Colleges face cries of inequity

A class-action suit against University of Washington charges women are paid less.

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Nearly 40 years after Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem began fighting for women to gain equal access to fields like law, business, and medicine, the battle is increasingly shifting to a new front: equal treatment once they get there.

In particular, an intense struggle is being played out in the hallowed halls of the nation's universities. Despite their role as a launching pad for many young women's careers, a growing number of colleges face charges of not offering equal opportunities for female professors.

Now the University of Washington is confronting one of the most significant and visible gender-discrimination challenges in decades: a class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of as many as 2,000 women, charging broad inequities in pay, promotion, grant money, and teaching loads.

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A judgment against the university could hold stark implications for other schools, say observers - and could even send a warning to the corporate world, where evidence shows women are still often paid less than their male counterparts. At the very least, it is likely to cause campuses across the US to take a closer look at the treatment of their women faculty.

The University of Washington "has tremendous credibility with other universities," says Catherine Didion, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Women in Science. "This suit has the potential to be a catalyst at other campuses, a wake-up call: Do we have these same problems, and what can we do now, before there's a class action here?"

The women at UW are hardly alone in their claims of bias. At campuses from the University of Texas to Florida State, accusations of discrimination have proliferated in recent years. No less prestigious a university than Stanford is currently being investigated by the US Department of Labor, after several dozen women professors filed a formal complaint.

Moreover, last month, presidents from nine of the nation's top universities, including Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Michigan, got together and unanimously declared that gender bias is likely common on America's campuses. The meeting, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., was a follow-up to a landmark MIT report documenting discrimination on its own campus.

But widespread discrimination - as opposed to isolated instances - is a difficult charge to prove. And UW officials insist that in their case, it's simply not true.

"We do not believe there's been any systemic discrimination against women at the university. Period," says Norman Arkans, associate vice president for university relations.

Since the decisions on faculty pay raises are made in some 100 autonomous departments within the university, college administrators argue it's unlikely a pattern of discrimination could happen.

"All these faculty go through peer review in their departments. And it's almost all based on merit," Mr. Arkans says. "In a system like this, it is virtually impossible for there to be systemic discrimination - because it's so decentralized."

The initial complaint, which led to the class action, was brought by Dolphine Oda, a professor of oral pathology at the UW School of Dentistry. Ms. Oda charged that she was paid less than her male colleagues despite considerable accomplishments, including 14 distinguished teaching awards and publication in more than 55 medical journals.

Others then lodged similar complaints. Because of unequal promotions and hiring practices, the suit contends, only 1 in 4 professors on a tenure track in 1997 at the UW were women, as were 60 percent of nontenure-track professors.

A statistician employed by those bringing the suit looked at faculty hired between 1981 and 1986. The data showed that the percentage of women who became full professors by 1997 was 20 percent lower than the percentage of men who made the cut.

Steve Berman, an attorney for the women, contends that, despite the individual decisions made by departments, a "top down" pattern of discrimination can be found at the university that begins with senior administrators and makes its way down to the colleges and departments.

He points out that the university conducted two separate studies of its own, in 1997 and 1998, and both "found that there was a systematic, across-the-board problem [of gender-based discrimination]. And they did nothing about it," he says.

THE university is currently appealing a local superior court judge's decision to certify the case as a class action. If it loses its appeal, the case is scheduled for trial in January 2002.

But between now and then, the movement for gender equity in academia is certain to expand. Already Harvard, the University of Arizona, and the University of California at Berkeley have begun looking at the issue on their campuses. And the nine schools that met last month in Cambridge have pledged to regroup in a year - just in time for the UW trial in Seattle.

"I don't want this to be seen as a zero-sum game," says Ms. Didion of the movement for gender equity. "In the past, it's been assumed that in order for one party to gain, another must lose. And that doesn't have to be true here."

"Encouraging such diversity in your faculty helps you make certain that your school is really the best it can be."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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