Colorado’s wage gap is so bad even law professors have to sue

Denver University is “the oldest independent institution of higher education in the Rocky Mountain region,” its website boasts. Absent from the page detailing the university’s rich history is the fact that female faculty have been paid less than their male counterparts for more than a century.

Professor Lucy Marsh didn’t know that when she started teaching there in 1973. It was exactly a decade after the U.S. Congress passed the Equal Pay Act prohibiting employers from discriminating between the sexes on pay day.

Marsh was in her fourth decade teaching property law at DU’s Sturm College of Law when her colleague Ann Scales, a pioneer in feminist legal theory, asked the administration whether there a gender pay gap among DU faculty. After radio silence for several months, Dean Martin Katz sent out a memo about a new round of raises in December of 2012.

Buried toward the end of the memo, Katz indicated that the median salary for female full professors would soon be $11,282 a year less than male full professors. The gap had widened from the $7,532 difference before the raise.

When Scales died suddenly and unexpectedly in June of that year, Marsh took up her agitating. She went to ask the dean what the university was doing to address the disparity, and found out that the answer was nothing.

“I decided I wasn’t going to take that for an answer,” Marsh told The Colorado Independent. She filed a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Commission in 2013 and got a decision at the end of last month.

Because the university was aware of the wage gap at least as of December 2012 and “took no action to ameliorate this disparity,” the EEOC found that DU was “in effect intentionally condoning a history of wage disparity based on sex.” In total, the commission ruled that the university “has violated and continues to willfully violate the Equal Protection Act by paying a class of female law professors less than their male counterparts.”

The EEOC deliberation, dated August 27, 2015, orders DU to comply with the law by paying back female professors the wages they’ve missed out on, as well as raise their salaries up to par with men’s. The commission and the university have entered a period of conciliation, during which attorneys will hash out all the details of the settlement. The university could end up dishing out as much as $1.2 million in damages.

DU Vice Chancellor for Communications Barbara Brooks said the university can’t comment on the situation during this period of mediation, but hopes that it can all be resolved amicably. An outside consultant has confirmed that the university’s policy for setting pay is “fair and nondiscriminatory,” she said, but declined to release that consultant’s report or any further information about it. Wages are calculated on an individual basis, she explained, according to three criteria: teaching, scholarship and service.

Brooks indicated she hasn’t been at the university long enough to speak to Marsh’s individual circumstance, and personnel matters of the sort are typically confidential, but another DU representative told 9News that Professor Marsh’s performance in those three categories has been “sub-standard.”

Given that she’s tenured, with multiple publications and awards to her name, Marsh finds this rationale to be offensively transparent.

“It’s just so ironic that they give me the Excellence in Teaching award, then a couple years later when I say, ‘women should be paid equally,’ they take it all back,” she said. “I think almost anyone can see through that.”

The irony is painfully clear to Marsh’s attorney Baine Kerr. “That this is a law school that’s discriminating is shameful,” he said. “These are the people who interpret and uphold the law — not violate it.” The fact that it’s 2015 and “this is the first time they’ve even expressed willingness to do something about it,” he continued, “is beyond belief.”

Data show the wage disparity is wider in Colorado than in most of the country making Marsh’s situation all too believable. 

Wheat Ridge state Rep. Jessie Danielson said that when she first came across Professor Marsh’s case, she wasn’t surprised in the least. “It’s unfortunate but it shows that whether we’re talking about janitors or people leading in legal profession, Colorado has a serious problem with pay inequity.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women in America make around 82 cents on the dollar compared to men working the same jobs. And Colorado ranks as the ninth worst offender.

In 2008, the Colorado Pay Equity Commission confirmed that women in the state make 79 cents on the dollar, with women of color significantly less. 

Danielson sponsored legislation last session to keep the Colorado Pay Equity Commission alive. The bill died along party lines in the Republican-controlled Senate State Affairs Committee, ending state-level efforts to study and remedy Colorado’s lagging wage gap.

The commission had existed for five years. It was tasked with studying causes of Colorado’s wage gap, researching model policies used in other states, developing best practices and making all that information available to employers.

So when lawmakers debated Rep. Danielson’s bill, the Department of Regulatory Agencies, which evaluates state commissions’ effectiveness, took a look at how the pay equity commission was performing. In October 2014, DORA released a report finding the commission had made “some, though minimal progress on its assigned tasks.”

The commission made that progress despite its members going unpaid and meeting quarterly.

Given that the PEC was provided no resources to conduct its work, its accomplishments are somewhat remarkable,” DORA found, citing the commission’s inventory of best practices, a fact sheet for employers and marketing plan. But much of that was largely unavailable to the public.

DORA pointed out the difficulty in even finding the commission’s work to review. Ultimately, DORA found that the commission was too important to get axed for poor record keeping. “The work of the PEC remains unfinished, and it should be continued,” DORA recommended.

But, of course, it wasn’t.

Rep. Danielson was frustrated by an argument lawmakers gave before voting against it – that pay inequity doesn’t exist.

“If they admitted there were a problem, then they’d have to take steps to remedy it,” she said. “They did away with what was the only tool we had, the only place in the state people came together to talk about (pay inequity).”

Professor Marsh doesn’t know why any employer would discriminate based on sex. But she figures more could be done if more was known about the issue. “What happened (at DU) was no one knew,” she said. “And that’s how employers get away with it.”

Marsh has gotten quiet support from her colleagues, in whispers and in private, she said. But men and women alike are scared of retaliation. Talk of the lawsuit doesn’t enter the classroom, but after class, Marsh said many of her students come up to offer their support. Students organized a petition on her behalf that garnered more than a thousand signatures.

She’s glad the situation is on its way to getting resolved for moral reasons but also so the faculty can focus on what they’re there to do – teach. “We all have more important things to do than spend time figuring out how much everyone is getting paid,” Marsh said. “And it’s really the people who don’t have tenure, low-income women who need this the most.”


Photo credit: Keoni Cabral, Creative Commons, Flickr