The AAUP and Women

Women have made enormous gains in graduate education, in medicine, and in the law. But progress in other areas has been scant.
By Mary W. Gray

It is not that the AAUP hasn't always had women members. When there were hundreds of women’s colleges (as compared with fewer than fifty today) whose faculty were mostly women, some chapters may have consisted exclusively of women. But the relative scarcity of women, particularly in the upper ranks and in the most prestigious institutions, was apparent to at least some in the AAUP’s early years.

Committee W on the Status of Women in College and University Faculties (now the Committee on Women in the Academic Profession, but which I will refer to as Committee W) was established at the Association’s 1917 annual meeting (more than two years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment that guaranteed women the right to vote), prompted by a resolution from the Vassar College branch. “It is to be the duty of this committee,” the resolution read, “to investigate and report upon the practice of our colleges and universities, and the principles which should govern them in the appointment of women to higher academic positions; upon the opportunities for advancement now offered and that should be offered to women of ability and scholarship in the various fields of college and university teaching; and upon all other problems involved in the determination of the present or the desirable status of women in college and university faculties.” In the decade of Committee W’s operation that followed, not a great deal was accomplished, as the profession continued to be heavily male dominated.

After World War II, in the expansion of higher education fueled by the GI Bill, one would have thought that new opportunities would open for women. However, it was in the interest of the establishment, governmental and otherwise, to ensure jobs for returning veterans, and a new era of stereotypical roles for women flourished. Forgotten were Rosie the Riveter and Commodore Grace Hopper, creator of the COBOL programming language, as academe rushed to cooperate. Although some have thought Katharine Hepburn’s film persona was a free-spirited, independent woman, she almost always—including in the famous series of movies she made with Spencer Tracy—ended up as a submissive wife, even if a librarian, sports star, or lawyer. Women in academe fared no better. For married women, antinepotism rules flourished. Single women were thought to have no family to support, whether or not this was true, and so received lower pay, infrequent promotions, and fewer job opportunities. Even women’s colleges, their traditional employers, rushed to hire men.

Betty Friedan or Erica Jong may have had something to say to and about women in the 1960s and 1970s, but academe was not listening. For example, the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 exempted professional positions from their prohibitions of discrimination; not until the amendments of 1972 did women faculty—at least in theory—enjoy such protection. By then it had become apparent, and not only to Congress, that there were women—outstanding scholars and excellent teachers, hard-working and devoted to their students, their disciplines, and the principles of the AAUP—at institutions of all kinds throughout the country who were not being equitably treated. In 1970, acknowledging the slow rate of improvement in women’s status in academe, the AAUP Council reconstituted Committee W after several decades of quiescence, and prominent University of Massachusetts sociologist Alice Rossi was appointed as its chair. By 1976 Committee W had approved, and the Association had adopted, a statement On Discrimination, which was followed by many other statements on issues of particular concern to women in academe.

Salary Discrimination

Recognizing that many of the problems facing academic women were often not perceived by male colleagues or by college and university administrators, the committee decided to start with something the Association itself could do: collect data that might prove useful in convincing others that salary discrimination existed. Beginning in 1975, salaries were listed by sex in the AAUP’s annual faculty compensation survey, with 90 percent of the institutions initially cooperating in supplying the data. Faculty women were able to see not only that they were, on average, underpaid, but also that they were concentrated at lower ranks, which masked the true magnitude of institution-wide salary discrepancies.

What was to be done? Salaries were based on the same subjective factors in hiring and promotion that had delayed application of antidiscrimination laws to faculty employment, and defenders of the salary differences argued that women somehow fell short. Committee W recognized that data need analysis.

