CAREER COLUMN

If you want more women in your workforce, here’s how to recruit

Academic departments and institutions must show candidates that they welcome people from all backgrounds.
Emma Pierson is an incoming assistant professor of computer science at Cornell Tech in New York City and a senior researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Elissa M. Redmiles is a researcher at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington, and an incoming faculty member and research group leader of the Digital Harm group at the Max Planck Institute for Software Systems in Saarbrücken, Germany.

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Leilani Battle is an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park.

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Jessica Hullman is an associate professor of computer science and journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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Three female scientists of different races talk together in a laboratory.

Creating a respectful workplace for everyone is key to recruiting and retaining women.Credit: Getty

Universities and research institutions worldwide agree that diversity in their laboratories and departments is crucial not only for fostering innovation and different perspectives in research, but also for recruiting female candidates and others from marginalized backgrounds.

We are four female researchers who, in the past five years, have applied for faculty positions in computer science, electrical and computer engineering, information science, cognitive science, public health, public policy and statistics. Collectively, we have sought more than 130 faculty jobs and had interviews for more than 50.

We focus here on our experiences as women, but what we faced on the job market was also affected by our racial and other identities — so we emphasize the importance of creating a department that welcomes people from all backgrounds. Our suggestions are one part of a broader vision to diversify academia.

Here’s what we learnt about how departments and institutions can best communicate that they are welcoming to women and to those from other marginalized and under-represented groups.

Create opportunities for candidates to speak at your university before they are on the job market.

Inviting candidates to give talks before applying for a position can encourage them to look into institutions that they might not have otherwise considered. Before we graduated, several universities flew each of us in for a day to give a talk and meet their faculty members. We were always more excited about the university after we visited, and ended up applying to many.

When the department funds these trips, it reduces socio-economic inequities between potential candidates. In the era of COVID-19, many talks are being done remotely, reducing the cost of inviting a candidate to give one. Think broadly about whom you might invite, and consider creating specific programmes to which candidates can apply, to avoid biases.

Talk to your faculty members about etiquette for interviewing candidates.

Remind them to be mindful of time: power dynamics might cause a candidate to feel uncomfortable cutting off an interviewer in a meeting that is running long. Encourage interviewers to think before they speak. A job interview is a high-stress situation for the candidate, perhaps particularly for women: we are alone with a stranger in a small space, there’s a power imbalance and comments can easily be misconstrued. To list some real-life examples, do not discuss a high-profile gender-related scandal; do not inquire about a candidate’s marital status or ask personal questions that are illegal in some nations, including the United States; do not graphically describe a sexual assault or make jokes or remarks that could come across as sexist, racist or otherwise discriminatory.

Take action if you see or hear someone speak or act inappropriately during an interview or job talk.

Our interviews were mostly positive, but we each experienced inappropriate incidents. Others describe worse situations, from unsolicited sexual comments to hearing blatant put-downs of female faculty members or students. If you are participating in such an interview and witness a colleague’s inappropriate comment or behaviour, your reaction conveys to the candidate whether that behaviour is acceptable in your department. Directly addressing the behaviour is the most powerful signal that it is not. If you aren’t comfortable speaking up in the moment, make clear to the candidate in a private e-mail or conversation that you don’t endorse such actions.

Be wary of making unsolicited comments to the candidate about how much you value gender diversity.

If a candidate specifically asks, it’s fine to talk about gender issues and to summarize your department’s efforts around diversity. But bringing up diversity out of the blue is often ineffective — especially if you are a cisgender man.

Diversity talk can also backfire. If you’re clumsy about it, you might convince the candidate that you don’t know anything about the issue at all. Or you could make them wonder whether you view them as only a ‘diversity candidate’. Do not tell the person you’re interviewing that you’re very excited about them because they’re a woman, or that they were selected for an interview because of their gender identity.

Audience at seminar applauding young black woman at lectern

Respectful environments make it easier for women to speak in job talks and interviews.Credit: Getty

There are exceptions to this rule. One is if your university has taken unusual and substantive steps to support women. During an interview one of us had, the computer-science department at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles scheduled a meeting with chemical engineer Malancha Gupta, a faculty member who helped to run USC’s Women in Science and Engineering programme. She described the university’s impressive breadth and depth of efforts to support gender diversity. A second exception is if you are knowledgeable about the candidate’s own work to increase diversity, and would like to talk specifically about how it relates to your department’s efforts.

Be honest.

