Montana State University

Journal notes effectiveness of MSU hiring techniques to increase diversity

October 14, 2015 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service

There is more gender equity in MSU science, math and engineering classrooms and laboratories as the result of a hiring intervention method developed by researchers affiliated with MSU’s ADVANCE Project TRACS, according to a paper published in the journal BioScience. In the last three years, 53 percent of the new STEM hires at MSU, including ecologist Jia Hu, were women compared with 24 percent for the prior three years largely as a result of the three-step method. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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Montana State University has devised an effective hiring method to significantly increase gender diversity in science, technology, engineering, and math faculty, according to an article published today in BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.

“Now Hiring! Empirically Testing a Three-Step Intervention to Increase Faculty Gender Diversity in STEM” was co-written by five members of MSU faculty and administration who serve as co-directors of ADVANCE Project TRACS: Jessi L. Smith and Ian Handley, both psychology professors; Alexander Zale, ecology and U.S. Geological Survey; Sara Rushing, political science; and Martha Potvin, who is MSU’s provost.

MSU’s ADVANCE Project TRACS launched in 2012 to increase the number and broaden the participation of female faculty in STEM and underrepresented areas of social and behavioral science on the university’s campus. It was funded by a $3.4 million ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation.

The authors of the article said that MSU developed a three-step job search intervention process that has made it 6.3 times more likely that a hiring offer would be made to a female candidate. Women who received a job offer were 5.8 times more likely to accept the offer as a result of the method. The authors point out that the techniques should also be effective used at other campuses, which is important because currently 81 percent of U.S. faculty in science, technology, engineering and math fields, also called STEM, are male.

Potvin said that there is a compelling need in higher education for strategies that are documented to be effective in helping to recruit diverse faculty.

“In addition to contributing to social science research, our interventions are cost effective and scalable,” Potvin said.

Zale, who serves on ADVANCE Project TRACS’ cultural attunement committee and helped conduct faculty search committee trainings to increase diversity, said he believes MSU’s successes can be replicated elsewhere.

“Thereby actually chang(ing) the face of academia -- a goal that has proved elusive for decades,” Zale said. “Until we did this research and tested it, there were not proven techniques known to be able to enhance faculty diversity.”

The MSU researchers say that ADVANCE developed the hiring methodology based on Self-Determination Theory, which holds that creativity, motivation and performance thrive when competence, autonomy and relatedness needs are met. Each part of the three-step intervention was aimed at one of three psychological needs:

Zale said ADVANCE targeted three areas of the hiring process: recruitment, overcoming implicit gender bias during evaluations, and providing family-friendly programs on campus and making those programs and policies known in the interview.

Zale said at the outset MSU made a commitment to actively search for and recruit the best candidates for job openings, rather than passively posting job openings and waiting for candidates to contact the university.

“It’s similar to football recruiting,” Zale said. “Whereas, in the past we relied on walk-ons, we’re now seeking out the best talent and convincing them to apply.” Search committee members assigned to the intervention group received a printed faculty search toolkit with instructions for conducting a broad applicant search.

To improve autonomy, committees were instructed about how to overcome implicit gender bias during interview and selections. A trained faculty member partnered with Human Resources to provide information focused not just on procedural accuracy but on identifying and combating potential biases that seep into the review and selection process.”

Thirdly, MSU addressed social relatedness by providing information about programs that support healthy work-life integration, and job finalists consulted with an MSU Family Advocate in a confidential and independent meeting to discuss topics such as family care-giving leave, dual career support, or other issues deemed appropriate by the candidates.

“We let our interviewees know that MSU is the kind of institution that values families, that a woman, in particular, would be happy to work at,” Zale said. “We let them know that we are concerned about dual career couples… Interviewees realized that we are committed to diversity.”

After the techniques were developed, ADVANCE Project TRACS studied the method’s effectiveness over the course of one year in which 23 STEM-faculty searches were conducted at MSU.

Although the authors noted some initial pushback among faculty members, this did not stand in the way of achieving the desired results. For instance, in the intervention group committees, 40.5 percent of the candidates short-listed and phone-interviewed were women, versus only 14.2 percent in the control group.

“As a result of this success, the intervention has since been applied to all STEM-faculty hiring at MSU,” Zale said. He pointed out that in the last three years, 53 percent of the new STEM hires were women compared with 24 percent for the prior three years, which is significant because increasing diversity at MSU had historically and previously proved elusive.  Historically, about more than 80 percent of MSU STEM faculty were men.

According to the authors, the results demonstrate the successful application of psychological theory in achieving practical outcomes, which “shows that organizations can benefit from using psychological science to inform precise interventions.” Further, they stress that interventions of this type may have applications beyond the promotion of gender diversity.

“Although the focus here was on increasing women faculty within STEM, the intervention can be adapted to other scientific and academic communities to advance diversity along any dimension,” Zale said.

Smith added that before the study began, MSU had several departments that had fewer than two female faculty, with a couple of departments having zero.

“That has all changed with the emphasis on faculty search training,” Smith said. “What we have seen is that faculty and department heads are willing to work hard to recruit the deepest applicant pool possible. “

Further, the intervention method offers tips and strategies for conducting a search, she said.

“Even the most seasoned faculty member can learn something from our training. And now, three years post-intervention, I think faculty are seeing the real value of a diverse department. Everyone wins: students gain new role models, faculty have people who can offer diverse ways of thinking about a research question, you name it - the department can thrive.

Smith said the work doesn’t stop once diverse people are hired.

“It isn’t just about getting more people through the door,” she said. “We must be sure that all these people we hire continue to feel supported once they get here.”

The BioScience article is the second published in a major journal in a week to highlight ADVANCE Project TRACS advances at MSU. Earlier this week Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper by Smith and Handley that found that men, including male faculty members in STEM fields were reluctant to accept hard evidence of gender bias in their field.

Al Zale, (406) 994-2380 or

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