In 1977 a grant from the Exxon Foundation funded the production of the Higher Education Salary Evaluation Kit by Elizabeth Scott, a distinguished statistician who had applied its method at her own institution, the University of California, Berkeley. This manual demonstrates how to conduct a multiple regression study of faculty salaries, a method allowing for measurement of the influence of various legitimate factors such as experience and productivity on salaries of men and women. This technique was subsequently used in hundreds of studies of faculty salaries at institutions throughout the United States and Canada, both those done internally by faculty and administrators seeking equity and those carried out in connection with employment litigation when internal processes failed to produce a satisfactory solution to the problem of inequities. Although the kit was extremely useful in identifying problems, Scott and I reported in a 1980 article for Academe (“A Statistical Remedy for Statistically Identified Discrimination”) that administrations often applied remedies that ignored basic inequities. Unfortunately, shining the light on salary differences has done little to improve the situation. As University of California, Davis, law professor Martha West and AAUP research director John Curtis noted in the 2006 AAUP Faculty Gender Equity Indicators, for the last thirty years, overall faculty women’s salaries have remained at just above 80 percent of those of men. This can be explained in part by women’s heavy representation at institutions and in disciplines where faculty were generally paid less and in part by women’s concentration in lower ranks. Nonetheless, an unexplained gender-based discrepancy remains.

Family Issues

The AAUP’s position has always been that the playing field needs to be leveled, not tipped toward one sex or the other. Given the history of academe, this leveling has consistently required some affirmative action. Not only does access to faculty positions need to be open to all qualified candidates, which demands a special effort through outreach initiatives, but affirmative action also should include efforts to ensure that those already on the faculty are equitably treated—by use of the salary kit or other techniques. Gender equality in academe was also hampered by antinepotism rules, which clearly had an adverse impact on women and which the AAUP advocated removing in Faculty Appointment and Family Relationship (1971), the first policy document produced by the reconstituted Committee W. Women in academe also had to overcome the fact that pretenure years for faculty coincide with prime childbearing years and contend with the reality of women’s traditionally greater responsibility in caring for children and elderly parents. To reduce the effects of these burdens on the careers of caregivers, liberal leave policies are needed, preferably beyond the very minimal federal provision of the 1993 Family and Medical Care Leave Act (FMLA) for twelve unpaid weeks of leave. Cognizant of the academic timetable long before the passage of the FMLA, Committee W pressed institutions to provide a semester of paid leave, a goal still not universally achieved. Pushing for assistance in child care, such as on-campus facilities and subsidies, remains on the committee’s agenda to this day. The lack of adequate subsidized child care and the scarcity of facilities are substantial obstacles to women’s careers in academe as elsewhere. In more recent years, Committee W, continuing its decades-long work promoting gender equity and work-family balance in the academy, has addressed related issues such as partner accommodation and dual-career academic couples and the formulation and implementation of family-friendly campus policies focused on the appointment and retention of women faculty.

Although the granting of limited paid leaves for childbearing, child rearing, and caregiving enjoys broad support, more controversial is the extension for these same reasons of the pretenure probationary period beyond the seven-year maximum set forth in the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure—a position first endorsed by the Association in Committee W’s 2001 Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work. The Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure endorsed the substance of this statement, noting that it is a departure from the 1940 statement but that it provides an important relief for probationary faculty in their child-rearing years. Although the extension of the probationary period is commonly viewed as beneficial, many anecdotal reports suggest that it may bring expectations of increased scholarly productivity. Caution is needed in taking advantage of what appears to be a benefit. That some women academics could be denied tenure a year or two later in their careers than might otherwise have been the case is certainly a possible adverse effect to consider.

Widespread Contingency

Many of the traditional issues of concern to Committee W, and indeed to the AAUP in general, have paled in comparison with the increase in contingent faculty, which at many institutions disproportionately affects women. A 2014 AAUP report showed that as of 2011, 81 percent of women instructional staff were on contingent appointments of one kind or another, compared with 73 percent of men. Unfortunately, many tenured and tenure-track faculty have been complicit, or at least silent, as contingent faculty with heavy teaching loads, low salaries, and no benefits subsidize their own compensation and benefits. The rapid increase in contingent faculty is seen by the AAUP as threatening its core principles of academic freedom and shared governance, and because of the exploitation of such faculty, in many cases predominantly women, it is also a concern of Committee W.

The AAUP has been an active participant in several coalitions seeking to reduce the number and inequitable treatment of contingent faculty. The Coalition on the Academic Workforce, established in 1997 by a group of learned societies in the humanities and social sciences, has conducted and disseminated surveys on contingency at US academic institutions, studies that include information on gender and contingency. And as part of the Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor, the AAUP has promoted campus activism and conferences to raise awareness of and reduce contingency. The AAUP’s recently launched One Faculty campaign gives chapters tools and resources to improve working conditions for faculty in contingent positions on their campuses.

