A Gender Equity Champion is Accused of…Pay Discrimination???

You probably don’t need me to tell you that pay discrimination is still happening in 2023.  You may not need me to tell you that it happens a lot in academia. Both of these phenomena are bad enough — but here’s something that makes it even worse: when it happens at one of the first women’s colleges in the United States.

I’m talking about Vassar College, the second-degree granting institution of higher education for women in the United States. Yes, that Vassar College — the one that claims on its own website to have been  ” Founded in 1861 to offer women a fully equivalent education to that of the best men’s colleges of the period…”

Read on for more…


Five female professors at Vassar, ranging from the English to the Physics Departments announced that they filed a pay discrimination suit on August 30, 2023. They allege that Vassar has known for years about a growing pay gap between male and female professors, and that female professors have tried for at least 15 years to reach a solution. 35 other female professors expressed support for the lawsuit.

The lawsuit includes allegations that female professors’ starting salaries are less than that of their male counterparts, that the College’s merit-based system is biased and that getting a promotion takes longer and is more difficult for women than for men.

In the Complaint the plaintiffs show that in the 2021-2022 school year the male professors earned an average of $153,238, compared to the $139,322 earned by female professors. That comes out to roughly a 10% difference.

The Complaint also alleges that a 2011 presentation to the faculty showed that women on average earned less than their male colleagues at every stage of their academic careers. Another internal study showed the pay gap to be most pronounced amongst longest-serving women — a $30k annual median salary difference for those serving 20 or more years as full professors.

Vassar claims to have been working “diligently” on a solution since 2019. Given the allegations about the gap as recently as last year, those efforts appear to be too little too late.

Gender pay gaps that cannot be justified by job qualifications or significant differences in the work performed violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, the Equal Pay Act, and also, in Vassar’s case, NYS law requiring equal pay for substantially equal work.

Yes, a gender pay gap is unfortunately common in academia. That doesn’t make it legal and it doesn’t make it right. What’s more though, in a school that was founded for women it’s even more intolerable and damaging to its very brand–and don’t kid yourself how you treat your employees does impact your brand. If you don’t believe me, look at Starbucks. Cornell University decided not to renew Starbucks’ contract for a concession stand and to sell merchandise due to student protests arising out of Starbucks’ decision to close three unionized stores in Ithaca, NY.

An employer who allows blatant discrimination to continue and grow cannot complain when it finds itself in court, when it finds itself having trouble attracting and retaining good talent, when it finds its very brand is then damaged.

Vassar has long prided itself on being a pioneer in women’s education, a champion of promoting equality between the sexes. That’s Vassar’s brand. What could be more damaging to that brand than a lawsuit alleging a pay gap between male and female professors spanning close to two decades — or more? Conversely, what better brand ambassadors could there be for a women’s college than its female professors? Looks like Vassar now has a lot of damage control to do.

That doesn’t have to be you, though. Review (and if necessary revise) your pay  and employment practices now so that similar things don’t happen to your company–even if it isn’t touted as a champion of women (or minorities or other protected classes under federal and state laws).

Enough said for now — I hope.

Are you an employer interested in proactively addressing workplace challenges and company culture? Visit my website, http://www.janetteleveylaw.com to contact me for a complimentary 20-minute consultation. 

Watch my television interview on Good Morning HR with Mike Coffey on Mental Health and the ADA.

Contents of this post are for educational/informational purposes only, are not legal advice, and do not create an attorney-client relationship. Consult with competent employment counsel in the state(s) in which you employ people with your specific questions.

Before choosing an attorney, you should give this matter careful thought. The selection of an attorney is an important decision. If you find this communication to be inaccurate or misleading, you may report it to the Committee on Attorney Advertising Hughes Justice Complex, CN 037, Trenton, NJ




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