Middlebury College Perpetuates Vermont’s Gender-based Labor Divide

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Vermont’s reputation for progressive and liberal politics may be undeserved, at least when it comes to labor-gender equality.

A recent report by “Change the Story,” a statewide initiative devoted to female economic empowerment, revealed that little has changed in Vermont for women workers since the passage of Title IX in 1972. Occupational segregation, or the uneven gender distribution across and within labor sectors, stubbornly persists.

“Women are clustered in the same occupations today as they were back in 1970,” Cary Brown, Executive Director of the Vermont Commission on Women informed VTDigger.  “We still have ideas about what are appropriate jobs for women and what are appropriate jobs for men.”

These ‘female professions’ include office administration, food-service, teaching and nursing, according to the “Change the Story” report. Typical “male professions” include computers and math, engineering and law enforcement. 

The College is no exception. As the largest employer in Addsion County, the College employs over 1,500 Vermonters in faculty and staff positions. The report illuminates the occupational segregation present among these employees and possible gender biases in hiring decisions.

The most recent report on the status of women faculty and staff dates back to 2008. It states that the “College on the Hill” perpetuates occupational segregation, corroborating findings from the 2016 “Change the Story” report. 

Men Dominate High-Paying Sectors

In 2015, female alumni from the College earned a median salary of $57,300 ten years after matriculating. Male alumni from the same class year earned 91 percent more, or $109,200.

This salary discrepancy is not unique to Middlebury. Amherst College,  a similar liberal arts institution, reported a difference of 79 percent between male and female alumni.

Often, male-heavy enrollment in engineering programs at liberal arts colleges helps account for high salaries of male graduates. However, Middlebury has no engineering program. What gives?

At Middlebury, the lucrative male-dominated path appears to be finance.  Middlebury’s economics department is currently the most popular major among all students. Roughly two of every three economics majors are male, according to a 2014 Student Profile Report published by the College.

The same report revealed the gender distribution was even more skewed among physics and computer science majors. In the physics department, male students outnumbered females four to one. Among computer science majors, there were five males for every two females.

At Middlebury College, the underrepresentation of females in STEM and finance courses reflects their under-representation in similar professional fields. According to the 2016 report, only 26 percent of positions in science or mathematical occupations in Vermont are female. Yet, women earn the highest median annual salary ($68,919) of all major employment sectors. This is significant in a state where, according to a 5-Year Average Report by the U.S. Census, women make up a disproportionate share of Vermonters living in poverty.

Strangely, occupational segregation in Vermont’s STEM sector does not begin in high school. The College Board reported that female high school students in Vermont are just as likely to take Advanced Placement tests in calculus, chemistry and biology as their male peers.

However, men at the University of Vermont and other Vermont state colleges (VSCs) continue to outpace women in pursuing graduate degrees in physics, chemistry, computer science, economics and engineering. From 2011 to 2014, UVM and other VSCs awarded 4 physics degrees to women and 21 to men. Eighteen women received degrees in computer science in the same time span that 128 men did. The engineering programs had roughly six male graduates for every female.

According to students at Middlebury College, gender distribution among college majors appears to be a Catch-22 scenario: “Guys create a culture that’s hard to break into as a female. I feel like that’s the main issue for most male-dominated fields. It’s not really the work, but the interpersonal connections that exclude women,” said Mike Pettit ’16, a computer science major. “There’s a way you act when you’re with people that’s all your gender.”

He noted conversations in the computer science lab were on traditionally “guy topics” like the NBA playoffs.

Shannia Fu ’17, a female computer science major, has felt excluded by males in her major, though not for social reasons. In the summer of 2015, Fu worked as a research assistant for a computer science professor alongside three male coworkers. When she pointed out flaws in their code or logic, she was accused of being too aggressive.

“None of the other guys called one another aggressive,” she said. “The worst thing is when I displayed a sort-of pissed off reaction, the other two guys also jokingly called me aggressive. I think a lot of people, not just women, would be discouraged by comments like that.”

Fu noted that her experience as a female computer science major at Middlebury has generally been positive. “At Middlebury, I actually think most of the CS teachers are very conscious of trying to help the women achieve what they want to achieve,” she said.

WiCs++, or Women in Computer Science, is a recent example of an initiative by faculty to encourage and support women in the department.

“In addition to providing support for minorities in CS on campus, we want to promote CS for minorities in the Midd community by holding events. We want to encourage girls to pursue CS in college if they want,” Fu said, describing a solution beyond patching the primary education pipeline.

Tenure at Middlebury College

While professorship was not included as a computer or math-related occupation in the “Change the Story” report, female professors at the College continue to face challenges with under-representation among tenured colleagues.

In terms of salary, female faculty members did not make less than their male colleagues with similar rank and experience (measured by number of years since gaining a Ph.D.), according to a 2008 report by the Task Force on the Status of Women at Middlebury College.

However, female professors at the College continue to be underrepresented in tenured and tenure-track positions. According to the 2008 report, women were more likely to be hired into term positions than tenure-track positions among assistant professors. As of 2009, female faculty held only 12 of the 50 endowed professorship positions.

The administration has known of this discrepancy since 1997, when the first report by the Task Force on the Status of Women at Middlebury College was published. An updated report in 2008, based on a survey of about 900 respondents including student, staff and faculty, revealed the same discrepancy – only 24 percent of full professors and 29 percent of associate professors were female.

