I’ve been working at the university for a few years now, and have seen several rounds of faculty hiring, including serving on several search committees. I wanted to share my thoughts and observations on this here. There are all kinds of official stats and blustery words by HR, but what really goes on behind the scenes? In particular, diversity is a topic that’s close to my heart, but it’s not really the kind of thing I feel comfortable talking about with my colleagues, so random Internet strangers/friends will get to hear about this instead 🙂 Note that these opinions are all my own and do not represent any official stance.
For background, I’m a female assistant professor at a research university in a STEM field. I’ve been in this area for the past 10+ years, but started working only a few years ago after finishing grad school. The female faculty representation in my department is 5%, and the national average undergraduate representation is <20%. As you can see, these numbers are pretty horrible!
Do universities tend to prioritize female faculty hires? The answer is yes, up to a point. During my hiring cycle (i.e., the year I was hired), there were several positions open, and the hiring committee consistently made about 1/3 of the offers to female candidates. I don’t know exactly what went on behind the scenes, since I wasn’t hired yet, but from looking at the candidates’ records, it seems to me that they only made offers to those women who had equally good research records as their male counterparts. So there was no lowering of standards. It can be very competitive to hire good female candidates, so many of the women accepted offers from other schools. In the end, I was the only woman who accepted, alongside two other men.
Since my hire, I’ve served on two other hiring committees. I think they keep asking me to serve because for outward-facing committees like hiring, the diversity of the committee itself is important. And in my department, the choice is between me and… one other lady. So I get picked a lot because I’m a bit more active in the department.
On those two committees that I’ve served on, the department hasn’t made any offers to female candidates. There has been serious discussion of some female candidates, but we didn’t end up offering to them. Not due to discrimination, but simply because other candidates were preferred for their research record. For example, if there was a male and female candidate who were equally strong, but the department wanted expertise in the male candidate’s technical area, he might end up getting the offer. The discussion of diversity doesn’t really come up in the hiring meetings, except that it might be harder to get female candidates to accept if we do make them an offer, because they likely have many other offers as well.
The department has made offers to female candidates for instructor-level positions (as opposed to research faculty). It may be because instructors interact with students more, so diversity is more important; but I believe that the real reason is that the pool of applicants skewed more female. About half of the candidates who were interviewed for the instructor position were female. However, I don’t have any hard data on this.
Attending a diversity seminar
This was probably the most depressing part of serving on a hiring committee. We had a mandatory workshop held by HR on diversity to be attended by all hiring committee members. To be honest, I thought that the workshop would be a snooze-fest of politically-correct statements on the importance of diversity, evaluating candidates fairly, blah blah blah.
However, it was surprisingly contentious. A lot of questions were thrown around the room, like: What weight should be given to diversity, compared to the standard evaluation criteria? If diversity is given weight at hiring time, shouldn’t it also be given weight at future promotions? (It’s currently not.) Should lack of diversity service efforts count against a candidate? The faculty were shouting questions to the front, and the staff didn’t really have any good answers. It seemed to me that there was some back-story of contentious diversity hires that I didn’t know about.
When the workshop was over, I felt pretty disheartened by the combative nature of the discussion, and walked back to my office in a gloom. Are the other faculty against diversity? How will things ever change? But on further reflection, I think the workshop was contentious not because the faculty were against diversity; rather, because it’s tricky to implement a diversity hiring policy in a clear and fair way. You want to encourage diversity without being unfair to other candidates. There clearly needed to be more discussion on what are the right policies and right way to implement them.
The two-body problem
Getting female faculty is one thing, but retaining them is another. I have to say that my experience with this has been very good. My department and college have been very supportive of my career. For example, when my partner was looking for a job near me, they were able to interview him and eventually create a faculty position for him. Given that new faculty lines are a closely-guarded resource and require significant financial commitment, this shows some level of effort on the school’s part.
There are several other married couple pairs at my university, so I don’t think my case is the only one. So at least once we’re here, the school does its best to keep us.
The bigger picture
I heard a talk by Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College, on the importance of diversity and her school’s efforts to have good female representation both in the faculty and the student population (currently ~50%). She made the valid point that while the diversity of the student population can be improved relatively quickly, increasing the diversity of the faculty is much slower due to the long turnover (usually, a new position opens only if someone else retires). The improvements that Harvey Mudd has achieved are the result of faculty efforts (not by the administration), which is inspiring because it shows that change can come from within. However, Harvey Mudd is more of a teaching school, so the faculty may not have as onerous research requirements and have more time to devote to service issues such as diversity.
I have heard that some schools (particularly private schools) have more leeway to encourage diversity. For example, I heard that at another (private) school, they required that 1/4 offers had to be made to women. How did they do that? They referred to it as “shaking the tree” (lol), which meant they proactively asked their colleagues at other universities for female PhDs who are about to graduate and go on the job market. However, as a public school, we are not allowed to have diversity quotas like that, according to some legal language put in by the state.
I feel that the overall, hiring committees are not very concerned about gender diversity in faculty hires. While the school would definitely be thrilled to hire a good female candidate, good female candidates are in short supply. Therefore, the hiring process continues as usual, and if a candidate is female/diverse, it’s seen as a great bonus.
I hope I can someday help with this, and make my voice heard. But as a junior faculty, the direction of the department is “presumably” in older/wiser hands than mine. And I should focus on research and teaching, since that’s what I’ll be evaluated on for promotions. Who has time to fight for these issues when they are young in their career? Sad, but true. But if I make it past tenure and into a more senior/administrative position, it’s something I’d like to help address.
How are diversity issues addressed at your workplace? Do you think that diversity at the university level is needed?