Dr. Nancy Wayne

Scientist, Educator & Speaker

Flipping the Typical Gender Hiring Practice: Interview with Victoria Sork, Dean of UCLA Life Sciences Division

Professor Nancy Wayne, President of Women Advancing Together, conducted a gender analysis of new hires into tenure-track and tenured faculty positions throughout UCLA from academic years 2011-2015. What stood out was that the Division of Life Sciences was one of the few UCLA Schools/Divisions to flip the typical gender hiring practice, and hire far more women faculty than men during that time period.

Here are some details: Life Sciences Division hired a total of 21 new Assistant, Associate, and Full Professors during that 5-year period – 62% of those hires were women, with an even higher percentage of women hired who were Assistant Professors. This is compared to the rest of UCLA that hired 301 ladder faculty, and only 34% were women. The Life Sciences Division nearly doubled the percentage of women hired compared to the rest of campus.

I talked with the Dean of UCLA Life Sciences Victoria Sork to understand what steps were taken to flip the typical gender hiring practice.

NW: This is so unusual – congratulations. What specific steps did you take to make this happen?

DeanSork photo1VS: Ironically, when I became dean, I made a deliberate decision not to focus on gender as a hiring practice because I felt that the pool [of candidates] was out there. If we had a culture that was really conducting equitable hiring practices, we would succeed in gender equity. Of course, it was always my goal that we start addressing the asymmetry between male and female. Even though one might say, “Oh, science is a very male-dominated field,” in the areas where we knew there was the availability [in women candidates], I was stunned when I became dean to find out that the increase in women on the faculty had pretty much flattened out. One reason is that there are so many more white males than any other group, it takes a long time to [make changes] unless they retire. That means you have to pay attention all the more to who you are hiring. As a woman dean, I didn’t feel that it would be effective – in fact, they’d probably think I was putting a hammer on them – if I keep saying, “You’ve got to pay more attention to gender.” Instead, what I focused on a lot was creative ways on how we can be more effective at diversifying our [candidate] pool of African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans. What are the ways we can really find the talent in small pools? In forcing everybody to work harder to level the playing field in areas that are truly hard because the availability pool isn’t so great, what it did was establish a culture of really trying to look out for talent. It established a culture of defining broad [job] searches.

 I think to some extent, even though I never mentioned the gender issue, to have a woman dean advocating so hard for the need to diversify in terms of ethnic and racial categories, and pointing out that we had not been hiring from that availability pool and we certainly don’t have a faculty with much diversity, really changed the culture about the search process. So, that emphasis on racial/ethnic diversity put a focus on best practices and a motivation for people on search committees to try harder. And in trying harder, it really opened up their eyes to look at everybody a lot more fairly. The talent of women in the science pool these days is incredible. So, as soon as you get everyone to open up their eyes, it’s not hard for women to rise to the top. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen search committees where the pool is actually skewed towards women. If you go to the top 20 people, when you look at the CVs [curriculum vitae] of the women, you see that they’ve been to the best postdocs, they published in good journals, and, this is the point, that they have had good mentorship. I felt we would find them if we used best practices. I don’t think it hurt that given I was putting so much emphasis on diversifying our faculty, but never mentioned the ‘gender’ word, they would know how I feel because of who I am. There was a certain example there. Without me saying anything, I think they know that if I saw that if it [a candidate pool] didn’t have good gender balance on it, I would probably not approve it.  In other words, it went without saying that I had expectations to be successful in that area.

I’ll also add a second component. As soon as I became dean I formed a Diversity Advisory Group. We talked about issues of equity and started educating ourselves and our colleagues so that every department [in the Life Sciences Division] had advocates and ambassadors for issues around equity among all categories. The culture of being inclusive, the culture of changing the demographics of our faculty, wasn’t just me alone. There were people on the ground who believed in it and were perhaps pushing me to go even more radical. So, I knew I had that support. I think they took that message back to their departments.

A third issue is, I think, that the department chairs shared the value. They felt empowered, they felt supported. And therefore, as we came up with creative ways, unusual ways, but best practices, they were happy to take it to their departments. We gave them the tools to take ideas to their faculty.

NW: What’s an example of a best practice that you put into place that wasn’t there before?          

VS: I don’t think that people really were mindful about the applicant pool. I don’t think they were as creative about really looking for talented people, looking for best talent and encouraging them to apply. I think that if you do things laissez-faire, you don’t get the pool. So, step 1 – make sure you have a good applicant pool and monitor it. If you don’t have a good pool, then try harder.

NW: Where did you go to get that applicant pool?

VS: If you want to get the best and brightest, what you’ve got to do is pay attention at meetings and look for good talks, invite people to apply. You’ve got to go to all of the good labs. If you want to have good diversity, you make sure that you send the notices to not just the obvious institutions, but you send them to every institution. And you need to make sure that there’s at least one or two people on the committee willing to do that extra work. If you sit back and just wait for everyone to fall into your lap, it’s not going to happen. The second thing is to try to approve as many searches as possible that have a very broad area, because in doing a broad area you don’t get faculty too focused on what that academic discipline has to be or that specialization within a specialization. If you get that narrow, it’s very difficult to keep your mind open to talent.

NW: Do you have plans and programs in place to retain women and minority faculty?

