White males fight the freeze

December 1, 1995

White male professors at Northern Arizona University have brought a lawsuit claiming they are the victims of sex equality run amok.

George Rudenbusch, an associate professor of philosophy, claims he and other white males were frozen out of a round of pay rises given to female and minority faculty. He has filed a class-action lawsuit, which a number of his colleagues are poised to join.

It is the latest case of white male academics who believe that after years of discrimination and ill-treatment of women and minorities, it is they who are now on the receiving end.

Professors alleging they are the victims of over-zealous sex harassment policies, such as "speech codes", have won significant court victories. Northern Arizona is just the latest university to be the subject of a lawsuit claiming damages over "pay equity" policies.

The evidence of how far women have advanced in academia is sharply disputed. On one hand are those who say that sex discrimination in hirings and firings has all but disappeared. On the other are women who suggest the old boy network has a lingering hold on higher education.

It mirrors the debate that has dogged university campuses this year about whether affirmative action policies designed to favour minority staff and students are still needed. While no one denies women have made progress, the statistics are prone to differing interpretations.

Martha West, who teaches employment discrimination and labour law at the University of California, wrote recently for Academe magazine that in 1920, when women won the right to vote, 26 per cent of full-time faculty were women.

In 1995, the figure was 31 per cent, a painfully-slow increase over 75 years, she observed. At the University of California, women account for only 22 per cent of the assistant, associate or full professors.

Salary differentials for full professors, according to Professor West, have barely changed since the early 1980s. In 1982, women professors earned 89 per cent of male professors' salaries. In 1995, the figure actually slipped down to 88.5 per cent. Professor West suggests that well-connected men are better at negotiating pay rises, often by threatening to accept a higher offer at another college. But her assessment differs sharply from the American Association of University Professors, whose experts say that pay gaps are narrowing and that the past five years have seen "very rapid change in the gender composition" on faculties.

They point to female recruitment drives at a time when the percentage of doctorates that went to women - the pool for future professors - has jumped to nearly half of all those granted. Remaining differences in pay, it is claimed, may reflect a number of women who cut down work for child care at home.

Professor Rudenbusch's suit claims that a pay study at Northern Arizona showed that 192 white men were underpaid, but that compensatory pay rises went only to 64 white female and minority professors who were also assessed as under-paid.

While the university did finally hand out rises to white males, they were not nearly as high, it alleges.

White male professors have led similar battles over pay at Virginia Commonwealth University, Kent State and the University of California at Davis where Professor West herself teaches.

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