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Income inequalities

Back at the beginning of February, my least favourite newspaper reported on UBC’s decision to give all tenure-track, female faculty members a 2 per cent raise. Part of the rationale in extending the raise to all women, and not only those identified as underpaid, was to streamline what would have been an otherwise time-consuming process of identifying individual cases of income inequity. It also, intentionally, makes a strong statement about persistent gender income inequity in academia. By applying the increase across the board, UBC effectively said that this is an issue about gender and about women, rather than reducing it to individual circumstance. 

This is an important statement to make given that the article appeared just days before a report published by the Conference Board of Canada, looking at “How Canada Performs: Society.” While Canada achieved a B grade overall, one of the key areas with only a C grade was the gender income gap. Here Canada ranked 11th out of 17 “peer countries,” and, although the gender income gap has narrowed in recent years, the C grade has remained steady since the 1980s. 

What was most striking to my eye in the Conference Board report was the chart near the bottom of the page detailing relative earnings of women and men by occupation. The data for this chart comes from 2010 and the discussion notes, “Unfortunately, the 2011 census did not gather data on income differences by gender and education.” I assume that this was a casualty of the Harper government’s decision to do away with the long-form census in 2011 but I don’t know this for certain (and I would welcome being corrected or confirmed in the comments). Such a move would be entirely consistent with the Harper government’s track record on gender and equality. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to separate out academic from other occupations, given the manner in which the information is presented. Nevertheless, I assume that professors come under the category of that includes education, placing us in a category that earns, on average, 70% of our male counterparts (again, please correct me if I’m wrong). 

Certainly, there is only so much that one can do with the data as presented here. For instance, I’m not going to assume that I’m only earning 70% of what the men in my department, at my rank, earn. That said this report does demonstrate that for as much as I would like to think that I am being paid equitably relative to my male counterparts, I might not be. More importantly, other women certainly are not. So where do the persistent gender-based income inequities come from? 

In my recent experience, it is abundantly clear to me the role that childbirth and parental leave (as they are termed here) directly affect women’s income at the U of A. I would very much welcome other examples because it doesn’t help to simply equate women’s experiences in academia with the choice of having children (women do not equal mothers). Obviously, gender inequity is not simply about this subcategory of women. 

Nevertheless, how does childbirth and parental leave translate into gender-based income inequality at the UofA? If you are a tenure-track faculty member, each year you have to submit a report detailing your research, teaching, and service work from July 1 to June 30. This annual report is then used as the basis to determine how much of a merit increase you will receive, over and above any across the board increases negotiated by our faculty association. I’m going to spare you the incredibly boring details of our increment process, suffice it to say that it’s a 3 point scale (but as far as I know, no one ever gets a 3), if you get 0s or a string of 0.5s, you’re in trouble, especially pre-tenure. So you aim for 1s or higher. 

Merit increments that you get early on in your career have the longest potential impact, therefore for women who go on childbirth leave (most of whom do so earlier in their career) if their merit increment in that year suffers, their salary over their career suffers with it. And it makes a difference when you are a woman giving birth. The period for which your pay is topped up is 15 weeks for childbirth leave, 10 weeks for parental leave. Each parent is eligible for parental leave and each parent is also eligible for additional unpaid leave (up to one year total) although in this time you only get EI, which if you have a mortgage or another child in daycare, is a recipe for financial disaster. But what all this means is that women giving birth to children, unsurprisingly, go on more leave than their partners and as a result are more likely to not teach in any given year, have limited service commitments (because much service work in a department or university is a year or longer commitment), or have less research output. Meaning they have less to report on come year-end. 

One response to this, still frequently articulated (as was seen in responses to the recent federal court decision regarding childcare) is that women and men who have children are making a choice, and if this choice means that they are not producing as much, then that is the penalty they pay for the choice that they have made. But this response fails to take into account that these people are still working, just as hard as their colleagues, for the portion of the year when they are not on leave. Yet, it becomes more difficult to quantify this work in the absence of clear service and teaching commitments. People bearing children should not be penalized for the fact that service and teaching commitments operate on a schedule that is rarely accommodating to the uncertainties of pregnancy and childbirth (e.g. premature babies, medical emergencies). I was permanently removed (without consultation) from a service position when I went on leave after the birth of my son, rather than simply having a colleague stand in for me to deal with the handful of responsibilities that had to be completed in the months I was on leave. I have colleagues who have been awarded 0 or 0.5 for work completed in a year when they were on maternity or parental leave, due in part to limited teaching or service work in the reporting years. 

