Thoughts on Faculty Diversity Hires

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Binders full of men.

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!

Hiring process

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.

Final thoughts

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?

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on Faculty Diversity Hires

  1. I joined our (private-sector) hiring committee as soon as I was able and going into contentious hiring decisions is rough. I’m in a field where ~20% of new grads are women. Our entry-level hiring is around 40% women/60% men, which is pretty good given the circumstances. It helps that our HR team is proactive about reaching out women’s CS groups on campuses. On the other hand our mid-level and executive hiring of women is very, very bad. Without women in leadership roles, I feel like it’s hard to see a path upwards, which adds to churn in the field and exacerbates the gender gap.

    Diversity is certainly needed at the university level. Even though I joined a pretty gender-imbalanced major in college, there were others even more so that I never considered due to lack of diversity. Diversity at the instructor level is important to churn out a more diverse undergrad cohort. At the researcher level it’s important to churn out a more diverse graduate level cohort (though in a sense that’s a very chicken and egg problem). These factors end up spilling over into gender representation in the private sector too, so doubly important. Kudos to you for getting involved in this area!

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    • That’s a really great entry-level hiring rate! So you’re saying that these women don’t trickle up into more senior/administrative positions? I suppose there’s a ton of reasons for that (more than can be unpacked in these online ramblings…) It’s so important… our dean is a woman, and I definitely felt way more comfortable talking about these kinds of issues with her, as though she was on “my side” (although she also had a ton of other obligations, diversity being just one of them).

      Sigh, I wish I could do more. I am involved in a couple of womens’ groups on campus, but from what I’ve heard they are having a rough time in the job search. I should encourage them to reach out to some HR groups if they are as interested as you said. I know there are some special programs for minorities (Facebook University is one that some students from here have gone too), where they put them in a special class that’s not fully integrated into the regular company. I’m not sure how I feel about that, as it seems a bit like a “dummy” class where you get special treatment. But it’s a step forwards, I suppose!

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      • Yeah, we have zero women in executive leadership. All the most senior women who used to work here left after we were bought out, in part I think because none were offered the new exec roles which all went exclusively to white men who knew each other from previous companies. Also I feel like private sector tech is pretty ageist and can be brutal to parents, especially mothers. So with only five years under my belt I’m probably one of the most senior women here in a department of 500 or so. Wheeeee.

        I tend to have a positive view of minority programs generally since they help ease a new grad into the pipeline for these fields. I remember, for instance, participating in a UROP in college that I wouldn’t have gotten into or even heard of had they not specifically been recruiting minority candidates. Not integrating with the other interns isn’t great, but being able to put FB on their resume will hopefully help them get a good full-time offer at graduation.

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      • Yeah, these things are all about networking. In academia, even if they had a ton of institutional support for diversity, I think it wouldn’t make that much impact, because your professional success mainly depends on what your colleagues in your field (at other schools) think of you, because they write your reference letters for the big promotions (like tenure). So it would have to be a big, culture-wide change; one school’s not gonna cut it.

        5 years sounds pretty long! I heard some crazy stats from my friends up in the Bay in CS, like 2 years is the average at Facebook. I don’t know where everyone is going, I guess to other tech companies?

        You make a good point about minority programs! The students would obviously rather have something on their resume (and get paid) than nothing. Although sometimes I feel that these minority-targeted program applications can be kinda strict too. I remember applying for some minority programs in undergrad, and they had questions like “what are you doing to help diversity?”, and I was thinking, I am just trying to keep my head afloat, and you still want me to do more?

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      • There was a really interesting talk I went to while doing my UROP that had to do with the “what are you doing to help diversity?” question. One of the things it instilled in me is that diversity programs really rely on a propagation model. That is, they assume benefitted parties pass along their knowledge/mentorship to their communities and so on. The perception voiced at the talk was that many recipients for these programs were not feeding their new skills back into their home communities (whether that means their racial, socioeconomic, but often really geographic communities). They argued this tokenism exacerbated inequities because it meant young talented energetic resources were being siphoned away from the communities who need them most (“brain drain”) in order to live comfortably among communities who needed them less. So it made sense for them to target individuals who were committed to “giving back” versus those who weren’t.

