Broadening Efforts to Address Gender Inequity

A call to action.
By Glenn Colby and Chelsea Fowler

As the AAUP highlighted in The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2019–20, key indicators of gender equity among faculty have not budged over the last ten years. While the recent findings presented in this article document the disparities in salaries for women and the concentration of women in lower-rank and contingent positions, our aim is not to simply repeat the same discouraging news that the AAUP has reported for years in its annual Faculty Compensation Survey. Instead, this article provides guidance for faculty members and administrators as they address gender inequities at colleges and universities. Gender-equity efforts in higher education require greater involvement of faculty members and must be situated within a broader framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion. After briefly reviewing AAUP policies and data sources, this article presents a summary of recent findings on gender inequity in academe, then discusses a range of approaches used to address gender inequities, such as affirmative action programs; salary-equity studies; and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. Finally, we argue that while the COVID-19 pandemic demands short-term measures to address gender inequities, it may also provide opportunities to implement innovative long-term solutions.

Gaps in Policies and Data Sources

The historical failure to address gender inequity within a broader framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion is apparent in the policies and data sources that informed this article. This problem is evidenced in the AAUP’s almost exclusive focus on gender inequity in its policies on discrimination. For example, while the AAUP’s brief Statement on Discrimination says that the AAUP is “committed to use its procedures and to take measures, including censure, against colleges and universities practicing illegal or unconstitutional discrimination, or discrimination on a basis not demonstrably related to the job function involved, including, but not limited to, age, sex, disability, race, religion, national origin, marital status, or sexual orientation,” its more elaborate On Processing Complaints of Discrimination focuses almost entirely on sex discrimination. Most other relevant AAUP policies have been similarly focused on gender inequity, including the Association’s 1974 statement Leaves of Absence for Child-Bearing, Child-Rearing, and Family Emergencies and its 2001 Statement of Principles on Family Responsibilities and Academic Work. While the AAUP’s 1983 statement Affirmative-Action Plans: Recommended Procedures for Increasing the Number of Minority Persons and Women on College and University Faculty does address both sex and racial discrimination, the AAUP has not consistently issued policy statements situated within a framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The failure to incorporate such a broader framework is also evinced in the available national data sources on faculty. Although the US Department of Education’s National Study of Postsecondary Faculty collected data on a variety of demographic characteristics for both full- and part-time faculty members, this data collection ceased in 2004. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS)—the core higher education data collection program for the Department of Education—collects data on the number of full-time faculty members by gender and by race and ethnicity, but it collects full-time faculty salary data only by gender. Similarly, while the AAUP has tracked the progress of women in the academy for decades by collecting full-time faculty salary data by gender in its annual Faculty Compensation Survey, it has not collected salary data by race and ethnicity.

These historical blind spots are problematic, and the AAUP is committed to taking fundamental steps toward incorporating a racial justice approach into the Association’s work. Within the research department, for example, we are looking at ways to expand our research efforts to investigate issues related to race and ethnicity in higher education.

Recent Findings

Enforcement of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and of other relevant laws has improved working conditions for women faculty members in higher education, but progress toward gender equity has been exceedingly slow. As highlighted in The Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession, 2019–20, women continue to earn less than men at all ranks and are underrepresented in the elite doctoral research universities that typically pay the highest salaries. Additionally, less than a third of full professors in the United States are women, and women remain concentrated in the lower faculty ranks and in contingent positions—the least secure and worst remunerated teaching positions in higher education. Contingent faculty members usually do not have access to the same level of support and benefits as tenure-line faculty members. Lower-rank and contingent faculty members have often been the most vulnerable to cuts when colleges and universities have confronted financial crises, especially now during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December 2020, the AAUP’s Department of Research released a data snapshot, “IPEDS Data on Full-Time Women Faculty and Faculty of Color,” providing an updated demographic profile of full-time faculty by academic rank and institutional type. Drawing on IPEDS data from fall 2018, we calculated two key indicators of possible gender-based discrimination: the gender pay gap, expressed as the salary ratio between men and women and defined as women’s average salary divided by men’s average salary, and the percentage of faculty members who are women. Selected findings from the data snapshot related to gender equity include the following:

