Five current and former women Vassar College professors filed a lawsuit on Wednesday, Aug. 30, alleging decades of systemic wage discrimination based on gender. Founded as one of the country’s first colleges to educate women, Vassar has affirmed that the administration has been working with a group of professors since January 2019 on the issue of pay equity.
A joint statement of support signed by 36 women full professors, representing the majority of the female full professors at Vassar, also urged the college to engage constructively with the lawsuit. The statement read, “We are deeply committed to Vassar, having dedicated all or a substantial part of our academic careers to the College. We do not take lightly the decision to speak out, but Vassar has left us with no other choice. The College has known for many years that it has unlawfully paid men more than women, but it has for years rejected our overtures and refused to address this discrimination in any meaningful or substantive way.”
Following the news release on the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 30, Vassar’s Office of the President emailed a statement from Board of Trustees Chair Anthony J. Friscia to the Vassar community. In the statement, he said, “Vassar believes it pays its faculty fairly and equitably and has complied with the law, and it would like to resolve this issue. As chair of the Board of Trustees, I regret that the group of faculty members has now initiated litigation against Vassar.” He continued, “The Board of Trustees is proud of Vassar’s thorough performance review process. Faculty salaries are set by a faculty-led, peer-review process, per Vassar’s governance structure.” The College declined to further comment amid open litigation.
Equal Rights Advocates and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein announced the lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 30, with partner Michelle Lamy and co-counsel Kelly Dermody representing the plaintiffs. Lamy and Dermody notably represented female workers in both the Goldman Sachs gender discrimination class action lawsuit that resulted in a $215 million settlement for women at the company, and in the Google gender pay equity litigation that resulted in a $118 million settlement for women at Google, among other cases with Lieff Cabraser.
In a written correspondence to The Miscellany News, Lamy explained, “For well over a decade, the professors attempted to work collaboratively with Vassar to address this issue, both individually and in groups. Vassar had every chance to do the right thing. When it became clear this year that the College was never going to voluntarily close the pay gap, the professors realized they had no choice but to file a lawsuit.”
Lamy added, “Vassar claimed in a statement made through its Board of Trustees that it ‘would like to resolve’ this lawsuit. The sincerity of that statement remains to be seen. Absent a prompt resolution, the professors are prepared to fully litigate this case.”
The complaint affirms, “Pay disparities within this Class often began at hire, as Vassar systematically offered men higher starting salaries than women. Because pay increases are a percentage of prior salary at Vassar, that initial disparity grows exponentially over Class members’ (often multi-decade) careers. As a result, a relatively lower (than men’s) starting salary in the early years—which has been the reality for women at Vassar dating back decades—renders women’s salaries disadvantaged to an increasing extent over the course of their careers.”
The lawsuit also shares data from The Chronicle of Higher Education that shows not only a gender pay gap in average salary for full professors every year since 2003, but also that this gap has grown to upwards of 14.6 percent. Despite this data being brought to the attention of the College, the lawsuit states that “Vassar’s cooperation largely ended with its confirmation that the gender pay gap had not been addressed. On February 1, 2021, Dean [of Faculty William] Hoynes wrote to a number of the women engaged in the internal efforts and informed them that, based on Vassar’s recent analysis of faculty salaries, he would be working with the administration to conduct equity reviews for some (but not all) professors.”
Furthermore, “Any professor who wanted a review had to request one, and some who requested a review did not receive one.” After having a review, some female professors had pay adjustments as low as $1,000, but the majority of women received no adjustment at all, according to the complaint.
Lamy said, “It is striking that Vassar—an institution founded on the principles of equity—has for so long refused to address inequity within its own walls. Worse even, Vassar has responded to requests for pay equity by decreasing transparency about faculty salaries, in an apparent attempt to mask its decades-long pattern of underpaying women. This turn toward opacity would be problematic for any institution, let alone one that so publicly claims to strive for equity and inclusion.”
As President of the Vassar Student Association (VSA), Olivia Gross ’24 did not provide a statement on behalf of the entire Association to The Miscellany News, but encouraged equity in all areas of the College. She said, “As President, I am dedicated to making sure the VSA is advocating for equity and anti-discriminatory practices for our students, and I would hope to see the same advocacy priorities implemented for our faculty.”
The five plaintiffs are Professor of English Wendy Graham, former Professor of History Maria Höhn, Professor of Film Mia Mask, Professor of Physics and Astronomy Cindy Schwarz and Professor of Psychological Science Debra Zeifman.
In the joint statement of support, the 36 women full professors added, “The gender pay gap at Vassar is the result of years of inequitable practices, including substantial differences in the starting salaries of men and women, a subjective merit ratings system that is biased against women, and a discriminatory promotion system that systematically prevents or delays the advancement of women professors relative to their male counterparts.”
Lamy believes that the fact that this can happen at a historically women’s college demonstrates the structural nature of gender pay inequality. She added, “The response to the professors’ decision to bring Vassar’s long history of underpaying women to light has been overwhelmingly positive, both locally and nationally,” says Lamy. She believes that the fact that this can happen at a historically women’s college demonstrates the structural nature of gender pay inequality. “If it can happen at Vassar, it can happen, and is happening, everywhere.”