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A Proven and Practical Approach to Hiring Women and Minorities

By Kathryn Johnston

Kathryn Johnston works on galactic dynamics, with a particular interest in the role that
dwarf galaxy destruction plays in galaxy formation. She is currently an assistant professor in
the astronomy department at Wesleyan University.

(With helpful comments from Daniela Calzetti and Julianne Dalcanton)

January 2004

In 1996, Denice Denton arrived as the new Dean of Engineering at the University of
Washington (UW). At 37 she was the youngest dean at UW and the first woman
dean of engineering at a major U.S. research institution. These might seem like challenges
enough in a new job, but they were really incidental compared to the expectations of
her employers: Denton was hired to take a traditional engineering division and mould it
to provide a model of how excellence can be achieved through diversity.

This article, inspired by her presentation to the CSWA at the AAS in January 2003,
summarizes Denton's own description of how such changes can be achieved.

Inspirational Numbers

As in Astronomy, the percentage of Ph.D.'s granted to women and minority candidates
graduating from the engineering programs (17% and 21% respectively in 2001) is typically
far greater than the percentage of women and minority faculty in the same departments (8.6%).
At UW, the emphasis on reforming hiring practices has already made some significant
differences - by 2000, women and minorities accounted for 13% of the 200 engineering faculty.
Among the most recent 22 hires, the UW Division appointed 7 women and 2 African
Americans (searches for 50 positions in the equivalent division at UC Berkeley over the same time-frame
resulted in zero women or minority hires).

So much for diversity, how about excellence? A common misconception is that rapid change
can only be achieved through biased hiring practices, resulting in a lowering of academic
standards. Yet, in a recent year, when UW junior faculty in the division submitted fourteen
applications for the prestigious NSF CAREER grants, nine were awarded. This is a phenomenal
success: NSF gave out 122 such grants nationwide in engineering in 2000.

Essentials for Success

Throughout her talk at the January AAS, Denton highlighted two components that she considered essential
to the success of any effort to diversify on an institutional scale: commitment of time,
staff and resources from the governing bodies of the institution at the level of the
Deans through the President; and a complementary program of genuine change to the culture of the
institution to provide a supportive environment for the incoming faculty and sustain the initiative
beyond the lifetime of the current generation.

At UW these essentials are provided by the"Center for Institutional Change" (CIC), which
coordinates many of the programs for hiring and retention of minority faculty outlined below. The
Center was created in 2001, supported in part by an ADVANCE award from the NSF, which is used
to fund staff salaries. Of equal importance was the reassignment of duties of existing staff within
UW to this program.

Yet even the creation of such a center would be ineffective without the corresponding power
to affect genuine change. Some illustration of the level of backing that the program enjoys from
UW comes from anecdotes within the institution: according to Julianne Dalcanton (UW
Astronomy), it is a local legend among the faculty at UW that Denton was able to remove
several department chairs when she took control of the School of Engineering. Whether this
legend is true or not is somewhat irrelevant - its very existence sends the message that Denton has
the determination to make significant (and initially unpopular) changes and the backing from
the University to see them through.

The Practical Approach

Once the institutional support is in place, implementing and sustaining diversity can be
broken down into three areas: hiring practices; retaining new faculty; and cultural change. Some
of the ideas used at UW are summarized below and more can be found in the "Faculty
Recruitment Toolkit" link at the end of the article.

– Hiring Practices –

The first step of any search at UW is a meeting with the search committee to outline the best
approach. Committees are encouraged to actively recruit candidates rather than follow the
traditional route of simply filtering applications once they arrive. (Note: phone calls to colleagues
are NOT considered active recruitment as they usually result in a reflection of the characteristics
of the current department.) During this meeting the issue of diversity and excellence is discussed
explicitly. A common outcome of such a discussion is that committee members assume that they are
expected to hire a woman or minority candidate. This misconception needs to be dispelled - in
Denton's experience targeted hires typically back-fire as the new faculty is stigmatized and
never accepted on equal terms. Instead, she advocates presenting clear statistics on
the applicant pool (e.g. the number of Ph.D.’s granted in the subject
in the last five years, broken down by gender and ethnicity - data that is available at the
NORC website listed at the end of the article) that allows the committee to see whether their
search is producing a fair representation of that pool. Finally, the committee is led
through a list of questions that are inappropriate to ask the candidate during
interview (available through the "Faculty Recruitment Toolkit" – see resources below).