  • Women make up 50.0 percent of faculty members overall, but women are more likely to be employed part time than men.
  • Only 42.5 percent of full-time tenure-line faculty members are women, while 53.9 percent of full-time non-tenure-track faculty members are women (see figure 1).
  • On average, full-time women faculty members earn approximately 81.2 percent of what full-time men earn.
  • Representation of women among full-time tenure-line faculty members decreases with progression in rank; less than one-third of full professors are women (see figure 2).
  • Full-time tenure-line women faculty members earn less than men at all ranks (see figure 3).
  • Representation of women among full-time faculty members generally decreases with progression in both rank and institutional category across racial and ethnic groups.

These and other findings are discussed in greater detail in the data snapshot, and numerous additional figures and tables are provided there.

Figure 1: Bar graph showing that among full-time faculty, women are concentrated in non-tenure-track positions

Figure 2: bar graph showing that representation of women among full-time tenure-line faculty members decreases with progression in rank

Figure 3: Bar graph showing that full-time tenure-line women faculty members earn less than men at all ranks

Why Address Gender Inequity?

The reasons for addressing gender inequity may be self-evident to proponents of the AAUP’s policies; however, as Constance Wagner suggested in a 2018 article in the Journal of Law and Education, “The fact that gender inequity has persisted even as more and more women have entered academia suggests that not everyone understands the benefits of promoting gender equity in this context.” Beyond the issue of basic fairness, gender inequities tend to concentrate women in contingent positions focused on teaching core courses with limited job security, resources, and opportunities for advancement, thus limiting their ability to contribute fully to all dimensions of research, teaching, and service. Martha West and John W. Curtis described this issue in their report AAUP Faculty Gender Equity Indicators 2006 as follows: “When women are missing from faculty ranks, the research questions they would raise—whether or not those questions relate to matters of gender—are not asked and the corresponding research is not undertaken. American higher education as a whole suffers because of the lack of gender equity in the faculty.”

Another form of gender inequity is the difference in salary between women and men faculty members. The American Association of University Women has clearly documented the lifelong financial effects of salary inequities in The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap. The pay gap follows women throughout their working years, since salary discrimination early in a career often carries forward, compounding over time. It also follows women after they leave the workforce, since Social Security, pensions, and other sources of retirement income are usually based on cumulative earnings.

Affirmative Action

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to prohibit discrimination in federally funded programs on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Colleges and universities responded to these directives by implementing affirmative action programs that diversified campuses. Following the passage of Title IX, which barred gender-based discrimination in schools that receive federal financial assistance, affirmative action programs were expanded to address issues of gender inequity. These programs have improved conditions for women faculty members in higher education, but affirmative action has met considerable resistance over the years. For example, some opponents contend that the low proportion of women with full professorships is due not to discrimination but instead to a lack of qualified women applicants, often referred to as the “pipeline problem.” This argument has largely been debunked, since women have earned the majority of doctoral degrees every year since 2009 and, as shown in figure 2, half of all full-time tenure-track assistant professors are women.

Establishment of an affirmative action office was an important component of AAUP policy recommendations for addressing discrimination in the years following the passage of Title IX. However, as the 1983 AAUP report Affirmative-Action Plans: Recommended Procedures for Increasing the Number of Minority Persons and Women on College and University Faculty discussed, numerous shortcomings become apparent in that approach. Most important, the report observed, “Faculty members have too often abrogated their traditional role in institutional policy formulation and implementation by allowing administrators to assume major responsibility for affirmative-action requirements.”

