Diversity is Hard!

Dec 18 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

As job applications pile up, metaphorically at least, on my desk I find that I'm reading this refrain over and over again.

Diversity. Commitment. Encourage. Diversity. Commitment. Encourage.

It seems that many scientific organizations, academic, industry and federal, realize their membership is quite homogenous and, at least, say they'd like to do something about it. From my perspective, that's good. I won't get into the merits of institutional diversity, since so many organizations seem to agree I will take that as a given.

Here are the steps towards institutional diversity.
1. Decide that diversity might be a good thing
2. Tell everyone, internally and externally, that your institution values diversity
3. Do something about it.

ah, the 3rd step is the rub. Even the most eloquent statement of diversity, equity and inclusiveness is marginally valuable compared to actual action in that regard. That is where a lot of institutions fall down, in my experience. Some because what they really want is to appear to value diversity, and are allergic to any of the actual actions involved. Others because they are convinced the problem is intractable and thus actions would be pointless.

Pointing out the differences between well meaning talk and actions can get you a bit of push back.

"Diversity is Hard! We are doing our best!"

A good example of this are the past to-dos regarding the lack of female speakers at a science conferences. Organizers insist that it is *so hard* to find women scientists which is why they have 25 men and 1 woman. Invariably will someone will quickly supply a many options, which makes you wonder how hard it actually is if a blogger can pull a couple of dozen names of qualified women out of a hat. (some relevant links on that, here, here and here).

It can be hard certainly depending on the situation and goals. I was involved in a plan to evaluate diversity and equity in my grad program. It was hard work without of definite or immediate pay off. Still there are plenty of success stories.

One university has about 10% of all African-American faculty in computer science. Think about that. Think about how many computer science departments there are. This isn't even an HBCU we're talking about. This is not due to random fluctuations, or statements of value, it seems to be due to recruitment effort and an inclusive environment.

Or consider the experience of Eve Marder (Marder, E.. "Why so long?." Curr Biol 20. 10 (2010): R426.)

"I started as an assistant professor in the biology department at Brandeis University in 1978. Unlike most of my female peers who were the first woman to be hired in their departments, I was the 5th woman in a department of 19. Today, my department has 13 women and 16 men, with many female tenured full professors.

That is why I have no patience when I visit other universities around the world and discover that the number of female faculty is still low in many departments of biomedical science."
(emphasis mine)

I feel the same way. I have sat through way too many discussions where some institutional decision maker will insist that there just aren't any qualified minority candidates out there for jobs/talks/etc. (a few times about something I was qualified for while I was literally siting right there).

That is in part why I hold a bit of skepticism for statements of diversity, inclusiveness and what not. In my experience there is a wide chasm between writing up values and acting on them. Many organizations can't, won't or just don't make the leap.

That of course brings us to the recent news about once of the bigger institutions in science, NIH and their 'diversity issues' (e.g, here and here). That situation deserves its own post.



20 responses so far

  • DrClam says:

    We are low on females...I am one of six in a 30-member faculty....

    We just did a job search and only 10% of the total applications were female. We invited one for an interview (on paper, she was in our top three) and she did HORRIBLY. The other two candidates (both male) did well. I'm not suggesting that male candidates intuitively interview better than female candidates. My point is that when your starting numbers are low, statistically finding a 'diverse' candidate is lessened....so even with best intentions in place, you may fall short.....hopefully, we're figuring out how to make ourselves attractive to candidates of all stripes....

    • bashir says:

      Does 10% reflect the overall proportion in your field?

      Even at only 10% you found someone who was qualified and a good fit, right? Even if she did poorly and wasn't hired you were able to find this person. Sure the deck is not stacked well, but this isn't some impossible puzzle.

      • DrClam says:

        The % of female applicants is much lower than the % of females in our field...and I don't want to make it sound like a 'binders full of women' situation....because it's not. Qualified female applicants don't often seek us out. I don't know if they look at our website and only see 6 of us and automatically think 'boys club'...which it isn't, for the record. But you are more than accurate when you state, it's not an impossible puzzle.....

  • SEL says:

    A major part of the problem has been pointed out by the first response here: the low percentage of female applicants for TT positions. Doesn't matter how committed you are to diversity when there aren't many women (or other minorities) applying. Many women appear to be opting out due to family issues (or perceived future issues), as shown by a report in Science (2007, issue 318, p. 897) "Postdoc Survey Finds Gender Split on Family Issues". The study surveyed 113 postdocs, male and female, at NIH. Some of the most pertinent findings:
    31% of married women expressed a willingness to make concessions to accommodate their spouses' careers versus 21% of the men.
    57% of female postdocs who were married but without children said that having children would influence their career choices compared with only 29% of married men without children.