In some cases unionization, under the banner of the AAUP or another organization, has improved the working conditions of contingent faculty, but it has not addressed the broader issues. The Service Employees International Union has been active in achieving bargaining status for adjunct faculty (particularly in some metropolitan areas like Washington, DC) and for teaching assistants, but not with any focus on issues of discrimination or benefits of particular concern to women faculty. Other groups from organized labor have turned their attention to adjunct faculty, but the traditional concerns of Committee W have not been at the forefront of their efforts, nor have those of the AAUP more broadly. A nonunion association with strong female leadership, the New Faculty Majority, does have many of Committee W’s issues on its agenda, but it has not yet had much tangible success, although it has attracted some media and congressional attention. How to secure principles of academic freedom, equity, and shared governance amid the rapid expansion of the role of contingent faculty is of major concern to Committee W and indeed the entire AAUP.

The AAUP and the Courts

To achieve equity it is important to be able to obtain information not only about salaries but also about the many factors that may legitimately affect hiring, compensation, promotion, and tenure, as well as research, teaching, and service, however these are defined at a particular institution. Although the AAUP was on the side of equity with respect to salary surveys, in University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC it did not initially support the right of faculty to examine the records of others who had achieved the positions or advancement they sought. However, in 1992, after the US Supreme Court’s decision in favor of broad access, Committee W and the Association’s Committee A developed a joint statement, Access to Faculty Personnel Files, recommending considerably more access than is generally the case in academe today.

In another important Supreme Court case, the AAUP did support Committee W’s position in favor of equity. For several years after the provisions of Title VII and the Equal Pay Act became applicable to professionals, women faculty had complained to their universities, to the AAUP, to TIAA-CREF, and ultimately to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that the retirement plans available at most private and many public institutions were discriminatory. In 1974 the AAUP issued a statement calling for the equalization of benefits and ultimately joined as intervener in Spirt v. Long Island University and TIAA-CREF, the case concerning the TIAACREF policy of gender-based benefits.

Under traditional “defined-contribution” plans such as the one offered by TIAA-CREF, an amount is deducted from the faculty member’s salary and an amount is contributed by the employer. At retirement an amount based on the accumulated contributions can be paid out as an annuity (in some cases mandatorily, in others as an option), originally with a man’s monthly benefit being 15 percent more than that of a woman of the same age with the same accumulation of funds. TIAA-CREF claimed that its plan was gender neutral, that it discriminated on the basis of longevity rather than on the basis of sex. However, a nice statistical argument shows that because of overlap in the distribution of life expectancies, 86 percent of retirees are “similarly situated” with respect to longevity; since it cannot be determined who will fall into this group, all in the cohort are entitled to equal benefits. In Arizona Governing Committee v. Norris, the Supreme Court ruled that a plan similar to TIAA-CREF’s—that is, one in which women were charged the same for less in benefits—constituted sex discrimination. Although the court’s decision, which also applied to the TIAA-CREF case, required only prospective compliance, with respect to funds deposited after the decision was handed down, TIAA-CREF equalized benefits by bringing women’s benefits up to the male level, for all future payments, no matter when the funds had accumulated. This change marked a very substantial improvement for many women faculty who, after suffering during their academic careers from low salaries, or whose careers had been interrupted or had begun late, faced the additional burden of discriminatorily smaller returns from their pension funds after retirement.

Retirement and Health Care

Another success for AAUP policy had a particularly positive impact on many women. When the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act was amended in 1986 to prohibit mandatory retirement on the basis of age, it included a temporary exemption for tenured faculty, scheduled to expire at the end of 1993. Congress directed the EEOC to ask the National Academy of Sciences to study the possible impact of removing the exemption on higher education. The resulting Committee on Mandatory Retirement in Higher Education, composed of representatives of higher education administration, faculty, and the public, including the chair of the AAUP’s Committee W, issued a report, Ending Mandatory Retirement for Tenured Faculty: The Consequences for Higher Education, recommending that the exemption be allowed to expire; it did, thus ending forced retirement for tenured faculty. The AAUP-advocated removal of mandatory retirement was particularly important for women. The previous retirement policies at many institutions were subjective and influenced by the gender bias that has affected many decisions in academe.

