The Token Woman on Hiring Committees: time for a change

4 November 2013, 1833 EST

Policies and practices set up to avoid discrimination in the past have a tendency to expire. Remember, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ was originally set up to protect gay service-members within the US forces. Similarly, the often unofficial rule of having one woman on hiring committees has reached its expiry date. Primarily as a result of effective equality and diversity campaigns in the 1980s and early 1990s, many departments instituted either an explicit or informal policy to include ‘at least’ one woman on each hiring committee- usually after finding that most hiring committees included no women, and most hires were men. The result- in many cases- has been that there has been one woman on hiring committees in academia for nearly 3 decades. The problem is that while the number of female PhD graduates increases, and the number of female applicants increases, the lonely- token- woman on the hiring committee remains standard practice at many institutions. Sure, there is evidence that women can be just as sexist as men when it comes to hiring practices; however, there is also evidence that women offer a different perspective than men (particularly in terms of ‘what constitutes-good/real- political science‘). Changing the makeup of hiring committees could be an opportunity to change a hiring culture in academia in which men are not only more likely to be hired, but will also be paid more and promoted faster than their female counterparts.

Let’s focus on tokenism. The one-woman policy constitutes tokenism for at least three reasons:

1. Men make up the ‘starting lineup’ of most hiring committees. Committees always have the essential players: Head or Chair of Department, Head of School or Faculty, and often the most senior faculty member with expertise in the area of the job description- these are almost always professors. We know from extensive research and surveys that male professors outrank female professors across disciplines by a WIDE margin (at Aberystwyth University  just 7.9 per cent of professors are female, for example). That means that the important players on a hiring committee are almost always men. The ‘one woman’ that gets added to the mix is less likely to be a professor or someone in a position of power within the department.

2. (A related, but separate point) Women on committees are more likely to be junior. Since male professors outrank female professors at such a huge margin at most universities, the lonely woman on hiring committees is likely to be junior to the rest of the committee. The power dynamic of 4 senior professors and one junior (or less senior) woman (not an uncommon committee make-up) makes it difficult for the female member to ‘rock the boat’ or express dissent on major decisions (and forget any fantasies of achieving a gender tipping point at which alternative perspectives sway a committee). Moreover, even if the female member disagrees with her committee, she will almost always be outnumbered and outvoted by senior men. This is textbook tokenism.

3. As the gender dynamics in some departments change, the one woman policy becomes (even more) discriminatory. Yes it is true that some departments out there have more than 30% women- and the number is increasing. In an excellent report on women in political science by the Women’s Caucus of the Australian Political Science Association, it was found that the University of Melbourne political science department had 47% women (2011), while the University of Queensland had 39%. In such departments a single woman on a 5-person hiring committee (20%) would mean a disproportionate representation of gender. Or, in other words, it means women are being excluded in a discriminatory fashion in relation to their representation within a department (this is where- numerically- the token woman policy expires).

Hiring and promotion committees are two of the most powerful groups within the university. Ensuring that one woman sits on a hiring committee should be seen as discriminatory, exclusionary, and a means of sustaining the status quo- not progressive and certainly not a sign of gender inclusion. Let the HR revisions begin.