Building an Inclusive Community: What Science Departments Can Do
Every academic institution has its own unique climate — a term that refers to its structures, policies, values, and work conditions as perceived by its members, as well as the quality of the interactions among its leaders and members. The kind of climate that all departments strive toward is one where the community is inclusive, meaning that the skills and talents of all members are recognized and used to help drive success. Furthermore, all members have equal opportunities for reward and advancement.
The responsibility for achieving these goals begins at the top. Senior management — the president, the provost, and the deans of the institution — sets the overall tone of an institution. At the department level, chairs have a great deal of influence over the policies and practices of their units. In science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) departments, the chairs can serve as advocates for their faculty members, collaborating with senior leadership to build an inclusive community that is respectful and collegial, values the talents of all faculty members, and supports their professional development.
Improving the climate of an institution benefits all members of the community. It improves the stability of each department; increases faculty and student productivity; leads to higher recruitment and retention rates of both faculty and students; promotes respect, collegiality, collaboration, and cooperation; and improves the quality of the science within each department.
A Path Toward Improving Climate
A 2010 study by Diana Bilimoria, professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve University and a faculty member for the Society for Neuroscience’s (SfN) ADVANCE/PAID Program, Department Chair Training to Increase Women in Neuroscience (IWiN), strived to identify characteristics within a science department that facilitate high-quality science and gender diversity, equity, and inclusion. Her study analyzed a science department with two female chairs, female faculty at all ranks, and an above-average number of female faculty and students.
Her findings, explored in the following sections, serve as a model for steps that can be implemented by department chairs to build an inclusive community with a positive climate.
Evidence-based steps include:
- Creating an inclusive scientific identity
- Initiating social events and professional development opportunities
- Encouraging constructive interactions
- Treating faculty fairly with awareness of their concerns
- Fostering open practices and transparent decision-making
Creating an Inclusive Scientific Identity
Each department should strive to create a clear definition of what “good science” is, and part of that definition should focus on collaboration. Stress to faculty that interaction is part of doing good science. When reviewing candidates for positions or determining if they should be promoted, search and review committees should not assume that those who have collaborated extensively have ”not done the work.” Furthermore, it should be made clear that one of the core values of an inclusive department is the belief that any faculty member can do good science with hard work and support.
- IWiN in Action: In the recruiting process, Scott Lanyon, chair of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior within the College of Biological Sciences at the University of Minnesota, notes that women tend to be collaborative. This becomes evident when looking at their publications; many of them are part of a group of authors. In such situations, Lanyon reminds recruitment and promotion committees that collaboration is part of the definition of good science and instructs them not to make assumptions about the candidate’s role. Rather, they should ask the individual to clarify his or her specific contributions to the research.
Initiating Social Events and Professional Development Opportunities
There's nothing like an informal gathering to break the ice and encourage camaraderie within the department. These gatherings can be done at a specified time each week or month or be scheduled more spontaneously. They can be purely social or include a presentation related to a faculty member's research or to changes in department policies. The better people know each other, the more likely it is that they will initiate collaborative research projects or team teaching opportunities. In addition, members of search committees will work together more effectively, with better communication about implicit bias and other “hot button” issues.
- IWiN in Action: At the University of Minnesota, the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior holds a weekly seminar followed by a reception. The seminar used to be held at 3 in the afternoon, but it became apparent that faculty with families were having a hard time attending. In response, Lanyon changed the time, making it easier for everyone to participate. He's also working to create an informal gathering space, equipped with furniture and a coffee machine, where people can meet casually to chat and catch up. Lanyon is considering holding weekly lunches in this space as well.
Supporting professional development is another way to create a welcoming climate. This can be accomplished by giving faculty time to attend courses, workshops, or national meetings, and subsidizing such activities.
- IWiN in Action: Lehigh University offers a faculty development grant to women in STEM fields interested in exploring leadership education opportunities. Additionally, the university has travel funds available to bring in female scientists to share their positive experiences and present their research. This informal encounter may lead to more formal recruitment down the road.
Encouraging Constructive Interactions
The department chair has the opportunity — and responsibility — to model respectful, polite interactions among faculty members. Simple strategies include promoting inclusive language (e.g., not using only male pronouns), encouraging everyone to participate at department meetings, and providing opportunities to voice opinions and concerns. In addition, department chairs can promote collegiality by introducing faculty members to others with similar interests, showing concern when someone is going through a difficult time, and encouraging problem-solving among faculty members.
