A chat with Prof April Hill

A Chat with Professor April Hill

Clarence E. Denoon Professor of Science

University of Richmond, Virginia – USA

Issues Impacting the Progression of Women in STEMM* Careers in Academia in the USA



The University of Richmond is the birthplace of the innovative WILL program which was founded in 1980 and has since been replicated at several universities across the USA. Alongside their major course of study, students in the WILL program pursue academic study of the influence of gender and diversity issues in various disciplines and cultures. They then apply theory to real life through internships, activism and participation in the WILL student leadership organisation, thus building a knowledge and skillbase that supports and enhances their professional development and accomplishments.


As the School of Molecular, Genetic and Population Health Sciences and the School of Clinical Sciences of the University of Edinburgh jointly embarked on a self assessment exercise to determine the status of women at various levels within the Schools, we thought it might be useful to consult with the University of Richmond. We felt that not only were they likely to provide a good overview of issues in the US, but also since the study of gender and diversity issues and their application to real life has been pursued there for over 30 years, their experiences and practices might valuably inform our own process of assessment and assist us as we devised means of improving deficiencies that we identified.


(* Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine)


Questions Explored

1. Are you aware of any statistics on STEMM regarding the percentage of women in graduate school versus those at full professor level in academic institutions across the US?
If so, how has this changed over the last 5 to 10 years?

In graduate school the percentage of female PhD earners has risen significantly; it’s doubled since the 1980’s. For example, in 2001 39% of the PhD earners were women, while in 2009 that number was 47% (so it’s now almost half). However for full professors in STEM only 21% are women, in Engineering, that number is still only 5%.Part of this may have to do with time, but this probably doesn’t account for all of it.


Another area where the gender gap exists is in funding at both the NIH and NHS. Proportionally to the number of applicants, there is a gender bias towards men receiving more grants and there have been calls for gender blind reviews of grants.



2. Are you aware of any studies which have examined gender trends in areas where there may be other perceived inequities in progression in STEMM careers in academia (e.g. race) in the US? Are there suggested measures that are designed to simultaneously address both gender equality and diversity issues?

One means of addressing both gender bias and other inequities in hiring at academic institutions is to assemble a list of requirements for the post that take all of these areas into account.


Most institutions, in hiring new faculty, bring the candidates to campus for interviews etc., everyone ranks them, then the candidate with the top score is hired. University of Richmond no longer does this.  At University of Richmond one of the core aims of the strategic plan(the Richmond Promise) is to have a diverse population of students and faculty, so now in hiring, a series of ‘bins’ or attributes is created and one of these bins is always diversity. In addition to teaching molecular biology, a candidate, as part of the application process and as stated in the job advertisement, is asked to describe how they would contribute to the university’s strategic plan, the ‘Richmond Promise’ (https://strategicplan.richmond.edu), particularly with reference to the goals of diversity and inclusivity.


 A candidate might draw on their personal experience as someone from a minority background or on their experience from working with minorities to address this aspect of the application. For example, one white male candidate for a position described how he had taught for two years at a Native American tribal college and described how his understanding of their way of life and differences informed his development as a teacher and his teaching methods.


So if one of the ‘bins’ is diversity, another is subject being taught and other is scholarship/research etc., then at the end, the process only generates a list of the people that are very acceptable and meet all the criteria of the University. This list then goes on to the Dean’s level at which the new hire is made.



3. Is positive action in favour of women (e.g. during admission to graduate school or hiring) something that you view as helpful or unhelpful to promoting gender equality in STEMM in academia?

I think it’s helpful. The model of making a quota may not be very helpful. However, a model which includes having students excel as one of the institution’s goals, and which acknowledges that finding good role models similar to themselves contributes to students excelling, and hence includes in the hiring process the aim of providing good role models for students may be helpful. Such a model would promote a holistic examination of the candidates. Hence the candidate’s potential contribution to achieving the institution’s goals is a valid criteria to include in judging them; do they bring attributes which the team lacks.  So in that regard, thinking about gender, ethnicity, and cultural background etc when hiring are quite valid and should be at the forefront of considerations.


I sit  on the undergraduate admissions committee and believe these same considerations would apply when thinking about student admissions. In a holistic examination of the candidate, standardised test results, class grades and rank would be considered alongside their service/volunteer experience and their economic, social and cultural background etc. All of these parameters are important and one doesn’t need to be elevated above the other.  For example, University of Richmond is concerned about having access to minority and economically disadvantaged students. What we’ve found is that if all of these factors need to be considered, the diversity of the population increases. For example, 9 years ago the percentage of under-represented minority students on campus was about 8-10%; it’s now 22%.That’s not from affirmative action but from a holistic examination of the candidate; having the mindset that a diverse classroom is going to add to everyone’s educational experience.


In my opinion, if a holistic approach isn’t practised in the United States (i.e. considering gender, economic, social and cultural diversity etc.) soon there won’t be enough scientists as the demographic of the US itself is shifting rapidly.


At University of Richmond if when using the holistic approach several candidates are equally recommended for the position according to the search committee, then when the decision gets to the Dean’s level, if the hiring department has a large gender imbalance, the Dean usually chooses  the candidate who helps mitigate that gap.



4. Are you aware of any institutions in the US where diversity and unconscious bias training is mandatory? If so, has this been effective in addressing inequities in the student or staff body?

