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How to Hire More Women in Science

Montana State University STEM departments now hire equal numbers of women and men, thanks to new procedures that raise awareness of gender issues.
(Photo: Tekniska museet/Flickr)

(Photo: Tekniska museet/Flickr)

By now, anyone who's paying attention knows that universities across the country have a serious gender-balance problem, especially in science and related fields. But there appears to be some hope on the horizon: A new study shows that a few changes to academic hiring practices could go a long way toward bringing in more women to what's long been a male-dominated world.

It's abundantly clear that there are more men in top universities' science, engineering, and mathematics departments. Women are less likely to be trained in science, less likely to get coveted faculty jobs, and more likely to have some jerk tell them they're no good at science. That's a big problem.

The treatment group was twice as likely to interview women: About 40 percent of their interview spots went to women, compared to 18 percent in the control group.

"Diversity within STEM is essential for creating a thriving workplace and a learning environment replete with role models, diverse ways of thinking, and enhanced learning that elevates excellence and benefits scientific innovation, public health, and economic growth," researchers led by Jessi Smith, a professor of psychology at Montana State University, write in BioScience.

"What is less straightforward are the reasons why STEM fields are male dominated and what can be done to enhance diversity," they write.

Motivated by those questions, Smith and her fellow researchers—mostly ecologists, plus one political scientist—designed an experiment that piggybacked on Montana State's regular hiring procedures. All 23 science- and math-oriented departments participated, 14 of which were assigned to a three-stage intervention in addition to the usual human resources training Montana State provides to hiring committees.

In the first intervention stage, members of each department's hiring committee learned strategies for conducting broad searches for potential hires. In the second, a member of Smith's team discussed how unconscious biases could prejudice hiring calls—for example, being surrounded by male professors might make women seem more out of place and less qualified. Finally, the team provided support to hiring committees throughout the process and referred finalists for the job to a confidential "family advocate," with whom they could discuss work-life balance issues among other things.

Those interventions made a big difference, not just to whom the departments interviewed, but also to whom they offered jobs—and who accepted. The 14 departments in the treatment group offered faculty positions to 11 women in total, and seven accepted. In comparison, the nine departments in the control group offered jobs to just two women, one of whom accepted. The treatment group was also twice as likely to interview women: About 40 percent of their interview spots went to women, compared to 18 percent in the control group.

"Pushback [from male and female faculty] notwithstanding, our brief three-step faculty search intervention was successful," Smith and her colleagues write. Montana State now uses that intervention in all STEM hiring decisions, and has since hired an equal number of men and women in those departments.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.