It makes sense to expect a slower change in female representation in full professor positions given the time it takes to attain tenure and the small number of female tenured professors in 1997. But given that 46 percent of faculty hires from 1999 to 2007 were female, what explains the stubborn occupational segregation among associate professors?

In five of the eight years spanning 1999 to 2007, the College hired more males. In two of these years, they hired an equal number. In just one year the College hired more females.

Evidence also suggests that these hiring practices are affecting professors’ ability to gain respect and command a class. In a survey from 2008, female professors said they had “to work extra hard to prove ourselves in class,” and that “students often have very stereotypical presumptions about the characteristics faculty should possess to be ‘professorial.’

A male professor agreed. “Women professors are not treated with the same respect – by colleagues or students – that men receive. I am a beneficiary of this sexism, and I do not like it. Why should students and fellow faculty defer to me because I’m male?”

This disadvantage in prestige and respect that female faculty must overcome also includes difficulty asserting authority in classrooms and facing aggression from male students in response to grading.

Middlebury Staff Labor Divisions

The report’s findings also help explain the perpetuation of 1970s-era gender-labor divisions at the College.

“[In Vermont], women’s work is still women’s work,” the Change the Story report concluded.

It cited the most segregated sector in Vermont as the Installation, Maintenance and Repair sector. The workforce is 98 percent male. The Facilities Services staff directory on the College website reflects this reality.

Supervisors related to maintenance and repair (landscape services, plumbing, electrical, heating and ventilation, carpenters/painters/locksmiths) are all male. In addition, the managers of Energy and Technology, the Central Heating Plant, Furniture Distribution and the Maintenance Projects were also all male. Only one supervisor and one manager listed in Facilities Services were female. They are in charge of waste management and support services, respectively.

Meanwhile, the gender balance in traditionally female occupations like nursing, office administration and bookkeeping has remained nearly constant from 1970 to 2013. Similarly, all seven nurses at the College’s Parton Center for Health and Wellness are women. 

“Women are clustered in the same occupations today as they were back in 1970,” said Cary Brown of the Vermont Commission on Women. “We still have cultural ideas about what are appropriate jobs for women and what are appropriate jobs for men.”

Though occupational segregation among staff is clearly present at the College, annual reviews of salary data by the College’s Human Resources department report there is no gender-bias in payroll.

Occupational Segregation and the Pay Gap: The Bigger Picture

While Title IX ensures men and women in the same position receive the same salary, occupational segregation may be responsible for the existing pay gap between men and women in Vermont. The pay gap is often exacerbated by career advancement opportunities being prioritized for male heads of households over women. This dilemma presents itself to staff and faculty alike.

According to the “Change the Story” report, female-dominated occupations are less likely than male-dominated occupations to pay median annual wages above $35,000. This is the minimum salary required to meet the “basic needs of an individual” based on a market-based projection of living costs by the Vermont Joint Fiscal Office.

In addition, women who work full-time are more likely to struggle financially as single providers; 50 percent of these women are employed in fields where the median annual salary is below $35,000, compared to 13 percent of men. Eight of 10 male-dominated occupations pay median annual wages above $35,000. Only one female-dominated job, health diagnostician, pays enough to support a single parent with one child with a median salary of $72,000.

According to reports from “Change the Story,” there are about 16,595 single mothers with financially dependent children currently living in Vermont.  Of these women, about one-third live in poverty despite the fact that they are working full-time jobs.

“When 43 percent of women working full-time are not meeting their basic needs, that’s a big problem,” Director of Vermont’s Women Fund Meg Smith told VPR.  “Women who are a single-parent household are nine times more likely to live in poverty.”

Given these statistics, another Catch-22 scenario emerges. Women in Vermont, even when working full-time, are likely to rely on a male’s income to support their family. If males consistently make more than females, it also makes economic sense to prioritize the male partner’s job.

This may give the male head of household more influence in household decisions that negatively affect women’s opportunities for career advancement. A woman’s potential to earn more money, possibly more than her spouse, is limited by the pay-gap created through occupational segregation.

This Catch-22 is not limited to women making less than $35,000 a year who are more likely to rely on a spouse’s earnings. Female professors at the College report facing a similar dilemma.

“Spousal/partner employment remains a central challenge in faculty recruitment and retention, and one that may have a disproportionate effect on our ability to attract and retain female faculty at all levels,” according to the 2008 Task Force report.

To address this, the College is a member of the Academic Career Network, an organization that offers job networking in academia, and extends support of the Career Services Office to assist faculty spouses and partners in finding employment.

Yet, the data suggests this is not enough. According to the 2008 report, female faculty members were six times more likely than male colleagues to cite spousal employment as a reason for resignation.

In terms of parental leave, the College offers a generous 12-week paid leave for faculty. For staff, paid parental leave is just six weeks – though a considerable boost from the allotted 3 weeks before 2009.

The College’s current policies appear to be inadequate in relieving the double burden of work-family roles placed on women, for both faculty and staff. What, if anything, can the College do to help address occupational segregation, a problem that is widespread across Vermont?

In the state as a whole, advocates for women recognize that solid changes must be made to address this segregation.

“When we look at the education that young women are choosing, the apprenticeships, the college majors, we are not seeing the potential for a change in these patterns without taking some concrete steps,” Brown remarked to VTDigger.

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