How we increased the number of female faculty at our institution


One way to increase the representation of women in scientific fields is to use affirmative actions in hiring, so that only women are eligible to apply.Credit: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Twenty years ago, when One of Us (EW) joined the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, women made up just 13% of the staff academic. At the end of 2017, this figure was still only 16%, despite efforts to close the gender gap. For years, women working in the field were told they just had to be patient as the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce caught up with social movements, and a new generation of young women with engineering and science degrees was passing. But that didn’t happen. Despite a slight increase in the number of women studying STEM subjects as undergraduate or postgraduate students in Australia, female enrollment in these fields was only 36% of the total in 2019. The representation of women in science and in engineering, especially at the graduate level, is still appallingly low.

As three women who work in STEM at the University of Melbourne and hold leadership roles in gender equity, diversity and inclusion, we aim to address the under -representation of women in our disciplines. Recruitment is an essential part of our mandate. Open recruitment (for all genders) in STEM had been implemented in the past, but the proportion of female candidates was surprisingly low, with research showing systemic bias in recruitment practices. A new strategy was needed.

In 2016, Aleks Owczarek, then director of the School of Mathematics and Statistics, embarked on an affirmative action strategy (also known as affirmative action) to recruit women as faculty members. It was a controversial decision, but it was prompted by a clear lack of diversity in the school. The strategy was designed as a catalyst for change. It specifically aimed to increase the number of women in faculty positions; improving the faculty track; and provide female role models for students. Only women could apply for positions in fields where women were underrepresented. It lasted one round of recruitment in the school, but had beneficial side effects.

The approach had three characteristics. First, it was designed to attract a wide range of applicants, rather than just those from particular sub-disciplines. Second, the positions advertised were continuing teaching and research positions (rather than limited fixed-term contracts), in order to ensure career continuity. Third, the strategy was not intended to be undertaken on an ongoing basis or for every hiring cycle in these STEM disciplines.

But was it legal? Yes. In the state of Victoria, where the university is located, the law authorizes a special measure to promote equality. However, we strongly advise recruiters to check the applicable legal penalties before embarking on anything similar.

On an upward curve

The strategy has been very successful in attracting outstanding women candidates, both domestic and international, to the School of Mathematics and Statistics. The caliber was so high that five nominations were made, two more than originally planned. Thanks to this program, the share of female employees on permanent contracts rose from 18% in 2016 to 23% in 2017. This momentum continues; for example, in 2021, the proportion of female academics in mathematics and statistics was 27%.

The Schools of Chemistry and Physics of the Faculty of Science launched their own affirmative action strategies in 2018 and 2019 respectively. from 23% to 31% in physics; this was compared to zero or negative growth in the previous two years. Data from the Faculty of Information Technology and Engineering shows that in the 16 years leading up to its 2018 affirmative recruitment initiative, female representation had increased by only 4%. Within a year of the recruitment drive, that figure had risen to 20%. Female representation has since risen to 24% – the highest on record in the faculty.

Many successful candidates said they would not have applied if recruitment had been open to both men and women, suggesting a perceived bias against female candidates in open recruitment. This strategy sent a strong signal to future applicants that the university supports gender equity, diversity and inclusion, and in turn encouraged more women to apply and succeed in open roles. These recruits not only added to the diversity of the faculty, but they also brought their professional connections and their disciplinary networks. New collaborations have been forged, leading to fruitful research partnerships.

When the idea of ​​targeted recruiting was first floated, some backed off, not because these people didn’t believe in the benefits of a more diverse workforce, but for the following reasons. Firstly, the way we addressed gender imbalance through affirmative recruitment seemed unfair or was seen as a form of “reverse discrimination”, especially by junior male colleagues. Second, there was a perception that the quality of applicants would be compromised. And third, concerns arose about how successful candidates would be treated by their colleagues.

All of these apprehensions were well-founded and came from both male and female colleagues. But, as uncomfortable as these discussions were, the continued engagement and conversations provided an opportunity to discuss the generational and entrenched underrepresentation of women in STEM – and, more importantly, the painful slowness with which we progress. The provision of reliable data was paramount to addressing these concerns and clearly demonstrated the rationale for this and other gender equity initiatives.

Throughout recruitment, it was essential that the campaign received a clear show of support from the dean and senior management (see “Tips for Recruitment Through Affirmative Action”). It was also important to communicate that targeted recruitment would not be repeated every year, but rather was designed as a stepping stone to transform the faculty workforce into a more diverse workforce.

Affirmative Action Recruitment Tips

For those considering recruitment initiatives with an affirmative action element, we offer some important lessons.

• Always consult with senior faculty members in advance to ensure they are on board with your proposals. In our case, senior leaders were able to provide support and set the tone, especially when it came to young male academics who questioned the strategy.

• Make sure you have a strong evidence-based rationale coupled with rigorous organizational data.

• Be transparent about your rationale and prepared to have an open discussion about a merit-based approach with current faculty members and potential candidates.

• Check your legal situation before embarking on an affirmative action plan.

• Don’t be too specific about the sub-disciplines. Keep your selection criteria broad to broaden the pool of candidates.

• Make sure your initiative is part of a set of complementary strategies designed to build an inclusive culture and enable all faculty members to progress in their careers. We suggest involving junior members who are male and who might otherwise feel disenfranchised.

Create the right culture

While the strategy helped increase faculty diversity, we needed to create an inclusive culture for these new female recruits to succeed. We were also mindful not to exclude and disengage male staff, and invited them to work with us to develop and drive further inclusion efforts. Different faculties have established their own curricula. These included mentoring for female faculty members, career support grants (for junior staff, male and female) and training for panel members involved in recruitment and promotion, to help them recognize implicit biases. We have also developed a support program recognizing the importance of parental leave in retaining female staff. This has enabled people on parental leave to obtain a grant to fund resources for their research during or after this period, so that they can maintain their career momentum. Above all, we had to ensure that women newly recruited into teaching positions did not feel “symbolized”, and we maintained a particular emphasis on the training of all new staff.

We understand that there is still a long way to go before we have gender equity at all academic levels, but we believe our strategy is a useful complement. We strongly aim to sponsor female junior faculty members to progress through academic levels, so that parity can be achieved at higher levels in the near future.

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