After one of us received an offer from a department, she tried to dig more deeply because she had heard that it might not be the friendliest place for women. Ultimately, the female faculty members in the department mitigated her concerns by coming across as frank and honest: they acknowledged that, in the past, the department had lacked diversity, but said that they personally had felt supported and detailed the steps the department was taking to improve. Such frankness is both more fair to the candidate and more persuasive as a recruiting tactic than is trying to pretend that everything is perfect.

The most effective way to convince a female candidate that your department is welcoming to women is to create an environment that retains happy and successful women.

We are wary of giving this advice because we do not want female faculty members to be trotted out as evidence. But it is undeniably true that when we met women who had achieved tenure in the department and were obviously happy and respected there, we took it as the strongest signal of a positive environment, because this is hard to fake. What’s the best way to ensure that your female candidates have such positive experiences without overburdening your female faculty members? Hire more women

This principle has corollaries. Beware of becoming a zero-woman department, because this is hard to change. To a female candidate, a total absence of women suggests a number of unappealing possibilities. Women might not apply to the department for some reason; the department might not hire them; they might decide to leave; the department might not offer them tenure. Of course, innocuous explanations, such as bad luck, are possible — but in a decision as consequential as a multi-year academic commitment, women are reluctant to give a department the benefit of the doubt.

Creating a positive environment for female faculty members also requires work outside the interview season; it is a topic worthy of its own essay, so we address it only briefly here. It requires addressing issues ranging from harassment, to higher ‘diversity’ service loads for women, to microaggressions. It also requires measuring the efficacy of your efforts; transparency is often the first step towards creating an environment that is hospitable to all department members.

Remember that if your department treats women poorly, word will spread. Friends offered us advice on which departments were good to women, and recommended that we speak to specific female faculty members who had left departments on bad terms.

Alienating women in your department will harm your ability to recruit women. One of us learnt as part of a second visit to one institution that a faculty member there was known in both academia and industry for inappropriately touching colleagues. If you have even one such faculty member, it will significantly reduce your chances of recruiting women.

During the interview process, be mindful of how you treat other women besides the candidate.

We knew that faculty members would treat us with deference and respect, so we watched how they treated their female colleagues. When we went to dinner with a mixed-gender group, for example, we noted whether the women were listened to or had trouble getting a word in.

A rude seminar culture or faculty member makes a department significantly less appealing to women. Free debate is central to academic inquiry, and we welcome it. There’s a difference, however, between politely asking probing questions and being rude. One of us interviewed at an institution where the faculty members were clearly sceptical when she presented her research during the job talk. They did not make a faculty offer, but were friendly and constructive in their criticism. This left her with a positive impression of the department. On the flip side, one of us spent a week dreading an interview at a department because she had been warned about its aggressive seminar culture. Halfway through an interview with a particularly condescending faculty member, she realized that she had no interest in dealing with such colleagues.

Seminar norms vary by academic field: for example, some people expect more aggressive questions during seminars. Consequently, if you are interviewing a candidate from a field with very different norms, it might be worth scheduling a call with them to make sure they are prepared and won’t interpret enthusiastic questioning as hostility. You should follow up with them about how you liked the job talk, even if people asked tough questions. Be aware that, regardless of the seminar norms at your department, the audience might react differently to something said by a female candidate compared with the same thing when said by a male counterpart. When a woman suggests that she will answer off-topic or highly specific questions offline, or replies tersely, some audience members might think that she cannot answer the question at all — not that she is trying to keep audience interrogation in check.

A 2020 paper has shown that female researchers and those from minority racial and ethnic groups produce higher rates of scientific innovation, but that the value of these findings is often discounted. This can mean that female candidates are more likely to be asked to explain the value of their entire subfield of research, in addition to that of their own work. For example, one of us was repeatedly asked to validate her subfield of computer science by a particularly aggressive faculty member during the course of an otherwise-positive interview visit. She ultimately declined the department’s offer, for this and other reasons. Questioning a candidate’s work is, of course, essential to an academic job interview. But if you suspect that an invited candidate’s subfield will be controversial to some members of your department, do your best to ensure that meta-discussions about that area’s value happen before or after the candidate’s visit.

Ultimately, candidates’ choices of which offers to accept are based in part on such intangibles as where they feel respected and supported as equals. On the job market, we found that nearly all faculty members were polite. The very few people who were impolite stuck in our memories and influenced our decisions just as much as did fundamental issues, such as the position’s location or department rank.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-02489-w

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

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