    Basically, if women existed in isolation (didn't have to worry about husband or children), faculty would be 50/50 male/female. But in their grad or postdoctoral years....when two scientists couple up, it's the woman who is more likely to decide to be the trailing spouse (making the concession for his career), and it's the woman who realizes that if they ever have kids, it might actually impact one's career. (That's the amazing thing....the 71% of men who say that having children will not influence their career choice at all....is this subconsciously accompanied by the thought that "the wife will take care of that"?)

    So the commitment to diversity needs to start not at the faculty search level, but in educating female grad students and postdocs about the possibilities before they make assumptions and just give up....tenure track positions DO have flexibility in terms of schedules; most universities WILL try to facilitate two body problems and aid in child-care.

    Either that, or a complete psychological revolution needs to happen in terms of accepted gender roles.

    • bashir says:

      Doesn't matter how committed you are to diversity when there aren't many women (or other minorities) applying.

      Right. This is the basic, the problem is intractable so why bother doing anything attitude. That is a part of the problem IMO.

    • NeuroGuy says:

      Well let's be clear. We (myself and my department) care about diversity insofar as outreach efforts to underrepresented groups may yield us some highly qualified candidates which we otherwise would not have found. We obviously want more highly qualified candidates to apply for whatever positions we might have available. We want diversity insofar as we want all candidates to be evaluated as fairly as possible. For instance, we will take into account if a woman had to take time off to care for children. (But, it must be said, we are also willing to do this for a man, which some, despite all their protestations to "diversity", are not!) But as far as diversity in our department as an end goal in itself: no way. We simply cannot afford to not hire the best candidate available.

      Either that, or a complete psychological revolution needs to happen in terms of accepted gender roles.

      This. There will never be equity as long as women do the lion's share of child care.

      But it must be said IMO it is the attitudes of females, every bit as much as that of males, which is part of the problem. Women buy into the mindset that they are naturally more nurturing and better suited to take care of children, and that it is the man's primary job to bring home the bacon, every bit as much as men as far as I can see. Often I get such looks of surprise from women (even professional academic women) when they find out I am a custodial father. Sorry, but if I'm going to accept that you can do every bit as well in the office as I, then you're going to accept that I can do every bit as well in the home as you.

      • bashir says:

        So you want to find candidates but don't care for hiring them since you can only afford to take absolute best. I've been around long enough to know just how subjective "best candidate" is. Sounds like your department is mostly interesting in covering their ass.

      • SEL says:

        Yeah, the psychological revolution will be tough. I do outreach for female undergrad students in STEM, and it's great to see how enthusiastic about science they are. But I realize that some of them are going to go ahead and put their careers on the back-burner....when they're in their late 20's and looking into their husbands eyes and having to make decisions; when conservative politicians, religious leaders, parenting gurus, and La Leche leaguers are telling them things; when their hormones are DEMANDING things....some of them are just going to go ahead and accept a certain role, even if they don't really want to.

        Major props for being a custodial dad.

  • AK says:

    It's interesting how the conversation always gets derailed by the "preferences in hiring" issue when, in many cases, the real issue is recruitment. I was connected to a small, all-male department in a heavily-male field (physics) for a while. When they posted an open call, they interviewed something like the top 5% of men and the top 50% of women, and still didn't get a good female candidate. The most successful route they found for increasing diversity was to search more broadly, identify prospective female candidates, and suggest that they apply.

    That statistic about Clemson is remarkable! I'm not in a position to start doing recruiting, but it seems like taking a few steps like giving talks at HBCUs would be a pretty reasonable start. Somehow, this is not something that I have seen a lot of people doing.

    • Bashir says:

      My impesion is that academics are averse to that sort of headhunting. Other than for senior hires. Perhaps thats why there are these "binders of women" lists that some bloggers have made. Women science speakers, minority postdocs, etc. I have no idea how useful that actually is.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Years ago we successfully recruited a black faculty member. Within three years, or less, he became an administrator. Couple of reasons, I think, for this. First, it was much easier to offer him a competitive salary as an administrator. Secondly, they thought a black administrator was of more value to the university than a black faculty member. Anyway, he was a good guy and we all stayed friends. He became a university president. We would call him to send applicants our way when ever we had a position open. This was part of our required Affirmative Action effort.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    The notion there is only one "best candidate" is always total bullshit. You can estimate but never predict the future perfectly. And it is a retrenchment back to the first-order problem, that the tippy top of subjective assessment is highly laden with biases.

