what many women won't.

Ms.PhD said...

Women Don't Ask

Read it, love it, own it.

Answer: the guy got an extraordinary salary because he probably asked for it. The women didn't.

They brought these women up to parity because they were vastly UNDERpaying the women, not OVERpaying the man.

They would have had a lawsuit on their hands not just because of the gender gap, but because they weren't paying a reasonable wage to the majority of the people in this particular job title. That they happened to be women, and organized enough to figure this out, just packs a bigger punch. Always easier to negotiate as a group. It smells like a union, and nobody wants one of those.

Just a guess.

YOU could probably get parity, too, if they actually thought you were willing to leave. You can't negotiate without making a believable threat.

Marciepooh said...

Kudos to your cousin for speaking up.

Wow, I'm still a little amazed when Alabama is actually less backwards than another state. New state employees here (well most, political appointees and a few others aren't under the 'merit' system) start at the lowest pay for the job class (i.e. Accountant I, Geologist II, Manger III...). After that you can get a 2.5% or 5% raise at 6 months and every yearly anniversary after based on your performance review and subject to budget constraints. I don't know what happens if the budget doesn't allow for everyone to get a raise.

It's amazing that we have made it to the 21st century and this is still an issue. My mother was fighting for pay equality 50 years ago. I agree with the_myth that this is why a lot of employers discourage or forbid employees to discuss salaries, but I think it's a good reason why, for public employees at least, salaries should be public. (Not names and $$ together, but ranges, starting salaries, etc.)

Anonymous said...

When I brought up how my salary is 4/5ths of the lowest salary in my dept, and 30% lower than than the non-minority person who was hired at the same time I was, I got a raise. Now I'm only paid 15% less than comparable non-minority faculty. And I've received "exceeds expectations" evaluations every year.

EliRabett said...

The difference between your cousin and you is that she works in a bureaucracy and you work in a chaos (aka university)

Anonymous said...

This is where Title IX could help make science departments in the US the most fair in the world. If the US is going to be a leader for the rest of the world to follow, then we have to start treating women on equal grounds as men and paying them the same as men and giving them the same opportunities. We cannot continue to diminish women's achievements. It is simply not fair.

Barak Obama would Never have gotten the nomination if he was a woman.
See Gloria Steinem's article:
But he will get my vote.

Cerulean Bill said...

I'd guess that the disparity is based on tradition (we usually pay guys more), and carried on by ignorance (if you don't know, you can't complain effectively, which is, I think, why most companies like to keep salaries secret), and by women's tendency to be team players rather than do what they perceive as rocking the boat.

Personally, I would have sued AFTER getting the raise, unless they got backdated raises.

Anonymous said...

You being a scientist, I assume you have checked for control cases where some male professors find the same about their salary and yours? If no such cases exist, and you are convinced that (i) when there are men who are paid less than you are, it is because of their long term lack of productivity (the long term makes me think of seniority, at some universities they would have gotten some pay raises automatically). (ii) When there are men who are paid more than you, it is because of no apparent reason. Have you then ever thought of going to the person in charge that you will go somewhere else where you are paid what you deserve?

Anonymous said...

anon 10:07:
you might be right about Barak, but would Sarah Palin have gotten on the GOP ticket if she weren't a woman? I find that even more insulting.

Turadg said...

An article in the NYTimes yesterday supports the point made by landsnark and Maybe their salaries were lower simply because they didn't ask. And maybe this accounts for a significant amount of the wage gap in general.

Aroza said...

My supervisor gave my male colegue extra-funding because he is married. I (being a single female) had to build up my case quite much so I could get the extra funding.

The sad part of the story is that I also believed that I do not quite deserve the same salary. Most of the 'build up my case' was to persuade myself I deserve it. Laying it all out in front of my supervisor was then easy.

I wonder when will I get the 'patriarchate implant' totally out of my system?

La Roxy said...

Awesome post. Thanks for these examples. Building on this "Women Don't Ask" angle -- with which I completely agree -- I wanted to mention that today I quoted your blog in my own, The Daily Asker. As a direct response to the predicament of women as portrayed in that eye-opening book, I decided to try asking for something, every day for a year. It's sort of an experiment in trying to get what I want and get the same compensation and perks as men (and I'm using the word "experiment" very loosely, especially given that I'm writing to a science academic); what I'm testing is: what will I gain if I go through the minor inconvenience of asking? Discounts, access, etc? I haven't asked for a raise yet, but I have ten months left. Some people say yes, some say no, but so far I'm discovering that it gets easier once you've formed a habit... Please check it out at!