Yes. At University of Richmond, all faculty search committees must include a ‘diversity advocate’; at least one member who has had unconscious bias training. One of their roles on the committee is to make sure that the committee considers all aspects of the candidate. I personally would like to see this improved so that all members of the search committee have this training.


 The PNAS article on unconscious bias published last year (CA Moss-Racusin, 2012, PNAS vol. 109 no.41, p. 16474) was very convincing and sparked a lot of discussion of the topic on the University of Richmond campus. As a result, several workshops on stereotype threat and related issues have been held in the past year. Claude Steele’s book, “Whistling Vivaldi How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time)”-2010 is a good starting point in terms of reading on the subject.



5. What do you view as possible means of addressing the ‘two body problem’ which partners who both work in STEMM in academia often face (i.e. the problem of finding two good jobs in STEMM in a particular locale)? Is this issue something that you believe universities should try to assist with, and if so how?

Yes, universities should assist with this. It’s in their best interests when recruiting top talent. Some institutions actually have policies on spousal hiring. For example, although the university may not have enough funding to hire two people they will turn the position into a 1.5 position where the each partner receives 75% of the salary. Institutions can not only look within their own boundaries (e.g. at other departments where a partner might fill a gap) but can agree to share information with other institutions/universities in the locale.



6. What is the present attitude to maternity/parental leave in the US and how do action groups hope to influence policy?

In the US there still is no mandated maternal or parental leave. In fact at University of Richmond, until 6 years ago there was no maternity leave policy. A maternity leave policy was put in place largely because l was at the time pregnant with my third child, and became a strong advocate for it, pushing the issue with the department head and administrators. I was originally told that there were five pregnant women in the department so everyone couldn’t have maternity leave and that maternity leave was going to be reserved for the ‘new’ mothers (I wouldn’t be among them). Now there is both a maternity and paternity leave policy so that everyone is treated fairly.



7. What is your opinion on the effectiveness of staged returns after a leave of absence (e.g. after parental leave) in preventing career stagnation in STEMM careers in academia following a necessary absence?

It’s a great idea. I returned to work 6 weeks after my last child was born. I would not have taken 6 to 9 months off as I feel in practical terms it’s hard to keep your lab going if you take a long period of time off. I returned to lab for a few hours a day 3 weeks after giving birth and felt stressed that I couldn’t do more. I returned to work full time at 6 weeks.


The option to stop your tenure clock at some institutions in the US is very helpful. I have heard anecdotal talk of men abusing paternity leave; taking advantage of paternity leave to keep working and ‘out produce’ the competition.



8. In your opinion, what are 5 initiatives that have made the biggest difference to helping women leave the sticky floor and break through the glass ceiling in STEMM careers in academia in the US?

Five initiatives are : (i) parental leave, (ii) calls for transparency around salaries and gender bias- institutions holding themselves accountable for carrying out the studies, making the results public and committing to change, (iii)programmes on bias training combined with actively recruiting females – in some STEM departments at University of Richmond, we are now close to 50:50 ratio (iv) child care on campuses-makes a big difference to women feeling comfortable coming back to work, (v) role models and good mentoring



9. Are you aware of any effective, low budget means of addressing gender equality issues in STEMM in academia?

Mentoring programs, holding training, workshops and book clubs on things like stereotype threat and making it compulsory for people to attend training–asking people to read and have good conversations is not expensive.



10. Are you aware of any statistics on the benefits of mentoring in STEMM in academia?

There are statistics at the undergraduate level but not as many at the graduate school and faculty level. In my opinion and personal experience, having at least one good mentor is crucial to success. My mentors pushed me to do more than I thought I could, they informed me of opportunities of which I might not have been aware and encouraged me to take chances. At different stages of my career I’ve had these mentors and I try to be the same type of mentor to my students. My own experience says that mentorship is very, very important, not just as a resource but having the knowledge that someone is actively looking out for you, making it their job to have the difficult conversations that help you realise what’s wrong and push you to improve. But you need to have people who are willing to invest time in each other.



11. In your opinion, how long does it take before one sees a ‘change in culture’ at an institution?
Is it usually a slow steady change or an overnight sensation?

Some changes, like policy change and training implementation can be quick if people are motivated For example, the maternity leave policy was implemented within one semester at University of Richmond. Also, University of Richmond held workshops on stereotype threat following the publication of the PNAS study last year (so that change took less than a year).

However a fundamental change in attitude is much slower and harder to quantify. Getting people to examine their bias and meditate on it, takes a while. E.g. Attempting  to get more under-represented minorities into science by changing the philosophy for science in the entering undergraduate class from one of identifying the ‘best’ and pushing them forward to one of giving every student with an interest in science, the best tools and opportunities, takes a while. It takes people changing their hearts and deciding that this is the right thing to do. It takes them realising that the ‘best’ may simply be the ‘best prepared’ (i.e. students who attended a school that taught certain subjects or had certain economic advantages). It’s change in philosophy from ‘weeding people out’ in first year classes to ‘removing barriers to learning’ in first year classes. It requires a change in mindset and that takes a while.


You need both approaches; changes in policy and changes in attitude. Having bias training and discussions on campus is important, but having advocates for women, people who keep bringing up the subject up and calling for transparency is just as important as the policies.



12. Do you have any specific recommendations regarding recruitment (how to promote gender equality through recruitment processes) and retention (since we experience a drop off from postgrad onwards)?

Consider the entire package/use the holistic approach when recruiting and commit to maintaining a diverse, welcoming and accepting environment.