    • NeuroGuy says:

      Of course evaluation is not completely perfectly objective, because we humans are not omniscient. Yes we know this. However that is no argument whatsoever for valuing diversity for its own sake. We reach out to diverse candidates due to what they can or might do for us, not precisely because they are diverse. We've selected two women to interview with us (and no men) because they were the best candidates and best fits, not because they were women.

      In a case of a tough call, where a white male and a diverse candidate were both evaluated very well, we would likely select the diverse candidate; but again, not because we value diversity for its own sake, but rather because we realize there are biases in the evaluation process which makes it likely the diverse candidate is actually superior. However, if it is not a tough call, we will not hire a diverse candidate merely for the sake of diversity.

      The reality is, our department is going to be evaluated based on its productivity and not on what our faces look like. It does not matter how much our superiors preach "diversity", what they really care about is productivity.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Also, to misquote Bella Abzug (I think), we'll reach equality when women only have to be as good as the *worst* man in the job, not better than the best.

  • Zuska says:

    Oh by all means, let's not be interested in diversity for its own sake, and make sure we hire just the best candidates, and if the "diverse" candidates don't apply, how can we hire them, it's not our fault, what can we do, after all, it's not like we're "search" committees, we're only envelope-opening committees. I mean, I'm all for diversity and equity and all that, as long as nothing has to change.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Affirmative action as I was instructed to implement it, meant being sure that diverse candidates were aware of the job opening. I don't see anyone could have a problem with the search committee doing that.

    We do try to find and hire the best candidate. If the person is successful, they may well affect my life throughout the rest of my career. If they are not successful, there is a denial of tenure, which is not a happy event. On the other hand, a couple of times colleagues and I have agreed that we could do as well drawing names out of a hat.

    My biochemical colleagues would say we should hire be best scientist. I, an evolutionary biologist, would say we should hire the scientist who would exhibit the highest fitness in our department environment.

  • GMP says:

    So you want to find candidates but don't care for hiring them since you can only afford to take absolute best. I've been around long enough to know just how subjective "best candidate" is.

    Exactly. I am on a search cte right now, and we have had an extremely strong applicant pool. Top 20 people are all easily excellent faculty material. But, we get to interview 3-5. This is where someone has to get up and say "we need to have some underrepresented minorities on the short list, how about these people" and also has to ignore and/or fight the straw argument "but we want the best!" -- yes, we are picking from the top 20. I am just making sure that pedigree isn't the only thing that makes candidates stand out. Faculty searches are so darn competitive, that anything that makes you stand out -- gender, race -- should be taken into account. The point is to get the precious interview.

    One problem is I can't often say if someone's a woman (many Asian names where even our Asian colleagues can't tell the gender from Anglo-transcribed names). I can sometimes tell if someone's Hispanic from the education background (e.g. BS from South America) and/or name, but there are some I may be missing because they are US-born and educated and the name is not a giveaway. We have had an African American this year, and there is nothing about his name (very common Anglo name) or any part of his record that would indicate it; the only way we knew is because someone on the committee happened to know him; with a different committee we would not have a clue.

    My point is -- I am happy and comfortable making waves on the committee and pushing that we have a diversity of finalists, but I often cannot tell that a candidate may be an ethnic, racial, or gender minority. Not sure what one can do about it, other that telling candidates to have a website with a picture. I am surprised how few applicants left links to their personal websites; a few more turned out to have sites that could be revealed upon quick googling or were visible on advisors' sites, but for many there was little web presence altogether.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Ahh, GMP but surely you grasp that when being a woman or a member of an identifiably ethnicity means being severely underrepresented in your field, department or University such individuals may be betting their chances on avoiding the (likely) discrimination rather than on the (dubious, uncertain) benefits of affirmative action policies?

    • GMP says:

      DM, I do understand that. Hey, I am the first to never put my first name on any manuscripts so as to avoid antagonizing the reviewers before they have even reached the abstract. And my students (mostly guys) know why I never put anything other than my first initial.

      But I am honestly asking -- what's the right thing to do? On the one hand you have people afraid to reveal their underrepresented status for fear of discrimination, and they may be completely right to do so, but on the other hand you have to somehow get that information in you want to implement affirmative action.

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