Creating Equity in the Workplace

by Ann E. Austin and Sandra Laursen, Ph.D.

Female faculty member

AnastasiaDudka/Shutterstock

STEM women scholars in the academy face multiple challenges that combine to generate an uneven playing field. As a result, women lose out on opportunities to grow professionally and take on leadership roles, and they may feel self-doubt. These challenges are well documented by a large body of research, and they mirror challenges encountered by other groups of faculty who are also marginalized in the academy by race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, disability, citizenship, or Indigenous status. As we laid out in the first post In this series, institutions of higher education must respond to these complex and interconnected problems with strategic and systemic approaches. They must tackle these problems on multiple levels, lean on multiple levers for change, and choose interventions that suit the distinctive context of the institution.

In this post and the next, we describe twelve strategies that institutions of higher education can use in working to make faculty experiences and outcomes more equitable. We identified these strategies in our research study of institutions that received five-year Institutional Transformation (IT) awards from the US National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program. We examined the particular interventions that ADVANCE teams developed to address gender inequality on their campuses, asking which strategies were successful for them (or not), and for what reasons. We were keen to learn how each team’s strategic choices reflected the particular situation of their institution. Indeed, institutional context affects both the problem and the solution, influencing what particular inequities surface in faculty members’ numbers, demographics, and experiences, but also which interventions may work best in that setting.

We focus first on two sets of strategies that target institutional structures and cultures that are differentially harmful to women. By ‘structures,’ we mean organizing features such as policies, procedures, roles, and workflows that determine how decisions are made. By ‘cultures,’ we mean sets of formal and informal norms, values, and conventions that shape how people interact, what is valued, and what behaviors are expected or disapproved. Workplace culture may vary across units.

Strategies to Interrupt Biased Processes generally target institutional structures where embedded implicit bias affects decision-making, especially in evaluating faculty performance. Within academic institutions, faculty members are evaluated throughout a career, in processes for hiring, tenure, and promotion; selection for leadership training and roles; and recognition for rewards such as internal grants and awards, pay raises, and prestigious appointments such as named chairs. Our research identified three main types of strategies that institutions used to disrupt bias processes of evaluation:

Strategy 1 – inclusive recruitment and hiring

Strategy 2 – equitable processes of tenure and promotion

Strategy 3 – strengthened accountability structures

Strategies for inclusive recruitment and hiring focus on the processes by which faculty enter the academy. Some institutions developed ways to broaden the pool of people who apply for faculty positions, through tactics such as deliberate and intensive outreach to develop an applicant pool that (at minimum) reflects the diversity of people who have earned appropriate advanced degrees. Writing a less narrow job description is another way to broaden applicant pools, recognizing that faculty may contribute to the institution in many ways and enabling potential applicants to see how they fit the description rather than ruling themselves out.

Many institutions also worked to combat bias in evaluating applicants, especially by educating search committee members and other decision-makers about implicit bias and its research basis, and by giving them strategies to catch and counter it in themselves and others. Such training, when well designed and when grounded in scholarly research, can have notable impact on search committee attitudes, behaviors, and search outcomes. Rubrics or criteria for evaluating scholarly and teaching qualifications — developed in advance — can help committees to fairly evaluate candidates against the job description. Some institutions complemented these approaches with mechanisms to hold search committees accountable — such as giving a chair or dean oversight of interview lists — or to motivate success, such as support for an “extra” candidate to visit campus if that person would enhance the department’s diversity. Overall, these interventions aim to diversify the faculty by recruiting excellent people who will thrive professionally and help to fulfill the institution’s mission.

Strategies to assure equitable processes of tenure and promotion include similar educational approaches that seek to educate review committees and/or institutional leaders about implicit bias and enable them to recognize it and limit its impact. Other institutions in our study addressed the transparency and consistency of how tenure and promotion (T&P) processes worked across colleges and departments, through mechanisms such as standardizing T&P documents and procedures and formalizing pre-tenure review processes. Many addressed T&P processes in training for department chairs so they could better fulfill their dual roles of supporting and evaluating their faculty for tenure or advancement. Some held information sessions to demystify T&P processes or offered career coaching to mid-career faculty about advancement to full professor. Still, others established ombuds roles to ensure that T&P processes were conducted “by the book.” In general, strategies in this category aim to enhance retention and success of diverse faculty members.