There are ways in which our evaluation process attempts to accommodate this issue. If you are on leave for less than 6 months of the year, your performance for the year as a whole is extrapolated based on what you did in the time you were working. It’s crude math, but if you got x amount of work done in 6 months, that work is multiplied by 2 to provide a basis for evaluation for the year as a whole. This means of accommodating the issues created by leave does work for some women. 

But – and here’s one rub – if you’re on leave for more than 6 months in any given reporting year, there is no formula for extrapolation. In this case, you’re conceivably better off slacking off at work for the time that you are back, because there’s little to no assurance that you will be appropriately rewarded for what effort you do put in. Ultimately though, each year when you are awarded a 0 or a 0.5 translates into thousands of dollars less income then if you were awarded a 1, in the course of a 30-year career. 

And here’s the other rub: this problem has been recognized at the UofA for quite some time and a solution has even been proposed and apparently been approved by various levels of governance at the university (although not those that ultimately matter). That solution, from what I understand, is to give anyone on childbirth leave an automatic 1. Certainly, it would not solve the problem of gender-based income inequality in academia, as bearing children is not the only factor at work. But it is one factor at work. And an automatic 1 in our reporting system to recognize the inequities produced by childbirth leave is no more blunt an instrument than a 2% raise for all female faculty members.

2 thoughts on “Income inequalities

  1. A few years back at Waterloo a working group on salary equity for women faculty identified a similar structural feature of our merit system that generates gender-based salary anomalies: in the first year of an appointment, when there's not enough info to actually evaluate a person's performance, the person gets a 1.0 score (“Satisfactory”). That's actually a below-average score. If, in year 2, someone takes parental leave … as a fair number of the female faculty identified as having anomalous salaries seem to have done, and so is away on leave for much of a year … our policy said “same merit score as last year.” So, 1.0 again. Then the person maybe doesn't get such a big score the first year back, adjusting to a new family situation, etc. And with the way salary increases compound, three years of sub par merit raises early in a career becomes a big gap 10 years out when, over the 10 years, there is no appreciable difference in performance.

    The solution recommended (by yet another working group), and adopted, was to eliminate the 1.0 for newbies, and instead give them the “average score for people of that rank in that academic unit.” So the person average score happens in years 1 and 2 in the scenario above.

    There are hiccups: in a small department with one other assistant professor who is a brilliant teacher, a newbie gets a brilliant score for teaching while newbie from another department three offices over gets a poor score because the one other assistant prof there is a dud. So … maybe we should use the average in a whole Faculty rather than a department? Fixes are under discussion.

    The point of all this? It's worth learning the boring details, and pushing to implement practical fixes to the problems the details create: if you can point to an injustice and offer a solution, people you might not have suspected of being willing to work with you sometimes are. And this is most likely when the people advancing the argument are not people with a personal financial stake in them: as with most such steps towards justice on this campus, it was a lot of faculty members who were past the stage of their careers where this would help them personally that made anything at all happen. Larger lesson, though, is that change can happen.

    Second point: it's very hard to predict all the complications in any particular change, so it's important to be willing to evaluate the effects of a change and make adjustments.

    I can just hear all the radical friends of my teenage years calling me a stinking incrementalist.


  2. Thanks for this post. Here is a link to the latest CAUT Almanac (2010 to 2011).
    There you will see a detailed breakdown of the gender gap in salaries by rank, area of research and institution. The figures confirm what you have said (the gap is narrower, but is still there)and add other distressing things, like the fact that there are fewer women who become full professors in the same cohort as their male counterparts. Finally, our institution (U. of A.) pays market supplements to keep “valuable” professors here. These are not represented in the figures. If they were, they would probably widen the income gap. Women who are parents are not represented in these statistics, but most other equity groups do not appear there in detail either…where they do, the figures are appalling.


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