Vassar’s Female Professors Sue the College, Alleging Gender-Based Pay Bias

Five female professors have filed a class action lawsuit against Vassar College, alleging gender-based pay discrimination.

(Bloomberg) — Five female professors have filed a class action lawsuit against Vassar College, alleging gender-based pay discrimination.

The plaintiffs — Wendy Graham, Maria Höhn, Mia Mask, Cindy Schwarz and Debra Zeifman — are current and former full professors at Vassar, a pioneer in women’s education, in departments ranging from English to film.

The complaint, filed Wednesday morning in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, alleges that “Vassar systematically underpays, underpromotes, and unfairly evaluates its female full professors.”

Anthony Friscia, chair of the board of trustees said in a statement on Wednesday that Vassar has been working on pay equity with a group of professors since January 2019, and that it has shared the result of equity analyses. “Vassar believes it pays its faculty fairly and equitably and has complied with the law, and it would like to resolve this issue,” the statement said.

Female faculty say the problem has been getting worse over time. Average salary data for the 2021-2022 academic year, the latest available, shows that female professors are paid 10% less, on average, than their male counterparts, a bigger gap than about two decades ago. In a 2011 self-reported survey of Vassar faculty, of those that said they were “not satisfied” with salary, 62.5% were women, while 37.5% were men.

The plaintiffs allege that disparities start at the very earliest stages, as female new hires often receive lower starting salaries than their male peers. And because raises are often calculated off of prior salaries, the gap widens the longer one is employed. (Annual salary increases typically include a raise calculated as a percentage of prior salary and a merit increase.) A pay equity study analyzing data from the 2020-2021 academic year showed that the difference in median annual salary among full professors serving 20 or more years post-tenure was roughly $30,000.

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Female faculty have sought redress for the pay disparities internally since at least 2011, per the complaint.

The plaintiffs also allege that the school delays the promotion of female professors and relies on processes like peer reviews that “fundamentally favor men over comparable women and ensure that women take longer to advance.”

The plaintiffs said that Vassar’s female professors are awarded lower merit designations, which impact pay increases and promotion opportunities, despite performing just as well if not better than their male colleagues. Women employed by the school had equal or greater class enrollments than their male peers and female faculty have brought in the largest external grants, yet merit ratings for women are typically lower than their male counterparts, the complaint said.

The plaintiffs are seeking wages for themselves and other class members in an amount to be designated at trial, as well as damages for “emotional distress, humiliation, embarrassment, and anguish” in an amount to be determined at trial.

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Thirty-five additional professors — most of Vassar’s female staff — signed a letter in support of the plaintiffs, calling it a “profound institutional betrayal.”

Vassar College, a private liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, New York, was founded in 1861 as a women’s college and became co-ed in 1969, according to its website. The school in 1926 joined “the Seven Sisters” — a group of women’s colleges including Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Radcliffe and Wellesley.

“If it could happen there, it literally could be anywhere,” said Kelly Dermody, a lawyer who is representing the women.

The case is Graham et al v. Vassar College, 23-cv-07692, US District Court, Southern District of New York.

(Adds details from filing from fifth paragraph.)

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