Keys to Hiring Women in Science

August 5, 2008

Campuses are full of both success stories and horror stories about the recruitment of women to positions in science and engineering departments. There are search committee chairs convinced that they know what worked -- and would-be professors who never bothered applying for positions because they didn’t feel welcome.

Two sociologists who want to push the discussion beyond anecdotes and individual preferences think they have found evidence of steps that do make a difference in the recruitment of women for science faculty jobs. Specifically, they urge a focus on efforts to increase the pool of female applicants, and the importance of having a woman serve on the search committee.

The sociologists -- Christy M. Glass of Utah State University and Krista Lynn Minnotte of the University of North Dakota, who presented findings this weekend in Boston at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association -- based their analysis on confidential reviews of all of the science, mathematics and engineering searches at a Western doctoral-granting university over a five-year period. They were able to track what happened to 3,245 applicants for 63 positions -- and included all applicants except those whose gender was not clear from name or biographical information.

In some respects, their analysis found a clear willingness to hire women. The university offered jobs to 5.6 percent of female applicants, compared to only 2.9 percent of male applicants. But because 84.8 percent of all applicants were male, and because female applicants who were offered jobs were more likely to turn them down, the authors write that it is key to identify the factors that work for women.

Searches that included advertisements or postings in publications focused on women in science attracted far more female applicants than did comparable searches that did not engage in such recruitment strategies. Men appear to have an “information advantage” in finding out about openings, said Minnotte, so steps that balance that have an impact on attracting female candidates.

Attracting female candidates is important because search committees were much more likely to move women to the finalist stage when there were many women in the pool than when there were just a few.

Another strategy discussed was having at least one woman on a search committee. Here, the research found no relationship between having a woman on a search committee and the number or share of female applicants. However, the study found (in figures very close to statistical significance) that searches with women on the search committee were more likely to have women as semifinalists and to make an offer to a woman.

There are multiple explanations for the positive impact of a woman on a search committee, the paper says. One is that a woman may reduce “tendencies toward homosocial reproduction by granting power over the hiring decision to members outside the dominant status group.” But another is that departments “more committed to integrating their faculty ranks will be more attentive to both the gender composition of search committees as well as the gender composition of their finalist pools.” Either way, the authors write, it's a step that appears to yield results.

Here are the figures for the searches studied.

Percent of Final Applicant Status by Gender of Applicant

Status Males Females
Hired 2.03% 4.28%
Declined offer 0.77% 1.28%
Finalist 4.60% 11.56%
Semifinalist 8.54% 11.99%
Applicant only 84.06% 70.88%

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