Advocating for women in hiring decisions

I had the dubious pleasure of sitting on my second faculty search committee this past term, the first term of my second year as an assistant professor. Last year, I detailed my experiences here at TSW (Part I) ; (Part II), focusing on the nuts and bolts. This time I’m going to talk about dynamics relating to racial minorities and particularly women. These groups are underrepresented and undervalued in academia, at least partially due to systematic discrimination.

First, some stats. Last year, no women made it to the second round (phone interviews, typically 8-11). This year, women did really well in our search, although we did not end up hiring a woman. About 22% of the applicants were female, but 37.5% of our phone interviewees and 50% of our campus interviewees were women. In contrast, minorities fared less well. 31% of our applicants were presumed minorities (based on name), whereas only 12.5% of our phone interviewees were such. Over half (54%) of the applicants in the ‘not qualified/why did they apply to this job?’ were minorities. Many minorities from other countries seemed well trained and qualified, but for completely different jobs than the one for which we were advertising.

Throughout this search, and those I was part of previously, I was on the lookout for both vocalized and unvocalized discrimination – in both myself, and other members of the committee. It has been shown that (at least in science) both women and men demonstrate gender bias in hiring1. We do not have a gender-blind search process, although such a process has been shown to be relatively feasible2. To attempt to do this for myself I set up my spreadsheet and all of my notes without first names. I was particularly concerned about gender bias from my colleagues, as I have heard sexist comments from some of them. Of course I have no idea if this affects their evaluating/ranking/hiring decisions – perhaps they are aware and take it in to account. But I can’t trust, given all the studies and evidence to the contrary, that we are all acting in an unbiased manner.

Gender dynamics played out in an interesting way in this search. The position we are hiring for requires maintenance of and teaching students to use some complex equipment. The candidates varied in training, personal experience, and teaching experience related to that part of the job. We required candidates and their references to discuss their ability to perform those job duties. Regardless of their actual abilities and capabilities, women and men presented themselves very differently when pressed with pointed questions, i.e.

  • Man: “I don’t know how to work with that machine yet, but I am confident I can. I would need some time to get my hands dirty and figure it out”
  • Woman: “I don’t know how to work with that machine yet, and that is a concern. I would contact tech support and have them come out and show me what to do”

In this case, the woman had presented herself as less competent than her male competitor, because she didn’t seem confident in her own abilities and she admitted she would need help. Overall, the committee (particularly the older, senior members of the committee) felt that she wasn’t competent. Women are less likely to exaggerate their abilities3, which comes off as a lack of confidence. This is a serious problem when trying to compare multiple candidates’ abilities in a search.

I took the opportunity to act as an advocate for this candidate, although it was an awkward experience. I brought up that women and men present themselves and their abilities differently, and that it was very likely that the female candidate was just as competent and would be just as good at the job as her male competitor. We shouldn’t disqualify her because she was a) possibly more honest b) more willing to ask for help or c) just not great at interviewing in this case. One of the committee members responded very favorably to my comment, and we discussed gender discrepancies briefly as a group. As Jones and Urban note in their report on conducting a gender-blind search, “Simply discussing unconscious bias heightened our sensitivity.” In this case, talking about differences between women and men helped me feel that our search was conducted fairly.

Have you ever been an advocate in a faculty (or other) search? How was that received?



1 Moss-Racusin, C.A. et al. 2012. Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. PNAS 109(41):16474-16479. Link:

2 Jones, C. and M. Urban. 2012. Promises and Pitfalls of a Gender-Blind Faculty Search. BioScience 63(6):611-612.

3 Reuben, E. et al. 2012. The emergence of male leadership in competitive environments. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 83(1):111-117.

11 thoughts on “Advocating for women in hiring decisions

  1. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing this experience. I’m pleased to know that there are people like you on such committees, willing to take note and start these conversations, and advocate for others.

  2. I’m curious about how you determined who the minorities in your search are. Would you be willing to tell us more about that? My concern would be that there are minorities you miss when just looking at their names. I say this because I’ve been told many times that I, a Black American, have a “white” name. If you’re basing things just on name, then you’d probably presume incorrectly that I’m white. Checking my C.V. might alter that since there’s diversity awards on there.

    • I just quickly looked at names for the purposes of this post. Our department/committee didn’t quantify anything formally, although someone higher up may do so.

  3. Your example is a common one and very revealing. Men are used to interacting with each other so they understand and appreciate the male applicant’s tone. Pointing out that modesty vs. braggadocio are not one to one indicators of competence is a useful lesson.

  4. I am interested in this common difference between men and women. More than 20 years ago, a friend who was teaching adults some basic computing skills remarked on a similar difference if the screen went blank. She said the men typically said “what is wrong with this machine” and the women typically said “what have I done wrong, I have broken the machine”. I would have hoped that this difference didn’t exist now, a generation later.

    On another point, if I were on the interviewing committee, i would prefer the person who would ask for help to teach her to use an unfamiliar machine, and definitely not the one who was going to get his dirty hands all over it, and maybe still not understand its fundamental workings at the end of the process!!!

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  6. Good for you. I just went through a selection process (I am currently “Visiting Assistant Professor”) where another white male was chosen in a program that is already all white men. As a woman, first generation college student I recognized that some of the criteria used were biased — e.g. not having published in graduate school. As a first generation college student, I know that I was making up for a deficit that my colleagues did not have. Also, as a parent of a college student now, I know how much more my daughter has in analytical ability because she has two parents with college (and graduate) education. Although I am in the Social Sciences, the field is still maybe 30% women (it was 15% when I was in grad school 15 years ago) and we will continue to be at a disadvantage.

    When I was in grad school, I was on a search committee and was appalled when I heard a colleague refer to the candidate as “the best among the women” — meaning he had separated the two groups and made sure he had a token. Fortunately, the rest of as saw her as the best candidate overall and she got the job. I was naive then but saddened to see that those biases continue!

    • How is it that you see “Not having any record of publication” while a student, as “BIASED”.
      Seems your graduate advisors failed you, in not explicitly explaining the concept of Publish or Perish in academia.

      That is not a Male/Female issue.

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  8. I was on five academic search committees last year. In all of them, a white male was hired over a qualified woman. In one case, the two women finalists had far more experience and stronger credentials than the man who ended up getting the offer. In another, when the male candidate withdrew, the search was declared failed; no offer was made to the woman who had also interviewed (and interviewed well). Systemic, incognizant bias was clearly a factor in all these decisions. So it’s crucial for women on search committees to advocate strongly for women and minority candidates. EEOD offices on campuses should also take more proactive steps to ensure equity in searches.

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