Identifying Pay Gaps

Much of the literature on gender inequity focuses on identifying pay gaps for women and other disadvantaged groups by conducting salary-equity studies, and the AAUP has made considerable efforts to develop related tools and techniques. Most notably, the AAUP commissioned Elizabeth Scott in 1974 to develop the Higher Education Salary Evaluation Kit, a set of detailed instructions for conducting a multiple regression analysis of faculty salaries, and in 2001 Lois Haignere developed Paychecks: A Guide to Conducting Salary-Equity Studies for Higher Education Faculty, a complete resource for conducting salary-bias analyses. The AAUP’s annual compensation survey also provides comparative faculty salary data by gender. Collectively, these resources have been used by faculty members and administrators at many institutions to identify inequities in salary structures.

But when a gender pay gap is identified, what should happen? In some cases, there may be logical reasons why some faculty members are paid more than others—differences in duties, responsibilities, experience, and so forth. Sometimes institutional or departmental peer comparisons can help determine whether faculty members are being paid fairly. Some may argue that gender-based pay disparities are explained by “market factors” and by the tendency for women to be clustered in low-paying disciplines. As the AAUP’s Committee W on the Status of Women in the Academic Profession noted in its 1992 report Salary-Setting Practices That Unfairly Disadvantage Women Faculty, “market-determined wages and discrimination that merits correction are by no means mutually exclusive.” In any case, when unexplained gender pay gaps are identified, institutions must take actions to correct the disparities.

In Haignere’s Paychecks, former AAUP counsel Donna Euben recommends that faculty contracts incorporate salary-equity provisions to ensure that institutions are prepared to take appropriate action. These provisions should include clauses covering the composition, mission, and outcomes of joint faculty-administration committees; the amount of money available for correcting salary disparities; the establishment of minimum salary floors to mitigate those disparities; and grievance procedures. But for the most part, these recommendations help correct problems related to gender inequity after they occur. Even affirmative action plans mostly consist of analyses—in the form of salary-equity and employment-equity studies—to identify gaps and then propose ways to close or at least mitigate them. On its surface, this may seem like a reasonable approach, but clearly it has not yielded adequate results.

Actions Taken by Institutions

Over the past year, the AAUP’s research staff has reviewed numerous policies, reports, affirmative action plans, and other documents produced by colleges and universities addressing issues of equity, including gender discrimination. Institutions commonly use climate surveys, salary-equity studies, and affirmative action plans to identify inequities, set goals, and make recommendations. Notably, affirmative action plans are a reporting requirement for federal contractors, including colleges and universities that receive federal grant funding under Executive Order 11246.

A complete review of these documents would be beyond the scope of this article, but here are a few examples of institutional efforts to address equity issues:

  • Harvard University is one of many institutions that conduct faculty climate surveys. The report 2019 Faculty Climate Survey University-wide Results details the most recent findings. Harvard conducts these surveys every six years, allowing for comparisons over time across several domains, including satisfaction, atmosphere, mentoring and advancement, sources of stress, and time use. Time use is a particularly valuable data point related to women faculty members, because the climate survey asks questions beyond institutional structure and focuses on household structure, household duties, and caregiving responsibilities, which can significantly affect women’s abilities to participate in institutional activities.
  • In 2017, the University of Oregon administra-tion and the AAUP-affiliated United Academics faculty union reached an agreement regarding a salary-equity study as detailed in the 2019 Equity Committee Final Report. Additionally, as part of the collective bargaining agreement, the university established a 0.75 percent pool from the institutional budget to address salary equity. A working group consisting of both faculty members and administrators was formed to manage the process. While many other institutions may conduct salary-equity studies on their own accord, the UO agreement demonstrates how faculty members and administrators can work together to address inequities on campus.
  • The 2019 Faculty Salary Equity Review Report from the University of California, San Francisco, was conducted by UCSF’s Faculty Salary Equity Review Committee, which the university established in 2014. This approach stands out because the committee conducts analyses and reviews action plans submitted by each of the UCSF schools. These plans are transparent and made available to the faculty, which encourages accountability.
  • The University of Washington is one of many institutions that, as a federal contractor, is required to submit an affirmative action plan. The university’s 2020 report Affirmative Action Program for Minorities and Women specifies the duties and expectations of administration officials charged with implementing affirmative action policies. This plan also discusses the development and implementation of action-oriented programs, particularly for recruitment, selection, and hiring. The plan lays out responsibilities, goals, and metrics for monitoring the effectiveness of the policy.

