At this year's ASSA meetings I had the privilege of attending the panel Best Practices in Recruiting and Mentoring Diverse Economists. The panel was jointly hosted by the Committee on the Status of Minority Groups in the Economic Profession (CSMGEP) and the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economic Profession (CSWEP). During the two-hour-long discussion, panelists provided concrete advice for departments and research institutions working to improve diversity among their faculty. Panelists' advice ranged from improvements to the hiring process, to strengthening retention and mentorship of junior faculty and researchers.
All the panelists agreed that increasing diversity in the economics profession is imperative. To paraphrase Professor David Laibson, there are two benefits to increased diversity in the field - better research and better pedagogy. According to him, "we are impoverished as scientists because we don't have those [diverse] perspectives in the room."
Discussions of implicit bias dominated the conversation. Professor Marie Mora proposed that search and tenure committees seek training to mitigate implicit bias. However, as Professor Terra McKinnish pointed out, before such training can be effective, a critical mass of senior economists must believe that implicit bias exists. McKinnish encouraged economists to read up on the existing literature* so as to inform themselves of the implicit bias faced by women and underrepresented minorities (URMs). Laibson encouraged faculty at universities to reach out directly to their colleagues in Psychology who research implicit bias.
Another takeaway from the discussion was that passive recruitment is not sufficient. Mora suggested that departments follow up job listings on sites like JOE with advertisements and reminders emailed to actively maintained listservs. Laibson reasoned that expanding hiring searches more broadly could yield positive results. Dr. Rhonda Sharpe agreed that it could be a good idea to be more inclusive in faculty recruitment, but cautioned that this policy should be accompanied by a sincere intention on the part of the department to offer interviews. Sharpe suggested that faculty have a candid conversation about what increasing diversity will mean for their department before implementing inclusive recruitment initiatives. Notably, Sharpe posited that as a profession "we use words like 'quality' and 'fit' to exclude people, we don't use 'quality' and 'fit' to include people."
Dr. David Wilcox pointed out that hiring committees will sometimes update their search criteria mid-process based on the candidates that they have seen. He urged departmental leadership to press against this and impose prior restraint on both the overall criteria for hiring and on the set of weights used when assessing said criteria. This aligned with Mora's advice that departments think explicitly about who might be a good fit for the position they are looking to fill before setting out to recruit. Wilcox allowed that sometimes there are valid reasons a committee may decide that a change to the criteria is necessary. He cautioned that the committee should justify the change and then go back and reevaluate all the candidates based on the updated criteria
Recruitment is not the only hurdle to diversity; inclusion after a person has been hired is also very important. Laibson posited that economics as a profession can often present a culture of aggression which can be discouraging at all stages of the pipeline. Mora described a policy at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley that provides flyout candidates an optional meeting with a member of the women’s faculty network. During these informal meetings candidates often ask questions relating to family leave, spousal hiring assistance, and other topics that may feel inappropriate to broach during a flyout. It seems to me that such meetings help support female job candidates and set a tone of inclusivity.
Inclusion is not simply a question of culture, but also of creating institutional norms that allow for retention and promotion of faculty and research staff. McKinnish argued that the more informal the flow of information, the greater the disparity in outcomes across women and underrepresented minorities. After all, when people are not as in-the-know, they can miss out on crucial opportunities. Wilcox agreed with this idea, explaining that his division has seen gains in diversity from conducting a personnel policy that is systematic and predictable, that is widely known and explainable, and that is transparent.
Wilcox pointed out that when a personnel policy is widely known, all employees know when their work is deserving of beneficial outcomes such as promotion or tenure. He refined transparency to mean that any hiring policy should "withstand the light of day". Wilcox further argued that when a promotion policy is predictable, everyone knows they will be treated equally according to their productivity and not according to their ability to negotiate or self-promote. This reminded me of a point that McKinnish had made earlier in the discussion, that women are judged differently for negotiating and advocating for themselves
Another recommendation put forth by McKinnish was to provide junior faculty with vitas from recent tenure cases to allow junior faculty to ask questions regarding expectations. She further asserted that departments should have well-documented tenure expectations. McKinnish contended that departments and institutions should be clear on how research funds may be accessed and how special considerations could be attained.
There is also an issue of mentoring that McKinnish argued as necessary to the promotion of junior faculty. According to her, most newly minted PhD’s have not been taught the necessary skills to achieve tenure. These skills include: how to pitch a paper to an editor, how to choose which journal to submit to, how to interpret and respond to reviewer feedback, how to build a professional network, and how to meet expectations in teaching, advising, and service while still meeting research goals.
With regards to mentoring, Mora recommended senior economists get involved with both minority and women’s groups. McKinnish pointed out that for a mentoring group to be successful, the mentors need to be candid, honest, and thoughtful with advice, and must be invested in mentoring. Unfortunately, she continued, people who are good at mentoring are often the same people who are good at other service work needed by the department. As such, McKinnish concluded, departments need to decide that mentoring is a priority if the mentoring program is to work well. One concrete step that McKinnish proposed was for department chairs to provide incentives for senior faculty to participate in mentoring.
The discussion shed light on the inherent tension between methods that reduce implicit bias and those that actively target women and URM economists. Despite the challenges involved in implementing practices designed to improve diversity in the profession, we at WEB strongly endorse the panel's view that diversity is incredibly important to the economics field. We hope that this panel is the first in a series of conversations across departments on the best strategies to achieve these goals.
* Existing literature on implicit bias includes Bayer & Rouse (2016) and Bertrand & Duflo (2016)
Author: Aluma Dembo