Last month, U.S. News and World Report ranked the Durham-Chapel Hill area as the best place in the country for gender equality in the workplace. As one reason, the magazine cited the area’s percentage of highly-educated women. It might seem obvious that the area’s progressive universities are part of the reason… but the truth is, universities are lagging in equal pay for women.
Nan Keohane was a young, ambitious political science professor at Swarthmore when she got her first taste of gender inequality.
Nan Keohane: "This was way back in the late 1960s, that there was some discrimination against me as a woman and I only gradually became conscious of it. My husband was actually more conscious of it than I was at the start."
Keohane soon rose through the ranks at Swarthmore, Stanford, and Wellesley, before being named the first female president at Duke University in 1993.
She quickly gained a reputation as a consensus builder. She raised a record amount of money and took on some of the school’s most challenging problems, including selective housing for fraternities.
But she saved the issue closest to her heart for last.
Keohane: "About three years before I knew I was probably going to be ready to step down from Duke, even though I hadn’t told anybody, what do I want to accomplish before I leave? At the very top of my list was to say, what can we find out about what it’s like for women at Duke?"
The women’s initiative at Duke was launched in 2002 and lasted for a year. The final report listed a number of challenges. For faculty, it included expanding the day care facility, offering tenure-clock relief to faculty for family reasons, and spending more than $2 million a year to attract and retain female and minority faculty.
The school has made some gains. The number of female faculty members has grown from 30 percent to 35 percent in the past five years.
Nancy Allen is a physician, the mother of twins, and the Vice Provost for Faculty Diversity and Faculty Development at Duke. She says women are learning how to better balance their academic careers and family life.
Dr. Nancy Allen: "We do see an awful lot of women who are able to do that and figure out what will work for them. There’s not one prescription that kind of works for everybody."
Where they seem to be having more trouble is getting equal pay. The gender pay gap in academia is often described as a problem of experience. More men have been at it longer than women, thus the gap is usually wider at the top levels.
Surprisingly, at Duke, the reverse is true. The gap is the largest at the assistant professor - or entry - level.
According to the American Association of University Professors, women assistant professors at Duke earn just 80 percent of their male colleagues.
At U-N-C Chapel Hill, women assistant professors earn 91 percent of what their male colleagues earn, at Princeton, it’s 92 percent.
Allen says the problem at Duke is exacerbated by the low percentage of women in the highest paying academic departments and schools - like engineering, law, and economics. For example: Just 7 of Duke’s 47 econ faculty members are women.
Allen: "So we still have a bit of a glass ceiling and in some ways, both in moving through the system and in the hiring, but it’s a complicated situation. There’s not one responsible reason for that."
John Curtis: "Well my initial response to that is that it’s not a justification at all. It’s simply a further specification of the problem."
John Curtis is the research director at the American Association of University Professors.
Curtis: "There really is no reason in 2011 that we shouldn’t have women just as well-represented in virtually every field."
Curtis says the problem needs another round of attention and solutions.
Curtis: "Although a lot of people argue well, those are problems of the past and we’ve pretty much taken care of it, the data that we have indicate that the progress is very, very slow. And that if we are actually going to achieve anything close to equity, than we have to make some renewed efforts and really take a fresh look at the barriers that are keeping women from achieving the same status that men have."
The barriers for equal pay for women are different than the issues faced by racial minorities in academia. For African-Americans and Latinos, the issue isn’t equal pay as much as equal representation.
One of the barriers minorities and women face is leadership. Duke is one of the few universities to have hired women to lead schools of engineering and medicine. But Duke’s former female president - Nan Keohane - says that the gender bias in academia is sometimes more subtle.
Keohane: "There’s a good deal of evidence, for example, that in many fields, though not all, a scholarly paper that’s exactly the same paper which is attributed to Jane Jones or John Jones, is ranked higher by both men and women reviewers if they think it was written by John Jones than Jane Jones."
Last year, for the first time ever, more women earned phd’s in the United States than men. As more and more women enter academia, biases like these may fade away. But pay equity, even at the entry level for faculty, still seems a long way off.