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      • That makes a lot of sense, thanks for the great explanation! I guess they want people to be actively involved in giving back, not just passively “I am here as a role model and therefore encourage others” (which still has some benefits, I think). I think I was just irritated that I wasn’t a good fit for the program that I really wanted 🙂

        It’s a constant struggle – should you spend time furthering your career, or should you spend time doing the outreach that is important but only counts as “brownie points”? Government agencies try to encourage the “teacher-scholar” model when they give out funding, but to be honest, profs just tend to think of it as another checkbox and fill in some boilerplate diversity material in their proposals (myself included). Sadly.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, especially the different moving parts—it’s something I think about a lot. It’s both encouraging to see that the work is going into equal hiring and discouraging that it remains so effortful, yet unproductive in some aspects (the seminar).

    Funnily enough, this didn’t trouble me much in STEM. This may have been atypical, but even at the time I knew I was fortunate to work in labs led by women and WPOC: they brought me into their labs, taught me how to read and discuss papers, do research, and then started compensating me for it. I’m now in law and while graduate intakes are fairly equal, it’s still tough to look at the partners, as the definitive industry gatekeepers, and know that progress hasn’t yet filtered up.

    (That said, interestingly, we were told point-blank that the firm’s Australian offices were better at gender diversity in comparison to London, but lagged behind in cultural diversity. Not very reassuring to someone with stakes in both.)

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    • Thank you for reading! That’s awesome that you had a good experience in the lab. It sounds like your mentors were actively helping you, whereas I think often (in my experience), it can be a “sink or swim” mentality. Having one mentor (diverse or not) is such a big boost – I know I’ve definitely benefited from that, and in fact owe my current position to that.

      Yeah, filtering up seems to be a big issue. Maybe we can hope that it is just taking time, and eventually the senior people will be more reflective of the general population…

      There’s a lot to unpack in gender vs cultural diversity too, which I haven’t fully thought through yet. In my particular field, domestic (US) students/faculty often end up being the minority, so the cultural diversity issues are actually the opposite (in the sense that traditional minorities are now over-dominating certain fields). I suppose the location matters in your case; just a guess, but I imagine London being more cosmopolitan than Australia and thus maybe easier to attract people from different cultural backgrounds.

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  3. I really appreciate hearing your thoughts and getting some insight into how these issues play out in academic hiring! I’m always thinking about diversity in my field as well, though I’ve never yet had a real opportunity to contribute to a hiring discussion in a significant way.

    I’ve been realizing that in the law firm context, pipeline programs (to encourage more diverse hiring of junior candidates) are important, but may not go far enough. Retention of minority associates and minority women is usually pretty bad, and I’m starting to think it’s because even if they’re hiring diverse associates, they are problems of inclusiveness, and diverse associates are often not getting the same opportunities. (In a very large practice group or firm, it’s likely that some men, and white men, will also feel sidelined this way and leave the firm very early, though this seems to happen disproportionately to minorities and minority women.) I’ve been lucky enough to work in two workplaces where inclusion was just a given because the people on top were so great about it. It’s been a big contrast to my first firm.

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    • Thank you for reading! (I was kinda worried when I posted this that it would be too serious/deep, but I’m glad that others seem to find it somewhat interesting.) Seeing “how the sausage is made” (if I may be so crude) by sitting on the hiring committee has been really interesting. Actually the first few times I went to a meeting, I got kinda depressed afterwards, because it made me internally evaluate my own file and wonder what the committee had said about me the year before.

      I don’t know how project opportunities come up in law, but in academia the profs start building teams to (apply for funding to) work on a project. Therefore inclusiveness can be a factor, because people naturally gravitate towards working with people who are somewhat similar to them, background-wise. There are certain sub-fields in academia that get dominated along racial lines, and there’s even a term for it, the “(specific racial minority) mafia”, lol.

      It’s great that your current firm is able to make top-down changes and hopefully help with retention! After discussing with you and A, it really hit home to me that both recruitment and retention are key.

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