On Aug. 30, five female Vassar professors filed a lawsuit against Vassar College, claiming wage discrimination based on gender over the course of many years. Once I navigated all the Deece-booth rumors and Fizz discourse, as well as the actual articles that broke the news, I was immediately thrown back into problem-set mode. I was trying to look for data and metrics that could help me make sense of the gender wage gap on campus the same way we had for different occupations when I took ECON 206: “Gender Issues in Economics” with Professor Sarah Pearlman, the Chair of the Economics Department, last semester.
When Pearlman walked into one of those indistinguishable economics classrooms in Kenyon Hall to teach “Gender Issues in Economics,” checking the time to make sure she was on time (she was), she made a claim that this would be the most personal economics class that any of us would take. I decided to trust the word of the Chair of Vassar College’s Economics Department, and now more than ever it has become evidently clear how true Professor Pearlman’s words were.
As someone who identifies as a woman, the concept of the wage gap and the implications of marriage or motherhood on the market were not unknown to me. But I was under the impression that due to my qualifications, knowledge and social progress, these issues wouldn’t affect me. Socioeconomic gender issues that were discussed during my time in class just felt like problems to be learned about and “solved” on my final to get an A. But, of course, those issues did not stay in my readings or were not simple enough for a basic graph to explain. Instead, I learned that they might be right here, impacting leaders in a community I considered a safe and pioneering space for women.
It became apparent to me that the knowledge I had gained last semester was not niche, but incredibly relevant and should be common knowledge. So I emailed Professor Pearlman for the first time since May to ask if she would share with me, and the rest of the campus, what her class aims to teach and how it can help all of us navigate both the conversations on campus now and those that will persist throughout our lives.
Before I asked Professor Pearlman to unfairly compress a semester’s worth of knowledge into a short 25 minute interview, I wanted to talk to her about the class itself. “I’ve always been curious about issues like the gender wage gap and women’s labor force participation issues,” she began. While discussion of the gender wage gap may take up the majority of the syllabus, the class goes beyond just the workplace. Professor Pearlman also dedicates classes to the personal issues of marriage, fertility and childbearing, and how those events and choices can impact everyone’s working lives. “I had a kid and so it became very salient…teaching a class is a great way to learn a whole bunch more.”
In Professor Pearlman’s office, economics sheds its unfair stereotype of being impersonal and insensitive. Professor Pearlman is also willing to admit that her discipline does not hold all the answers. “A big portion of this class very much relies on using data, to answer questions, but to also recognize some of the limits of data…some research is going to evolve as the way that we collect data on people evolves. We had to talk about gender as binary. The census is not asking people [if they are non-binary]. They only provide two choices [on the census]. I, and none of these authors I think, would ever claim that we’re explaining all of this completely,” she reflects. And this mentality was undoubtedly reflected in class. There were countless times when we would discuss a marriage market or childbearing decisions and Professor Pearlman would say “Obviously, psychology has a lot more to say about this,” or “Sociology has way more to say about this. This is just what economics has to say.” This speaks to the complexity of the role of gender and Professor Pearlman’s awareness that economics alone cannot give us all the answers.
Professor Pearlman shared how she approaches analyzing the gender wage gap in her class. “In the class, we spent about a third of it talking about the gender wage gap. In the beginning, we do these decomposition exercises to understand the gap better.” This decomposition exercise essentially splits the gender wage gap into three categories based on the factors that cause the gap. The first category is observable characteristics. Professor Pearlman defines these as data that is collected by the census data. The second category is unobservable characteristics. These are the nuances of a person’s employment that the census does not pick up. “We can see the observable. That would be hours that they work. What we can’t see is an adjustment to those hours or when those hours happen. That might explain differences in pay.”
Professor Pearlman explains this further by citing the example that we had covered in class of the gender wage gap between Uber drivers. Male Uber drivers are more likely to accept late-night and longer rides than female Uber drivers, leading male drivers to be higher paid on average, even though the gap is small. This is not a case of the algorithm discriminating based on gender, but sex-based societal structures definitely play a role, since reasons like safety concerns could explain why female drivers are less likely to facilitate late-night rides. Other factors that fall into this category include occupational sorting, which is the distribution of workers across and into occupations based on their gender. It is the technical term for the male domination of high-paying and -powered jobs. The last category is the unexplained factors. “That is where we actually spent a lot of time [in the class]. So ‘unexplained’ could be discrimination—that you are getting paid less for doing the exact same job. But then it is tricky. How do you define the exact same job?”
In addition to unequal pay, the lawsuit also claimed that Vassar College has decreased their transparency surrounding salary and wages over the past few years. Sitting in the economics wing of Blodgett, talking to the Chair of the Economics Department of Vassar College, I simply had to ask about if data supported the notion that salary transparency plays a role in decreasing the gender wage gap. “I don’t think it is common practice, which is why there are just a couple of papers about it…one paper that has looked at state-mandated transparency… found that it did lead to a reduction in the gender wage gap. So there is something to transparency.” Professor Pearlman also informed me, to my surprise, that public universities and colleges share how much they pay their professors. Private colleges however, such as Vassar College, do not have that obligation. “You are not going to be able to get it. We can’t even get that for our own institution,” Professor Pearlman said when asked about private college’s wage data .
But Vassar College is not just any private college. As reporters and students alike have been stating and echoing, it is a historically women’s college and the second college in the United States to award degrees to women. When we sit down to do our work in Thompson Library, we do it under the towering image of Lady Elena Lucretia Cornaro-Piscopia, the first woman to receive a doctorate, adorned in Vassar’s original colors, rose and gray. Does the history of an institution being so closely associated with the education and empowerment of women have any impact on their policies regarding their female workforce? “This is an excellent question,” Professor Pearlman replied, laughing approvingly. “But I don’t know the answer,” she admitted and then explained her hesitation by comparing it to a similar question we had covered in class, which asked if female bosses lead to better outcomes for other women in the institution. “Iis it just about the female leader or about more parts of the institution that would change how employees fare at those institutions?” She asked, prompting me to answer my own question.
I am grateful that I took Gender Issues in Economics; it changed the way I view economics and its role in my life. It also helped me better understand the issues people in my community are dealing with. Gender Issues in Economics is a class that all of us should be willing to make the hike to Kenyon for!