Given current trends, it will take 50 years for women to reach parity among full professors in the United States. Let that sink in a moment. In these United States, it will take 50 years to equalize our professoriate despite more than 200 years of academic history and despite universities being viewed as hotbeds of progressive thought. At current rates of success, it will literally take centuries for underrepresented racial/ethnic groups to reach parity among medical school faculty (Google “RFA-RM-20-022” for a summary).
The disparity for women occurs even though women now comprise greater than 50 percent of PhD graduates in National Institutes of Health-relevant research disciplines and greater than 50 percent of MD graduates. Even with this “pipeline,” women make up only 40.6 percent of tenure-track faculty in biomedical fields, 27 percent of tenured faculty and only about 33 percent of NIH funded investigators … and that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a significantly disproportionate impact on female faculty.
People of color comprise 34 percent of the U.S. population but only 15 percent of those receiving Ph.Ds, 12 percent of medical school graduates, 9 percent of assistant professors, and a shockingly low 4 percent of tenured faculty. A recent paper in Science Advances found LGBTQ professionals “were more likely to experience career limitations, harassment and professional devaluation than their non-LGBTQ peers,” likely contributing to more frequent health difficulties and attrition.
For those of you unfamiliar with the world of academics, faculty typically move from an “assistant professor” to an “associate professor” to a “professor” (often called a “full professor”). This is a long career progression with many challenges and faculty are divided further into different “tracks” (e.g., career track or tenure track). Our problem is that too many women and racial-ethnic minorities never get to the assistant professor stage, and far too many are held back in perpetuity at the associate rank.
Why should we care about having diversity in our universities, much less in all other walks of life? There is considerable published scholarship on this topic and a key finding is that a diverse faculty translates into increased success and retention among traditionally underrepresented students. The success of female Ph.D students in science and engineering departments is increased substantially by the presence of women faculty. Diversity of faculty and students broadens the scope of classroom discussions, leading to more informed (not to mention civil) understanding and opinions.
Skeptical that these benefits matter? If you are interested in the national economy, you might want to consider this further. The corporate world knows very well that diversity leads to greater creativity, greater retention and job satisfaction and a better bottom line. A 2019 report by the World Economic Forum (“The business case for diversity in the workplace is now overwhelming”) summarizes a number of important findings such as companies with below-average diversity scores had half as much innovation-linked revenue compared with companies with above-average diversity scores. One study found that the increased proportion of women in the U.S. labor force over the past 40 years (37 percent to 47 percent) accounts for 25 percent of the current gross domestic product. Imagine how much more that will improve when more people are given the opportunity to engage at their full potential.
Getting there is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” problem because it is difficult to grow diversity where diversity is absent. One way to accelerate this process is through policies that promote diversity, equity and inclusion. The goal of diversity is having a faculty that proportionally represents society without prejudice. Equity ensures that everyone sees the same treatment and has the same opportunities for advancement. Inclusion means a workplace where everyone feels part of the larger group.
Getting there doesn’t require new top-down research initiatives or more administrators. Instead, cluster hires that focus on recruiting diverse candidate pools are one tool to accelerate representation of diversity in racial-ethnic deserts like the Palouse. Easily accessible and affordable childcare is particularly critical to ensuring the success of female faculty. Annual reviews, which are critical to promotion, need to reflect the true value of institutional service that falls disproportionately on women and underrepresented groups. Promotion and tenure decisions need diverse participation. These are but a few places to start and taxpayers should demand more.
Doug Call is a microbiologist and father of three. He first discovered the Palouse 37 years ago.