I Am Worth More: Zoe Spencer on Fighting Racism and Sexism in Academia

August 01, 2018

This post was written by Zoe Spencer, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Virginia State University and an AAUW Legal Advocacy Fund plaintiff.

“The more I fought to change the system, the more the administration fought to sustain it.”

Zoe Spencer at the VCU commencement.
I write this blog while standing at the intersection of race, gender, and class. In that order. It is cold here, but it is by no means lonely. I am black, I am a woman, and I am from Barry Farms projects in Washington, D.C. Like many black women, I sacrificed and struggled to raise a son as a single mom, while working and pursuing my Ph.D.

I was blessed enough to land a job fulfilling my divine purpose as a professor of sociology — paying it forward to my students at a historically black university. I must admit that in addition to my commitment to teaching at an HBCU, I assumed I would be protected there. I was certain that I would be safe from the inequities that raged outside the walls of an HBCU. I was wrong.

While I voiced no concerns nor challenged the system, I enjoyed a great working relationship with my administration. However, the moment I challenged the gender inequity inside those walls, my black male administrators showed me without question that patriarchy and sexism are not exclusive to white males and white institutions. The more I fought to change the system, the more the administration fought to sustain it.

In 2014, the administration appointed two underqualified men to my rank — two men who had far less experience, did not go through the same rigorous promotion and tenure process, and were assigned to teach fewer courses and handle significantly lower student loads than mine. On top of that, they were each paid much more than I was. I thought, “Enough! I am worth MORE,” and told them as much. The university disagreed. I protested. The university still disagreed. I vowed to fight back. They beckoned, “Do it! You won’t win.” My legal fight began.

The details of my litigation struggle would fill a book. [Learn more about Zoe Spencer’s AAUW-supported case.] What I will say here is that every woman who takes on an institution in the fight for gender equity faces a David and Goliath battle. I am David; I entered the fight with nothing. The institution knew that their resources would far exceed mine. The fight is designed to break us. They thought they would break me. They were wrong.

What my institution didn’t realize was that my life struggle prepared me for this. It made me stronger. More importantly, my struggle has shown me that help and support always show up to give us strength to follow through. AAUW is a testament to that. I didn’t know about AAUW or their Legal Advocacy Fund until I started my fight. I ended up receiving immeasurable support at the most critical point in my litigation and in my life.

More than 80 percent of black mothers are the primary or sole breadwinner in their family. We serve the dual roles of providers and nurturers in our families. I am one of those single moms; I know this truth firsthand. Black women are typically only paid 63 percent of what white, non-Hispanic men are paid, and that gap is even wider for Latinas, who take home 54 percent of what white men are paid, and Native women, who take home between 57 and 59 percent of what white men are paid.

“They thought they would break me. They were wrong.”

I am just one story that is part of a larger narrative, a larger movement. AAUW’s support gave me the renewed energy to continue to stand for pay equity at this crowded intersection — with all of my sisters of all races, no matter their occupation, education, or background. I am calling on all women and those who support us to stand up and fight for equal pay! Join us and tell the nation we are worth more!


Zoe Spencer at the VCU commencement

Spencer v. Virginia State University: A Case on Gender Equity in Academia

Learn more about Zoe Spencer’s AAUW-supported case and the other cases that we support through the Legal Advocacy Fund.

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Black Women's Equal Pay Day. Black woman with words "I Am Worth More." Black women are typically paid 63 cents for every dollar white men are paid.

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AAUWguest By:   |   August 01, 2018

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