While these policies, reports, and plans demonstrate different approaches to addressing gender-equity issues, they are by no means comprehensive solutions to dealing with broader issues of discrimination.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Gender-equity initiatives are often ineffective because they fail to account for the complexities resulting from many other factors besides gender, including race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and disability. Over the past few decades, work toward diversity, equity, and inclusion in general has evolved considerably, and it is now clear that to be effective, gender-equity initiatives must fit into a broader framework informed by this scholarship. Roger Worthington, Christine Stanley, and Daryl Smith sum up the issue in a recent article in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education:

Whereas early efforts toward access primarily focused on compositional diversity in terms of race and gender, and in turn affirmative action, the subsequent recognition of the need to retain and promote the success of students, faculty, and staff from marginalized and oppressed groups led the field to aim above and beyond numerical diversity toward issues of equity, inclusion, and justice. Whereas, compositional diversity—especially in terms of critical mass—is in some sense a necessary (though insufficient in and of itself) precondition for achieving equity and inclusion, the vast majority of institutions have not reached even that precondition.

As more students from racial and ethnic minority groups—especially Black or Latinx students—have enrolled in higher education in recent years, colleges and universities have increased their diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts. The recent growth in social justice movements in the United States has led many institutions to hire a chief diversity officer, often a senior cabinet-level position. Standards for this position are rapidly evolving; the current standards, developed by the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education (NADOHE), are published in Standards of Professional Practice for Chief Diversity Officers in Higher Education 2.0.

Regardless of whether faculty members view hiring a chief diversity officer as a helpful part of broader diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, they should become familiar with NADOHE standards and the associated metrics. These standards may provide a useful framework for defining roles, responsibilities, and activities of faculty members and administrators. To effectively combat gender pay gaps and other inequities, campus-level committees should be formed to monitor equity issues and advocate for women and other disadvantaged groups in the profession. In accordance with NADOHE standards, these committees should include faculty members from different disciplines as well as deans and department chairs.

Impact of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the gender inequities entrenched in our higher education system and requires its own short-term responses, such as changing teaching and evaluation polices, providing additional funds for caregiving assistance, and temporarily adjusting tenure processes when appropriate. Surely the pandemic has disproportionately affected women faculty members, because women are more likely than men to be employed on a contingent basis and have had increased caregiving responsibilities during the pandemic. During this perilous time, many faculty members have been asked to take on tremendous amounts of additional work, and others have faced furloughs, pay cuts, or even layoffs as institutions have confronted financial crises. The AAUP’s online FAQ, “AAUP Principles and Standards for the COVID-19 Crisis,” provides guidance for faculty members as they face these challenges.


Women faculty members have benefited from the enactment of Title IX and from other legal protections, but progress toward gender equity has been slow. The actions that institutions have historically taken, including affirmative action programs and salary-equity studies, are necessary but insufficient by themselves for addressing gender inequities that are well-documented. The short-term measures for the COVID-19 crisis described above are critical, but long-term solutions for addressing gender inequity are overdue. Evolving standards for addressing inequities in higher education call for faculty members to be directly involved in addressing gender inequity within a broader framework of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We cannot expect college and university administrators to fix the problems by themselves. While the COVID-19 crisis has added urgency to demands for addressing gender inequity, it also creates opportunities to implement innovative ideas, and we are hopeful that it will serve as a call to action for faculty members and administrators to work together to provide more equitable opportunities for women and other marginalized groups in US colleges and universities.

Glenn Colby is senior researcher and Chelsea Fowler is research assistant in the AAUP’s Department of Research.