A second key element to a successful search is how candidates are treated. Once on the short list,
each candidate is assigned an "ambassador" from the faculty who they can contact at any
point to assess their progress. They are asked in advance of the interview who they would like to
meet and what questions in particular they would like answered. During the interview they are
given a hardcopy of a list of benefits that they might otherwise be hesitant to ask about. If they
are offered a position they are also assigned an"advocate" to help lead them through the
bargaining process (historically, women and minorities have accepted lower wages and startup
packages). Overall, the emphasis is on accommodating the candidate rather than grilling them.

For example, among the list of benefits is a discussion of the common (and difficult to
address) problem of dual-career couples. UW has instituted a (modestly-funded) "dual-career
program" which includes a commitment to working across departments and divisions to try to
accommodate spouses. Although this issue cannot be asked about during the interview, the
benefit descriptions allows the interviewer to describe the program. This can encourage the
candidate (if it is relevant) to raise the issue at an early stage. This may be beneficial both to the
candidate and to the institution.

– Retention of Incoming Minority Faculty –

It is hardly a surprise that a key to retaining minority faculty is to ensure that they have every
opportunity to fulfill the promise that they were hired for. Some obstacles to success may not be
easily pointed to or simply addressed (such as the working environment in the department - see
below). However, one element missing at many universities that can easily be filled
in is support for incoming faculty. This may be as straight forward as
making sure their office is ready when they arrive, and that the
housing office is helpful. At UW, in addition, each new faculty is assigned a faculty mentor to
turn to with whatever problems they encounter or questions that come up. The CIC runs
week-long workshops for incoming faculty, and these are followed by quarterly workshops
that continue indefinitely.

Other challenges come from trying to fit a traditional career path around life outside academia. In
recognition of such conflicts, UW has created a transitional support program
for those adjusting to new childcare or eldercare responsibilities.

– Changing the Environment –

Changing the environment of an institution to make it more welcoming to minority faculty is
perhaps the trickiest part of the process. In an ideal world, there would be sufficient minorities
in positions of authority for the environment to be comfortable for them. Until this is achieved,
strong leadership is crucial.

When Denton arrived at UW she explicitly talked to the faculty about the need for a working
atmosphere that was comfortable for all members and stated what types of behavior were unacceptable
in this context. She also made it clear that all faculty who ignored these guidelines would be held accountable for their actions. This strong stance soon produced complaints to the Dean's office from current faculty about problems of discrimination that had been left unaddressed for years (and in a few cases, decades).

The CIC is maintaining this initiative in several ways: leadership development workshops
for faculty chairs and deans; mentoring programs for women and minorities to prepare them for
leadership positions; and money to support visits from outstanding minority scholars from other
institutions who might be interested in moving to UW.

The Overall Philosophy

Looking back over Dean Denton's talk it is striking to note that very few of the practices she
describes are applicable only to minorities. The UW program focuses on giving early and ongoing
support to people throughout their careers rather than giving things early on (e.g. large startup
packages) and then leaving them to sink or swim. It is hard to object to such a philosophy, and hard
to argue that it is discriminatory. Rather, in fostering excellence through diversity UW is
creating a vibrant and vivacious workplace.

NORC Career Outcomes of Doctoral Recipients. <http://www.norc.uchicago.edu/issues/docdata.htm>
University of Washington's ADVANCE program. <http://www.engr.washington.edu/advance/index.html>
University of Washington Faculty Recruitment Toolkit. <http://www.washington.edu/admin/eoo/forms/

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