Six More Research-Based Strategies to Advance Equity

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

Female science instructor


In our last post, we began to describe a set of strategies, documented in our research, that have been used by institutions of higher education to address gender inequities within the faculty. While the projects we studied focused on STEM faculties, many of the strategies are also applicable to other fields where women are underrepresented among faculty ranks and in senior and leadership positions. Some strategies also address the needs of other groups of faculty who are also marginalized due to their identities.

Importantly, these strategies do not stand alone; rather, they work best when incorporated into a comprehensive transformation plan that addresses the systemic origins of gender inequity within the academy. The experience of institutions that have had National Science Foundation ADVANCE grants shows that the most successful and strategic approaches to change are those tailored to the particular history, mission, and context of the institution.

Previously, we focused on six strategies that operate on institutional structures and cultures to improve the fairness of women’s experiences in the academy. Some of these strategies aim to change biased institutional structures — especially the policies, procedures, and arrangements that shape evaluation of faculty — while others seek to change masculinized cultures, such as norms, values, and expectations, especially at the departmental level. In this post, we describe six more research-based strategies that address other aspects of faculty life that have disproportionate effects on women’s hiring, retention, and success as faculty members and leaders. Importantly, these latter six strategies represent institutional actions that can make an important difference for individuals’ quality of life, but they are insufficient alone in changing deep-seated ways of working.

Supporting the Whole Person
Strategies to support the whole person seek to support people in harmonizing their personal and professional lives, especially when these come into conflict. Because women in US society are more likely to hold care-giving roles, work-life conflicts are more common and impactful for women as a group. Moreover, the timing of “up or out” academic career decisions — securing an academic job and gaining tenure, after many years of doctoral and postdoctoral education — may conflict with decisions about having children, and how many. Our research identified three categories of strategies that seek to mitigate these challenges.

Strategy 7 – Support for dual-career couples

Strategy 8 – Flexible work arrangements

Strategy 9 – Practical family-friendly accommodations

Strategy 7: Strategies to support dual-career couples are based on the recognition that academic women are more likely than men to be partnered with an academic spouse, and more likely attend to their partner’s career prospects in family decisions about where to live. Thus, many institutions have sought to improve their success in attracting and retaining women faculty by addressing the needs of dual-career couples. Some institutions have formalized pathways towards academic jobs for their partners. Typically, they lay out a process whereby departments can negotiate to identify appropriate faculty positions when the partner of their preferred candidate is also an academic and establish a plan for funding such positions if the partner is also hired. Other institutions have developed resources to help non-academic partners build their networks and locate appropriate work in the institution or community. In any of these approaches, it is important to offer finalists for faculty positions a means to communicate their needs and interest in dual-career opportunities in ways that do not bias the hiring decision but nevertheless allow departments the lead time necessary to explore the potential for a partner hire.

Strategy 8: Strategies for providing flexible work arrangements seek to address the fact that work-life challenges may arise at different points in faculty careers, due to events such as birth or adoption of a child, illness or death in the family, or the changing needs of children. or elders. In such situations, faculty members benefit from policies and procedures that enable them to modify their duties, and institutions benefit when these arrangements help to retain valued colleagues and allow predictability in meeting teaching and service commitments. For example, tenure “stop-clock” policies enable a faculty member to delay her tenure decision after having a baby. “Modified duties” policies allow faculty members to negotiate a change in their job description to provide flexibility while they manage a personal or family situation.

Strategy 9: Strategies that offer practical family-friendly accommodations often complement flexible work arrangements by providing some practical support to mitigate work-life challenges. Examples of this strategy that we saw in our research study include on-campus childcare centers or arrangements with local childcare providers that address the cost and accessibility of childcare; lactation spaces where breast-feeding people can pump or feed a nursing baby; and reserved parking spaces for pregnant people. Many institutions also gathered resources and streamlined access to information about existing work-life support such as family leave, disability leave, and financial support for faculty undergoing life transitions.

As a group, these strategies offer ways to recognize that faculty members are not just workers, but well-rounded humans with meaningful personal lives that generate changing needs and circumstances over the course of life. Over the long term, faculty members are more productive and fulfilled when they can reduce sources of work-life conflict, and institutions that are responsive to these needs are more successful in retaining faculty members and benefiting from their varied contributions to education, scholarship, and community life.

Fostering Individual Success
Strategies to foster individual success address the toll exerted on women when they are excluded from professional opportunities. These strategies offer opportunities to develop new skills, build collaborations, and connect with mentors and other insightful colleagues. Importantly, these strategies must not be considered as remediating deficits but rather as replacing opportunities from which women were barred by biased selection procedures or closed social circles. They have practical value in supporting women in the near term even as more transformational, but slower, systemic change strategies such as changing policies or evaluation processes, or shifting mindsets, are underway.

Strategy 10 – Faculty professional development

Strategy 11 – Grants to individuals

Strategy 12 – Mentoring & networking activities

Strategy 10: Strategies that provide faculty professional development may offer knowledge and skills in particular areas of research, teaching, and leadership that are needed for career success, or may provide time and guidance for reflection and planning about personal career goals and how to achieve them. They often double as opportunities for women to make connections that build supportive networks within the institution. Program designs include intensive or serial workshops, learning communities, discussion groups, fellowships, new faculty orientations, or one-off events such as brownbags and book groups. These may be targeted broadly or toward faculty in specific career stages, such as early-career faculty pursuing tenure or more senior faculty who are considering a change in career direction, seeking promotion to full professor, or considering a leadership role. Many institutions have observed that these new skills and capacities benefit individual women’s career progress, elevate the visibility of the change project, and have positive ripple effects as women become strong and confident campus contributors and leaders.

Strategy 11: Strategies that award grants to individuals seek to strengthen women’s scholarly credentials, accomplishments, and networks. Some programs target faculty at various career stages: early-career faculty establishing their research programs or mid-career faculty who wish to pursue a risky project, pilot a new thread of research, develop a new course, or resume active scholarship after a period of extensive service or time out to manage work-life challenges. Some grant programs are designed to encourage collaboration with a senior scholar off-campus or nurture on-campus collaborations on seed projects; in this way, they also serve as mechanisms for mentoring and may generate new research initiatives and attract external funding.

Strategy 12: Finally, strategies that support mentoring and networking seek to strengthen women’s professional networks, sources of support, and sense of community within the institution. These strategies may be especially important for women who are in a stark numerical minority in their department or who have experienced exclusion from informal opportunities to gain insider information and socialization into the academic profession. Again, institutions used different designs to target faculty in different career stages, gather people around a visiting speaker or topic of common interest, or recruit subgroups with specific interests and needs, such as faculty mothers, women department chairs, women of color, or people seeking peer support for their academic writing. Approaches range from highly formal one-to-one mentoring through mentoring groups and informal peer-to-peer approaches, with a good deal of variety in how these approaches succeed on different campuses.

In total, these six strategies emphasize approaches that require institutional action to address women’s diverse needs and circumstances, to mitigate challenges that fall disproportionately, to provide strong support, and enable women who have already been hired to thrive. To be effective they must be coupled with some of the deeper-diving change strategies from our earlier post that address bias in evaluating faculty and alter workplace cultures. Again, we offer here only a brief glimpse of the strategies we identified in our research, and our book offers more detail about the rationale, design, implementation and evaluation of these strategies, along with numerous examples.

In our final post in this blog series, we will discuss key elements in creating institutional change portfolios and processes, including how institutions have combined and leveraged these strategies to spur systemic change towards more equitable and inclusive academic environments within their particular institutional contexts.

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