- IWiN in Action: Lehigh University encourages dialogue among department chairs by bringing them together at the beginning of the school year. Their conversations cover issues such as the importance of diversity, how to orient new faculty to the department, and other ideas about improving the culture within departments and across the institution.
- IWiN in Action: Mentoring, which was discussed in the article Leveling the Playing Field: Improved Tenure and Promotion Practices Lead to a More Robust Faculty, represents the hallmark of constructive communication. Many different models have proven to be effective. Mentoring can take place formally, by pairing a senior faculty member with a junior one and having them meet regularly, or informally, where department chairs meet with new faculty and find out how they would like to be mentored. Department chairs should take the initiative and reach out to junior faculty to determine what kind of mentoring is appropriate for each individual. If there are not enough senior faculty members to go around, the department can consider holding an informal group mentoring session, such as the monthly lunches for female STEM faculty at Lehigh University. These lunches provide a safe place for new department members to get to know each other and to connect with a senior faculty member with whom they would like to build a deeper relationship.
Treating Faculty Fairly With Awareness of Their Concerns
Department chairs set the tone for their unit, so it is important that they make explicit its values and priorities. An equitable, open environment is created when faculty is asked for input in decision making and when an individual’s concerns are taken seriously and addressed. It also means publicly recognizing and praising faculty for their contributions. If a faculty member comes up with an innovative idea, that person should be singled out and acknowledged.
Equity also encompasses evaluating salaries and resource allocation among faculty to ensure that everyone is receiving the same pay for comparable work and has equitable access to departmental resources. Department chairs should work with senior administrators to hold regular pay equity reviews. In addition, they should track which faculty members serve on committees and give back to the community in other ways. Traditionally, women have done more committee service than men, but service should be equitable across genders.
- IWiN in Action: Case Western Reserve University wanted to find out what male and female faculty felt about their experience at the university. They conducted a survey about job satisfaction. Interestingly, they found that female faculty valued expressions of interest in their work, referred to as relational supports, more than they valued access to academic resources. Although job satisfaction for male faculty emerges equally from academic resources and relational supports, for female faculty, job satisfaction comes twice as much from relational supports as from academic resources. This information is helpful and can be used to change practices within the university and its departments.
Fostering Open Practices and Transparent Decision-Making
The article Leveling the Playing Field: Improved Tenure and Promotion Practices Lead to a More Diverse Faculty spells out the processes followed by most academic institutions. In order for those practices to be followed equitably, they must be made clear to all faculty members. This can be accomplished by producing print and online materials specifying criteria and procedures for promotion and tenure or holding meetings throughout the year. Recruitment practices should be equally transparent. For example, using a matrix to evaluate application materials has proven to be an effective way to keep the review process on track. Go to Changing the Face of Academia: Recruitment Practices Can Make a Difference for additional best practices related to recruitment.
- IWiN in Action: As discussed in Confronting Implicit Gender Bias in Neuroscience, gender bias — subtle discrimination based on cultural stereotypes — has a way of creeping into recruitment processes. IWiN participants have found that education is the best way to keep recruitment fair. To this end, The Ohio State University has developed a short, entertaining video about implicit bias. It has been successful in sending the appropriate message to search committees. Also, providing clear direction at mid-career evaluations about a junior faculty member's progress and what needs to be done to achieve tenure is another example of transparency in academia.
Tools for Improving Climate
The climate within a department and institution-wide sets the stage for recruitment and promotion practices, as well as determining whether faculty are satisfied at the institution and choose to stay on. Surveys done over the years at multiple institutions show that underrepresented groups tend to feel isolated and left out, resulting in lower retention rates.
Fortunately, numerous best practices have been identified to help senior leaders create a positive, welcoming environment. Department chairs also have many resources available to help them accomplish this goal. Most institutions have an Office of Equal Opportunity, an Office for Equity and Diversity, and an Office of Human Resources which can work with department chairs to implement these practices.
This is not an easy task, but it is one well worth undertaking. The outcome will be a more diverse institution, with faculty engaged, collegial, and committed to developing a robust research program that enhances the academic community.
For Further Reading:
Enhancing Department Climate: A Guide for Department Chairs. Women in Science & Engineering Leadership Institute. University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Good Places to Do Science: Improving Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Academic S&E Departments. Diana Bilmoria, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Case Western Reserve University. IWiN Workshop: 4/30/2010.
UCI ADVANCE Program: Equity and Diversity.
The Benefits of Climate Change: Global Warming at the Departmental Level. Sandra Masur, Professor, Ophthalmology, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.
Departmental Climate: Marie Chisholm-Burns, Randy Richardson, Helena Rodrigues.