VS: I think the key to retention is a combination of financial remuneration, support for their lab, and an environment that makes them feel wanted. First of all, if people are happy they don’t start looking [for another job]. If you just pay attention to money, you’re going to lose people. It’s really about respect, how you’re treated. The departments [in the Life Sciences Division] do a lot of things. We’ve improved our mentoring to make sure that all faculty are getting the right kind of advice. I did pay a lot of attention during my first two years in restructuring and institutionalizing a more formal mentoring system. Paying attention that faculty got the right mentors, and that the mentors realize that they have a responsibility. That’s really hard to keep reminding mentors not to sit back, and coaching them. We put some paperwork in that says to the mentors that they’ve got to initiate the contact, and here’s a range of topics [to discuss].  In other words, we tried to coach the mentors. Personally, I didn’t receive much mentorship. What that means, especially if you’re underrepresented, is that people won’t naturally think to reach out and give you advice and encourage you to collaborate and that collaboration is okay. Making sure that departments have a climate that is friendly toward women. Making sure that when they have seminar speakers that they try to bring in women. I try to remind the [department] chairs to do this, and there are chairs who also bring it up and talk about it. And I would ask them, “What are your best practices for doing this?” Get them to talk and take some ownership for it. I think it’s a gradual culture change that’s going to help with retention.

Making sure that faculty are being paid equally. Here’s an example. Every year, I carefully look at all of the salaries before I decide on my recommendations for salary increases, and I make sure that there aren’t any statistical differences. When I first came in, there were. I don’t just sit back; I do statistically analyze the data. I think the word gets out – men and women know that there’s not going be that salary inequity. The other thing that we found out at UCLA is that – we have a step system, the merit system – what was happening was the people who were more assertive about asking to be accelerated were getting accelerated and the quiet ones weren’t. You won’t be surprised that when they did a statistical analysis of faculty in the College, it was about 15 years ago, they found that men were going through the merit system faster than the women. I figured when I became dean, I started a policy that if any [department] chair recommended anybody for acceleration they had to look at everybody at the same step and tell me if there was anybody with equal qualifications that wasn’t getting recommended for a merit increase. So, I started getting the chairs used to the fact that I wouldn’t automatically accept acceleration unless I knew that they had looked at everybody at that step. It’s very demoralizing for people to find out that, “So-and-So got put up for an acceleration and I’ve done as much as So-and-So. Why didn’t anybody bring it up to me?” I’m trying to get the chairs to take more responsibility for that.

The other thing I’ve done is that if anyone says they don’t want to go up [for promotion] on time, we call their chair and ask why aren’t they going up on time. “Why aren’t you putting them forward?” Sometimes it’s legitimate, they haven’t published anything and they’ve asked not to go up. Interestingly, there’s been three instances since I’ve been dean when someone wasn’t going up who should have gone up. In all three cases it was a woman. In two of them, the chairs said, “Well, the woman didn’t feel she was ready to go up and wanted to wait a year.” To me, that looks terrible — when a woman who actually has achieved enough. So I said, “Go talk to her.” In one case, I actually had to send somebody to explain because her record was equally valid compared to other people who were going up on time. In another case, it slipped through. A woman said, “No, I’m not ready.” Oh my gosh, she wasn’t ready? And what happened was that everyone just said, “OK.” No one looked to see what had she done. She actually had published many papers with more in press. That was a case where I felt bad because I really try to check, and it slipped through the cracks. So, I talked with the chair about how to make sure that we don’t check  too late, because by the time that we caught it we had missed a bunch of deadlines. I think that [equitable advancement] creates a culture where everyone feels that they’ll be treated respectfully. When departments have not followed this is when I get really bad morale problems, and I think it’s bad morale for everyone.

NW: What would you advise other leaders in academia and business to encourage them to hire more women in order to close the gender gap?

VS: I think that most leaders are very passive on this. I think I was successful because I was proactive. While I didn’t have to be as proactive about gender because I knew we had the pool; if that wasn’t working, I was prepared to go after it more directly, but it was working. I’ve had my foot on the pedal in terms of, “Are you looking at the candidates fairly?”

Another point is what do you do once you get them in the candidate pool? Do not overly rely on letters of recommendation. Make sure that you’ve got some kind of rubric that’s applied equally to all of the candidates. I’ve seen many times when people go into [search] committee and say, “Oh, that one’s not good, that one’s not good.” If you don’t really have a rubric, how do you know? How many papers in top journals? Have they brought in funding? What kind of teaching record do they have? Make sure that you compare everybody and you check the boxes. Then you can go to the letters. But, I’ve seen committees when they start going to the letters and they say, “Oh, well this person says he is one of the next generation of intellectual leaders. And this one talks about her as hard working. We see that in the literature, but I’ve seen it in the letters. That’s where our campus has been really good at trying to educate search committee members about implicit bias in both the letter writers and the letter readers. So, the rubric helps remind you.

By the way, in terms of African Americans and Latinas we’ve hired double the pool – but that’s a small number. As a woman, I didn’t think I could focus on women hires. If I advocated about women, I would be dismissed as self-serving. But, if I advocated for all groups and then track it, the outcome is good.  I was delighted at how the chairs took it so seriously.

I want to emphasize that deans need to be proactive. There’s two ways. One is their example about values and to communicate them. Those faculty that believe in them will feel empowered and stand up. And those who haven’t thought about them will become more aware. It doesn’t happen if you sit back and let someone else do it. The dean has to take responsibility, and if it doesn’t change it’s your fault. I think if it didn’t change under my term as dean, it would have been my fault. If we don’t do things differently, nothing is going to change. I really, really encourage deans and chairs to take responsibility for making the change.

Dean Sork is also UCLA Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and former chair of that department. Her research examines evolutionary and ecological processes that affect the genetic composition of natural populations of trees and how that existing genetic variation influences the ability of populations to respond to environmental change. 


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This entry was posted on January 17, 2018 by .

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