Retirement benefit issues that are facially gender neutral continue to have a disproportionately adverse effect on women. That, among contingent faculty, women have especially difficult working conditions is clear, but a specific issue here should attract Committee W’s attention. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 provided that state and local government employees who are part-time or temporary and not covered by a government retirement plan could, instead of being covered by Social Security, be forced into “Alternative Social Security.” This privatized system provides for no employer contribution but instead requires employees to contribute 7.5 percent of their salaries into a fund operated by various insurers. These contributions can later be withdrawn under certain conditions. While this may superficially seem attractive—and certainly saves the employer money—the employees lose credit in the Social Security system, which may result in lower retirement benefits. Not all public institutions take advantage of this provision, but many do. To protect the rights and livelihood of all contingent faculty, action is needed to remove this privatized alternative; because of its impact on women, it should be a priority of Committee W.

Pensions are not the only area where women have been subject to discrimination. Although the 2011 Affordable Care Act forbids discrimination in health insurance rates based on gender and mandates pregnancy coverage and certain co-pay-free preventive procedures, the road to requiring that health insurance cover pregnancy has been rocky. Health insurance through employers was covered by Title VII, so that overt gender discrimination was prohibited. However, in Geduldig v. Aiello (1974) the US Supreme Court declared that excluding pregnancy coverage was not discriminatory on the basis of sex because it simply distinguished between pregnant and nonpregnant individuals and hence did not violate constitutional
guarantees of due process; two years later, in General Electric v. Gilbert, the court came to the same conclusion with respect to the nondiscrimination provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Committee W was active in lobbying for remedial legislation, and Congress reacted in 1978 by passing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, defining discrimination “on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions” to be sex discrimination for all employment-related purposes.

If, however, opponents of the Affordable Care Act succeed in their attempt to have the courts strip its requirement that employers provide health insurance to cover contraception, this would institute significant gender discrimination. The act exempts from required compliance employers that are religious institutions, and the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., has extended the exemption to closely held corporations whose owners object to providing coverage for certain (or in some cases all) methods of contraception. Although Committee W has not lobbied specifically for a woman’s right to choose, it is clear that a woman’s success in academe is dependent on her ability to control her own body. This right seemed secure under the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, but it has been undercut by recent decisions permitting states to legislate restrictions that have effectively deprived women in large sections of the country of access to abortion clinics. Gonzales v. Carhart overturned a circuit court decision that had declared the federal so-called Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 to be unconstitutional. Subsequent decisions have further restricted access through requirements on physical facilities or narrowing of time frames.

Sexual Harassment and Assault

With respect to the issue of sexual harassment, the AAUP’s cautious approach focused at first on faculty-student relationships. Recognizing that such encounters were grounded in an imbalance of power, the AAUP’s recommendations on campus regulations came to include prohibiting faculty-student romantic relationships when the faculty member was in a position to exercise control over the student’s academic career. Unfortunately, although such regulations may have reduced their frequency or exploitative nature, these relationships continue to occur.

In Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson (1986), the US Supreme Court decided that sexual harassment constituted sex discrimination under Title VII. Thus harassment of employees by employers is prohibited by Title VII; what is not always clear is who
the “employer” is. A 2013 case, Vance v. Ball State University, narrowed the definition to those who have the ability to make an adverse employment decision. This ruling can present substantial difficulties for a victim seeking redress. An employer is accountable for colleague discrimination only if it was aware of the discrimination and failed to act to stop it. In addition to Title VII protection, sex discrimination, including sexual harassment, affecting students as well as faculty and staff, is prohibited by Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination of any sort in institutions receiving federal funding.

