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6 Ways to Boost Diversity Among STEM Faculty

UMD Researchers Join Multi-institutional Team Studying Ways to Overhaul Hiring

By Ellen McDaniel

two researchers look at tablet while one holds test tube

Consistency and good planning can make faculty searches fairer, and result in greater diversity, a team of engineering researchers said.

Photo by iStock

Succeeding in academia isn’t always just about exhibiting creativity and hard work—sometimes a “hidden curriculum” of unwritten rules and cultural expectations creates impediments for underrepresented scholars that peers from majority groups never experience. Particularly in STEM fields, this helps lead to severe underrepresentation in both degrees granted and faculty hires in colleges nationwide.

Now, two University of Maryland faculty members in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering have joined researchers from 16 top engineering programs to offer a detailed, six-stop roadmap for hiring faculty from historically underrepresented groups. Published this month in Nature Biomedical Engineering, it calls for a thorough overhaul of procedures that, despite good intentions, have continually failed to increase diversity.

“Oftentimes, we are unaware of ways in which our processes lead to inequity,” said Assistant Professor Erika Moore, who joined Assistant Professor Katharina Maisel as a UMD co-author. “This paper is our approach to providing guidelines to increase awareness and raise equitable practices in hiring. To remove the hidden curriculum in these processes, we seek to set a new standard for equitable hiring practices.”

The six steps are rooted in evidenced-based best practices as well as the team’s experiences at their own institutions related to attempts to increase fairness in engineering programs. Only 4.4% of engineering Ph.D. graduates in a recent study hailed from historically excluded groups, including Black, Hispanic and Indigenous students—which translates to scant numbers of faculty from underrepresented groups as well, the researchers said.

“Faculty in biomedical engineering and many other STEM fields are not representative of the diversity of our general population,” said Maisel. “This discrepancy can hinder both the sense of belonging and the academic success of students from diverse backgrounds. Currently, our hiring processes insufficiently make up for the difference in recruitment that is needed.”

The team outlined six steps toward the diversification of academia:

Attract a diverse pool: This means using inclusive language in the job listing, circulating the listing at a wider range of institutions—including historically Black colleges and universities and Hispanic-serving institutions—and by advertising the positions persistently and broadly across various networks. “This can mitigate negative self-selection that often occurs in underrepresented groups,” Maisel said.

Evaluate candidates consistently: The team called for development of consistent rubrics with fleshed-out criteria to evaluate candidates holistically, citing studies showing that a lack of strict standards leads to hiring decisions based on personal preferences or similarities between the applicant and the hiring authority—and thus, less diversity overall.

Prepare the department: Getting buy-in at all levels from staff, faculty and leadership—is key. People aren't going to want to work in environments where they don’t feel welcome.

Plan the search: Filing a position in academia can take months, but departments should spend significant time making a game plan for the search. This includes ensuring everyone is aligned in what they are looking for in a candidate, building a strong search committee, training it to complete the task, assessing roadblocks from past searches and revising materials to embrace new hiring strategies.

Interview inclusively: To level the playing field, the researchers recommend being transparent about the interview process with candidates. They also suggest including students in the process, collecting independent feedback after interviews and mitigating the impact of potentially toxic faculty members seeking to undermine an inclusive departmental culture.

Reinforce your enthusiasm: Once a top candidate has been identified, they should get the opportunity to meet students and members of the broader university community. Showcasing the department and its vision and making the environment equitable can increase the chance that the prospective faculty member will accept the offer.

The paper’s other co-authors hail from the University of Texas at Austin; the University of California, San Diego; the University of Tennessee; the University of Florida; the University of Washington; Purdue University; the University of California, Irvine; Brown University; the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign; the University of Michigan; Texas A&M University; the University of Massachusetts Amherst; the University of California, Santa Barbara; Arizona State University and Vanderbilt University.



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