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Colleges face cries of inequity

A class-action suit against University of Washington charges women are paid less.

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Nearly 40 years after Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem began fighting for women to gain equal access to fields like law, business, and medicine, the battle is increasingly shifting to a new front: equal treatment once they get there.

In particular, an intense struggle is being played out in the hallowed halls of the nation's universities. Despite their role as a launching pad for many young women's careers, a growing number of colleges face charges of not offering equal opportunities for female professors.

Now the University of Washington is confronting one of the most significant and visible gender-discrimination challenges in decades: a class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of as many as 2,000 women, charging broad inequities in pay, promotion, grant money, and teaching loads.

A judgment against the university could hold stark implications for other schools, say observers - and could even send a warning to the corporate world, where evidence shows women are still often paid less than their male counterparts. At the very least, it is likely to cause campuses across the US to take a closer look at the treatment of their women faculty.

The University of Washington "has tremendous credibility with other universities," says Catherine Didion, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Association of Women in Science. "This suit has the potential to be a catalyst at other campuses, a wake-up call: Do we have these same problems, and what can we do now, before there's a class action here?"

The women at UW are hardly alone in their claims of bias. At campuses from the University of Texas to Florida State, accusations of discrimination have proliferated in recent years. No less prestigious a university than Stanford is currently being investigated by the US Department of Labor, after several dozen women professors filed a formal complaint.

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