Strategies to strengthen accountability structures reinforce the previous strategies by ensuring that these processes are faithfully followed and do not lapse over time. Some institutions gave sign-off powers to an administrator so that searches could not move forward if there was insufficient evidence that the committee had worked to diversify the pool and evaluate applicants equitably. Others designated someone to both oversee and support departmental diversity and inclusion efforts. For example, a designated “equity advisor” or “faculty excellence advocate” might provide professional development, mentoring, and advice to individual faculty; carry out implicit bias training and advise searches; and compile data to monitor progress on diversity and inclusion goals. Indeed, gathering, sharing, and using data is itself a powerful accountability strategy, making everyone more aware of how their unit was measuring up and focusing work where more progress was needed.

Strategies to reboot workplaces target cultures, especially at the departmental or unit level, which are the work environments where faculty spend much of their time and interact with colleagues. Everyday experiences at work influence faculty members’ job satisfaction, productivity, and performance, and ultimately their decisions to stay at the institution or leave for greener pastures. While women often report more negative experiences of the workplace climate, more supportive workplace climates have a positive effect on people of all genders. In our research, we recognized a variety of strategies that institutions used to enhance work environments:

Strategy 4 – development of institutional leaders

Strategy 5 – approaches to improve departmental climate

Strategy 6 – enhanced visibility of women

Strategies for developing institutional leaders recognize that leaders have high influence on the workplaces they lead. They control resources, communicate priorities and values, and set the tone for interactions, and they can be role models for others. Leaders’ awareness of the ways institutions can marginalize women, and their knowledge of actions they can take proactively, are crucial for improving working conditions and thereby everyone’s satisfaction and success. Thus, many institutions worked to better prepare those in formal leadership positions, especially deans and department heads or chairs, for their roles. Through mechanisms such as new chairs’ orientations or workshops, they sought to build leaders’ capacities and to develop their sense of agency and commitment to implement positive change in their own units. Other programs focused on empowering women and strengthening their interest and preparation for leadership roles. Through workshops, brownbags, leadership institutes, or networking events, such programs sought to enhance women’s skills, build connections among current and emerging leaders, and help them assess their own leadership potential and interest.

Strategies to improve departmental climate focused on the interactions and culture of departments. In some programs, departments proposed a plan of action and received a mini-grant to implement it. Other programs began with an assessment, using social science methods such as surveys and focus groups, to identify positive and negative features of a department’s climate, then provided guidance and support to address particular challenges identified in the assessment. In still other models, departments gained access to ADVANCE resources and opportunities when they committed to a program of self-improvement.

Strategies to enhance women’s visibility seek to elevate women’s presence and to educate community members about the ways that women have historically been excluded. Women’s visibility as scholars and leaders sends messages about whose work is valued and respected; their stories may counter stereotypes, offer inspiration, and help others to recognize and challenge injustice. In this category, strategies included speakers, symposia, film series, celebrations, honors, and communication campaigns. Visits by distinguished scholars were used to highlight women’s achievements, to raise awareness of scholarship about gender, and to foster interactions of the visitor with students and early-career scholars. Overall, these approaches aimed to celebrate women’s scientific achievements, publicize equity initiatives, and draw attention to the goal of full participation in the academy by people of all genders.

These six strategies emphasize approaches to changing systems–systems that developed in male-dominated institutions and thus are often optimized for traditionally male career patterns. We share here only a brief outline of the strategies we identified in our research; our book provides more details about the rationale, design, implementation, and evaluation of these strategies, including many variations and examples. In the next post, we will discuss institutional strategies that seek to support individual women in achieving their professional goals.


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