The controversy, however, has moved far beyond sexual relationships and into classroom speech. Does the academic freedom of students mean the freedom from ever hearing anything “offensive,” no matter how broad an individual’s definition of offensive might be? Demeaning language directed toward individual students can constitute harassment, but does discourse framed in sex stereotypes do so? (In a 1989 decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, the Supreme Court held that relying on sex stereotyping constituted sex discrimination in violation of Title VII.) What about a faculty member’s assignment—for what he or she deems “legitimate pedagogical reasons”—of works containing provocative language or dealing with sexually explicit themes? The AAUP’s 1995 Sexual Harassment: Suggested Policy and Procedures for Handling Complaints provides the following guidelines for identifying speech or conduct that constitutes sexual harassment: “Such speech or conduct is reasonably regarded as offensive and substantially impairs the academic or work opportunity of students, colleagues, or co-workers. If it takes place in the teaching context, it must also be persistent, pervasive, and not germane to the subject matter. The academic setting is distinct from the workplace in that wide latitude is required for professional judgment in determining the appropriate content and presentation of academic material.”

National attention in recent years has turned to the frequent occurrence of campus sexual assault and the problems it poses for the classroom, campus, and broader community. The Association has long recognized that the freedom to teach and to learn is inseparable from the maintenance of a safe and hospitable learning environment for students. Because actual or threatened sexual assault raises issues for colleges and universities, and their faculty, that go beyond those of sexual harassment, Committee W addressed some of these issues in its 2012 statement Campus Sexual Assault: Suggested Policies and Procedures. The statement outlines the scope of the problem, the consequences, and the management of sexual assault, and it summarizes federal law pertaining to sexual assault, including the provisions of the Jeanne Clery Act and its reporting requirements for institutions of higher education. The statement also addresses the special role and responsibility of faculty members, a group often overlooked in campus sexual assault prevention and training programs. Committee W’s statement on campus sexual assault, like its previous statements and reports, has provided useful guidance for campus policies and procedures.

Protecting Without Limiting

The problem of campus sexual harassment and assault increases focus on the faculty’s responsibility to help establish an interpretation of academic freedom that broadly protects students without limiting their ability to broaden their knowledge and viewpoints. In particular, the classical tradition of academic freedom, the freedom of faculty and students to teach and to learn, can clash with the notion of institutional academic freedom, the freedom from governmental interference in the operation of the college or university. Indeed, it would be better if institutions could regulate themselves so that there was no need for the government to step in to protect the academic freedom—including freedom from discrimination on the basis of gender—of their faculty and students.

Since its founding a century ago, the AAUP has been viewed by faculty as a bulwark protecting their academic freedom. Over time faculty have come to realize that while the AAUP can be effective, this effectiveness relies on an institutional understanding of what academic freedom means and the disinclination of college and university administrations to suffer public censure of their actions that impede this freedom. Thus a natural consequence of the establishment of Committee W and the resulting statements on behalf of the rights of women faculty has been an appeal to it, and more generally to the AAUP, for help in protecting these rights. The responses—the occasional amicus brief, some lobbying, the establishment of policies that can serve, and have served, as models on campuses, and certainly the salary evaluation kit—have been helpful but not as robust as many would have hoped. For example, only a handful of administrations have been censured for discrimination and campus investigations that include questions of equity have been rare. Lacking the resources needed for detailed investigations or for support of lengthy and expensive litigation, the Association has not been able to do much more.

Legislative Approaches

Other approaches remain to be pursued. For example, Lilly Ledbetter had worked for Goodyear Tire and Rubber for many years when she discovered that she had always been paid less than men in the same job with the same or less experience. When she brought suit, she lost because she had not filed a claim shortly after her first paycheck many years earlier. As in the case of pregnancy benefits, Congress responded to lobbying efforts to remove such manifest injustices. The 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act treats unequal pay as a continuing violation so that each paycheck initiates a filing period. Improving matters through legislation is possible.


Over the AAUP’s first century, women have made enormous gains in graduate education, in medicine, and in the law. This makes the scant progress for academic women in hiring, pay, promotion, and tenure discouraging. Lobbying higher education institutions, Congress, and state legislatures to protect individual and institutional academic freedom while prohibiting discrimination is a task for Committee W and the AAUP in general in its second century. Perhaps by the committee’s own centennial in 2018, a few small miracles will occur, aided by the diligent, devoted efforts of faculty women and men.

Mary W. Gray is professor of mathematics and statistics at American University. Her research interests include statistics and the law, survey sampling, economic equity, international development and education, and the history of mathematics. Founding president of the Association for Women in Mathematics, she is a long-time human rights and social justice activist and a life member of the AAUP.