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Inside HIgher Ed

With the continuing rise in popularity of the WNBA’s newest stars—such as Kamilla Cardoso, Caitlin Clark and Angel Reese—the topic of unequal pay for women in sports is in the spotlight once again.

This is not new. And it has especially been the case for women of color. Iconic 23-time Grand Slam tennis champion Serena Williams and Golden Globe-winning actress Taraji P. Henson have both spoken up about the pay inequities among women of color in both sports and acting.

A 2024 study shows that fair compensation is a bigger challenge for women of color in the workforce overall, with Black women being paid 34 percent less and Latinx women 48 percent less than white males. This issue remains a concern in many fields and disciplines in the United States, including higher education.

Recent data shared about salaries in 2022–2023 at more than 3,500 higher education institutions clearly demonstrates the problem. The average nine-month salary equivalent for faculty men was $101,000 compared to just $84,000 for women.

But the situation is worse for women of color, according to the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources (CUPA-HR), which reported earlier this year that “Black and Hispanic or Latina/o non–tenure-track faculty continue to face pay disparities.” Indeed, a recent study conducted by the association found that white women in higher education are paid 83 cents on the dollar compared to white men, while “Black women are paid 76 cents on the dollar, Hispanic/Latina women are paid 72 cents, and Native American/Alaska Native women are paid just 69 cents.

As a tenured Black faculty member, music recording artist, and DEIA (diversity, equity, inclusion and access) administrator, I constantly navigate systems that are largely unsupportive on this matter—and, again, particularly for faculty and staff of color. Through conversations with faculty and staff members of color at other institutions, I have heard that many administrators are more concerned with keeping up with the status quo than in addressing unequal pay issues.

Like many women-of-color academics, I have often put my trust in people who have claimed to be advocates for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility. But many colleagues and administrators have not truly shown up with actionable support. Some often tend to be more comfortable with hiding behind performative equity, which does not affect change.

What is frequently missing in the conversation is how administrators need to practice allyship when they form policies on salary equity. As Leah Smiley, president of The Society for Diversity Inc. and its subsidiary, the Institute for Diversity Certification, suggests in LinkedIn, true allyship is not for the faint of heart. During crucial moments of adversity and challenging traditionally accepted practices, very few administrators have the courage to step in and support faculty and staff of color in ways that truly count.

While the issues regarding pay inequities are deep-seated and complex and cannot be resolved in one academic year, institutions need to start earnestly and honestly grappling with those issues now. Continuing to push off these difficult conversations indefinitely will only lower morale in departments and make faculty and staff of color feel increasingly devalued. A 2021 article in Politico that highlighted testimonies from Black women faculty about their exhaustion and burnout covered just the tip of the iceberg. As the academic year comes to a close, colleges and universities throughout the country must once and for all put this topic on the docket for fall consideration.

Beyond Short-Term Solutions

Higher education administrators need to carefully consider, develop and answer questions on specific pay equity plans, with an eye toward long-term outcomes. They must also discuss and share the specifics of the plan and its timing with faculty and staff members beyond just a mere pie chart of the coming year’s budget.

One way forward is for institutional leaders to regularly check in with faculty and staff members and have meaningful dialogues with them. For instance, they need to be willing to discuss the issues openly and regularly at faculty and staff meetings and invite feedback. At such sessions, administrators can begin to lay out a clear process for annual evaluations when determining pay raises in terms of teaching, research and service, as well as answer any questions. Simply showing the budget on a screen during one faculty meeting does not give everyone a chance to weigh in. Faculty members of color must be able to express if they, in fact, feel supported in this process, and administrators need to take the time to listen and avoid defensiveness so that meaningful change can take place.

Conversations during these meetings about pay equity must go beyond short-term solutions, and administrators need to make clear what the action plan for addressing any pay equity issues will be going forward. While confidentiality is required in certain scenarios, if administrators simply refuse to have clear metrics for tackling pay equity, it will only worsen an already problematic situation. This data needs to be accessible and available to team members on an annual basis.

I recognize that in a challenging economic environment, budgetary concerns can make it difficult to juggle priorities. However, this is often used as a means to avoid providing information to team members and does not foster accountability or transparency. When faculty and staff of color attempt to bring to administrative leaders any concerns about salary inequities, we should not be merely silenced or met with empty promises.

It is incumbent on administrators and those in positions to affect change to put in the work. Using buzz words to appear helpful is simply not enough. It will require true authenticity and change in order to restore the trust and confidence of women faculty and staff members, especially those of color, in leadership.

I also understand that administrators at institutions are in a difficult position when they are trying to recruit new women-of-color faculty and staff, which also requires a greater financial investment. That work must continue in this highly competitive market. However, inequitable compensation of faculty of color who are already working at those institutions should not be ignored, and the discussions I’m recommending should not be an either/or proposition.

As in the FATE model of applying Fairness, Accountability, Transparency and Ethics to policies and actions, administrators need to be willing to show up for faculty and staff of color on a consistent basis.

From the basketball court to Hollywood, university halls and beyond, women of color have been speaking up about pay disparities. The work on addressing pay equity with solid solutions must continue until everyone is paid fairly.

Rochelle Sennet is an associate dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and associate professor of piano at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a voting member of the Recording Academy, and a Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project.

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