Wednesday, October 21, 2020
Equal Pay Lawsuits by Women Law Professors Allege Significant Continuing Gender Discrimination in Academia
*** Linda Mullenix’s annual salary, however, is at least $31,000 less than three male law professors at her school. Like Mullenix, some of these male professors teach civil procedure. However, they have had shorter careers and fewer publications than she has, and for the most part, similar student evaluations, according to the Equal Pay Act lawsuit she filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in December 2019. The complaint also alleged sex discrimination and retaliation under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Additionally, she alleged her raise for the 2018-2019 academic year was only $1,500, while other UT law professors with fewer accomplishments received $10,000 raises.
And this is not the first time Mullenix has complained to the university about compensation issues. In 2011, she retained counsel and sent a demand letter asserting an equal pay claim after she discovered a male professor with less experience annually earned $50,000 more than she did. Eight years later, that pay gap had decreased—by $17; that professor now earns $49,983 more than Mullenix, per her 2019 lawsuit. As a result of her actions, she has been described as “poison” by school administrators, according to the complaint, because she repeatedly speaks out about pay inequity at the law school.
In May, a Texas federal judge granted the university’s motion to partially dismiss Mullenix’s lawsuit on the basis that she failed to allege a causal connection between her pay complaints and receiving the lowest raise of any law school faculty member. The order dismissed Mullenix’s Title VII retaliation claim; her Equal Pay Act and sex discrimination claims are ongoing.
Mullenix’s lawyer, Colin Walsh of the Austin firm Wiley Walsh, told the ABA Journal he will continue with her Title VII discrimination and Equal Pay Act claims and looks forward to entering the discovery phase. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the university told the Journal the institution “strongly supports” equal pay based on merit and performance, and it has done work to ensure salary equity for faculty members. Law school faculty pay, he wrote in an email, is decided by “a committee review of teaching, service and scholarship with professional criteria applied to make these determinations.”
At least five equal pay lawsuits have been filed by female law professors since 2016; the actions involve four schools. One of those schools has been sued more than once, and three of the lawsuits remain open.
Although law schools may rely on several factors in determining compensation, in actuality, law school deans often have significant discretion in deciding what to pay professors, and their unchecked decisions can be tainted by gender bias, according to lawyers interviewed by the ABA Journal. Salaries, raises and appointments should be based on teaching, service and scholarship. But dean evaluations in those areas can be biased as well, some say, with men getting better appointments and more respect for their research and writing, with little regard for the work’s quality and importance.
Moreover, professors who have filed Equal Pay Act claims have seen their careers impacted in other ways. For instance, more than one used the word “poison” to describe how they were viewed after confronting law school leadership with discrimination concerns. Others found themselves removed from important faculty committee assignments (a factor used in determining pay) and put on “‘do nothing’ committees.”
Walsh says pay discrimination against women is just as much of a problem in the law schools as it is in the private sector.
“It may be a bit worse because of instances of institutional misogyny. Any place you have a large contingency of older white men, you’re going to have a pay gap,” Walsh adds.
In all of the Equal Pay Act lawsuits, plaintiffs say they were treated worse by the schools after suing.
See also Chronicle of Higher Ed, A Raft of Pay-Gap Lawsuits Suggests Little Progress for Academic Women
Last week, five female professors at Rutgers University filed a lawsuit in state court accusing their institution of paying them tens of thousands of dollars less than their male colleagues. Days earlier, Princeton University agreed to a settlement, worth nearly $1.2 million, after a U.S. Department of Labor review found that 106 female full professors had been paid less than their male counterparts between 2012 and 2014. And in September, four female professors at Northern Michigan University settled their own pay-discrimination lawsuit for $1.46 million.
The University of Arizona resolved a pair of similar cases in 2019, doling out $190,000 to a trio of female former deans and $100,000 to an associate professor, all of whom alleged they’d been underpaid. And the University of Denver settled in 2018 with seven female law professors to the tune of $2.66 million.
To understand the raft of pay-discrimination lawsuits, The Chronicle spoke to Jennifer A. Reisch, who represented the lead plaintiff in the Denver case and argued on behalf of a professor at the University of Oregon who awaits a ruling on her own gender-discrimination case