Silicon Valley came under a lot of criticism last year for its seemingly grudging acknowledgement that it has a problem with diversity in its technical workforce. After a lot of pressure, many, but not all, major technology companies have released some data.
Higher education also has a diversity problem -- several, in fact. An examination of MIT data on recruitment and retention of graduate students and faculty from underrepresented groups -- women and minorities in STEM fields -- gives evidence that positive efforts were yielding some successes, as detailed in a major report. These groups come under a lot of scrutiny, and to be sure, there is need for renewed efforts so that the talent available in more than half the population is developed and tapped more fully in academia. But it seems to me that all the light shone on graduate students and faculty has left other important groups struggling to read their career guides in astronomical twilight.
Compared with graduate students and faculty, there has been near-silence on the diversity of postdocs and non-faculty researchers in academia. These positions are stepping stones to faculty positions or lead to alternative paths following the PhD. Yet some universities don't even know who their postdocs are -- there is often no central listing -- and the hiring processes that have served to provide equal opportunity for faculty may not be present for these other PhD positions.
MIT has recently published data on the gender and race/ethnicity of postdocs, research scientists and engineers, and other academic staff roles that typically require a PhD (e.g., lecturers). The comparison with the technology industry is illuminating and worrisome.
A few caveats: 63% of MIT postdocs but 41% of faculty in this data set are international. A significant fraction of the postdocs are in life sciences, where the majority of PhDs are awarded to women. Similarly, the MIT academic staff include many lecturers in humanities, who are preferentially women. So the data are not that easy to compare to the tech industry. Nevertheless, the trends are concerning, especially concerning the lack of Native American, Hispanic, and Black scholars.
Motivated by a New York Times article, I looked up a paper in the Journal of Psychology about a study done to assess bias in university professors. The results were based on a large blind audit of professors in various fields and were remarkable. In all fields except the humanities, professors systematically replied to correspondence from professors than students with white male names differently than students with female names or names suggesting non-white race.
The study was performed by Katherine L. Milkman (U. Penn), Modupe Akinola (Columbia) and Dolly Chugh (NYU) and published on-line this year. E-mails were sent to a large selection of professors in 89 disciplines and 289 institutions The e-mails were from fictitious students expressing interest in a professor's research and asking for a short meeting during the student's visit to campus. The student names were chosen to suggest gender and race, such as Meredith Roberts and Raj Singh. A total of 6548 e-mails were sent to randomly selected professors.
The result were that professors on average were more likely to reply to students with white male names than any other group. (E-mails were immediately sent to cancel any appointments with the fictitious students.) All e-mails were identical except for the names. With the students sight unseen, the bias in the thinking of these academics was revealed by value association based on names. The results are shown in the figure (discrimination in grey and reverse discrimination in black) using percentages. The number of samples for each disciplinary category ranged from fewer than 200 to more than a thousand. There were 850 samples for the Natural, Physical Sciences and Math.
The results are most striking in the disciplines of business and education at the levels of 10's of percent response differences and lower in the science disciplines at the levels of few percent. In fine arts, the bias was strongly reversed with professors replying systematically more to female and non-Caucasian students. The only field where there appears to be little of no bias is in the Humanities.
Screen grab from CNN for the OpEd by the authors of the PNAS study.
(*) In a paper just published in PNAS, Cornell professors W. M. Williams and S. J. Ceci have demonstrated conclusively that the process that all university departments use to hire new faculty is completely unrelated to the actual process they modeled in their study of fictitious faculty searches.
When the Harvard University Department of Astronomy undertook a recent faculty search, the Harvard faculty asked applicants to submit a CV, a list of publications, statements of research and teaching interests, and to arrange for confidential letters of recommendation. The department reviewed these materials, selecting a half-dozen applicants for interviews. Each individual visited for two days, during which time they delivered a colloquium, and met with faculty and students, including several dinner meetings. The faculty then convened for several hours to decide on whom should receive the offer.
Recent data on demographics and conversations with my NSF colleague, Lisa Frehill, opened my eyes to a somewhat surprising fact. Young women in astronomy (assistant professors, postdocs, students) from some racial and ethnic backgrounds (white and Asian) may have reached parity with their percentages in the US population!
The STATUS magazine article, the 2013 CSWA Demographics Survey, was open on my computer screen. In particular, Figure 1 shows that percentages of women at the level of assistant professor and younger are about 30% (within uncertainties). These percentages are similar to those described in the article, The 30% Benchmark: Women in Astronomy Postdocs at US Institutions. According to this article, which was based in part on data gathered by members of the Astro2010 Demographics study group,
-Graduate enrollment for women in US astronomy departments has risen from 25% in 1997 to 30% in 2006 (NSF-NIH Survey of Grad Students and Post-docs in S&E). -The percentage of Astronomy PhDs earned by women in the US has increased steadily from less than 20% in 1997 to almost 30% in 2006 (NSF Survey of Earned doctorates). -The success rate of women in both prize fellowships and individual postdocs is about 30%. -The percentage of women faculty at stand-alone astronomy departments in 2006 was 28% at the assistant professor level.