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

In order to prove retaliation under the Equal Pay Act you must show

  1. You engaged in a protected activity.
  2. Your employer took adverse employment action against you.
  3. There is a connection between the protected activity and the adverse action.

The Fight for Equal Pay Continues

As the Gender Equity Task Force chair at Virginia State University (VSU), Zoe Spencer, Ph.D., was charged with identifying deficits in gender equity, but when she did she was met with resistance. Her advocacy for systemic reform unearthed a personal pay equity issue, which prompted litigation, claiming willful wage discrimination and retaliation under the Equal Pay Act of 1963 (EPA).

In 2014 two male administrators were appointed to faculty positions as associate professors. Spencer alleges that their salaries were vastly higher than female professors at all ranks and $35,000–49,500 higher than her salary. She requested a salary adjustment based on Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EPA, but her request was denied. Spencer alleges that she subsequently faced retaliation, including delays in processing her pay.


Photograph used with consent of Royal Image Photography

The antiretaliation provision of the EPA prevents an employer from interfering with an employee’s attempt to enforce the protections of the act.

Pay equity is a paramount concern for AAUW. We choose to support Spencer through our legal case-support program because retaliation for reporting pay discrimination stifles equity. The “silencing strategy,” as Spencer calls it, is that employers across disciplines are taking actions designed to prevent employees from making or supporting a claim of discrimination, which is prohibited by law. The antiretaliation provision of the EPA prevents an employer from interfering with an employee’s attempt to enforce the protections of the act.

“I sacrificed everything to fight for equality. And now, like most women who fight, I am fighting for my life,” says Spencer.

Spencer stands poised for the fight of her life, and we are proud to stand with her.

Inside the case

At a minimum, denying Spencer’s requested salary increase is sufficient to constitute an adverse employment action.

But she also alleges she experienced the following:

  • Intentionally delayed paperwork signing that delayed timely compensation
  • Veiled threats
  • Refusal to address her complaints regarding a troubled student
  • Being removed from her role of giving the freshman orientation speech without explanation

Taken from the memorandum opinion denying VSU’s motion to dismiss, issued by Judge Henry Hudson of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

Take Action

Legal gavel and open law book

Looking for Case Support?

Find out more about AAUW’s case support program and how to apply for funding for your equity case.

Take Action

Get Updates on Pay Equity Actions

Sign up to be a Two-Minute Activist to take action on fair pay nationally and locally.

LAF Plaintiff Aileen Rizo

When Salary History Justifies Unfair Pay

AAUW is helping former teacher Aileen Rizo fight a pay equity case that addresses a prevalent and problematic pay practice.