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Can anonymous faculty searches boost diversity?

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In a bid to reduce bias in the faculty hiring process, Yale University’s molecular biophysics and biochemistry department conducted an experiment: Applicants submitted anonymized materials, omitting not only their own names, but also the names of institutions they’d trained at and journals they’d published in. “Names are powerful cues,” read a web page posted by the department when it announced the job opening in fall 2020. The web page pointed to potential problems associated with “ingroup favoritism,” the tendency for people to favor individuals who have a similar background as themselves—for instance, because they attended the same university. By not allowing applicants—or search committee members—to rely on those familiar names, particularly in the early rounds of the hiring process, the department hoped to do a better job identifying a more diverse short list from their candidate pool.  

Science Careers spoke with the chair of the department, Enrique De La Cruz, about the search—which was ultimately successful—and whether the hiring committee would make changes to its process in future searches. The interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Why did you decide to conduct an anonymous search?

A: The motivation was really that we have a problem. We are underrepresented in women, particularly for tenured positions, as well as other groups. For example, I was the only member of an underrepresented racial or ethnic group to have been hired as faculty in my department for its first 50 years of existence. I was the first one to do anything—get a grant, not get a grant, teach a class, get tenure. And now we have one other person who’s a junior colleague. She started 2 years ago. We’re improving, but we’re still a far cry from what anyone would say is successful regarding faculty diversity. So something’s not working. And once we admit that we have a problem, we have no choice but to try to do something new.

Q: Was there any pushback to the idea of taking an unconventional approach?

A: No. There was skepticism. I think there was concern that we would de-emphasize the significance of scholarship—science and teaching—for other things. But I think the fact that it was an experiment helped. We’re scientists, so if you phrase it that way everyone’s on board. “OK, it’s an experiment? Sure, sounds good. That’s what we do. Let’s just see what happens.”

Q: How did the hiring process work?

A: First, as chair, I had to put the right committee together. The members of the committee had to be on board. They had to be deeply rooted and committed to doing the work, because there was more work involved than in a regular search.

Then we had to put out the right job ad. Right up front, from the very beginning, we really made it clear that we are thinking about all of the things that make a good scientist, educator, and colleague, and this certainly includes diversity and equity. We also asked the applicants to do the work themselves to make the job application anonymous—and this may be one of the more important aspects because it’s self-selecting. They have to invest in the process. They can’t just go “click—here’s my application.” They have to do the work if they want to be considered. Our process required applicants to think deeply about what they’ve done and articulate their contributions without relying on the shorthand—for example, I worked for this Nobel laureate at this prestigious elitist institution and I published in these fantastic journals.

Once the applications were submitted, there was a first cut made with no letters of recommendation, no CVs, no DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] statements, no teaching statements—it was all about the past and future research. Then the committee made another cut after looking at the DEI statements and the teaching statements, which were also anonymized. And then, after all that was done, they looked at the CVs and the letters, which were not anonymous.

Q: After the initial selection process, you ended up with a larger percentage of women and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic groups compared with the applicant pool. Why do you think that is?

A: Let me begin by saying that, as a scientist, I’m not going to draw any firm conclusions based on an experiment I’ve done once. But if we could speculate on why this may have happened, I can imagine that it is possible that women and members of other underrepresented groups were energized and motivated by being evaluated without identifying information. Maybe they took it a little more seriously because they saw it as an opportunity as opposed to an obstacle. I also think that if someone is accustomed to being underestimated and feels that they need to validate themselves more, they may have a little more practice making sure the importance of their work is clear. They may be a little more comfortable and better at doing it.

Q: Do you worry about the risk that you’ll miss out on a high-quality applicant because they didn’t write a strong research statement?

A: I do worry about that, particularly given this past year—the circumstances in many people’s personal lives, their emotional state, the time required, their native language. I spoke Spanish before English and I still feel insecure about my writing. People will say, “Oh I understand, it’s fine; it’s very clear.” But that’s because what would take someone else 10 minutes to write takes me an hour. At the same time, if you’re not a good communicator in science in some form—oral, written, in the classroom, in a paper—you’re not going to make it as a scientist. I’m sorry, you can’t.

Q: I could imagine that it was an interesting process for committee members who are perhaps accustomed to focusing on an applicant’s CV first. I know you weren’t on the committee, but did you hear from committee members what the process was like?

A: It was harder because everyone’s reading things that are not in their field. And look, we all rely on the shorthand. If I see someone’s published five papers in Science and I don’t know the field, it’s telling me something. Even if I don’t understand why it’s important, I infer it’s important because it’s a top 10 hit. I might not like an artist, but if it’s a No. 1 seller somebody likes it, so it must be really important. But in our application process, applicants had to explain without the shorthand why their research matters. And when you’re a committee member on the receiving end, you have to really read it—and it’s more work.

Q: If you were to do it again, are there things you would do differently?

A: Yes. As I said, this was an experiment, and we learned a lot throughout this process. The committee used rubrics to score the anonymized statements in a standardized way. We realized that those need to go out to the community along with the job ad so when someone is submitting their application, they know how we’re going to evaluate them: This is what we want and this is how you’re going to be judged. We also found that making DEI statements anonymous doesn’t work. Your gender, your race, your ethnicity, your religion, your veganism—whatever it is that you really believe in—if you take that out you can lose the profoundness of the story, the individual uniqueness of the story, which is the opposite of what we aspire to in an inclusive environment. So in the future I think we won’t make the DEI statements anonymous. You can say your race, your gender, your ethnicity, all of these things. But it’s going to be separated from the rest of the application. It’ll be scored on its own.

I do think it’ll be easier next time. And we hope other departments try our approach as well. By posting information about what we’ve done, others don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I think a lot of people are going to want to try this approach when they realize that it might work and there’s somewhat of a road map in place.

One of my hopes is that, through this process, we can get rid of that sense that maybe you got this job because you’re a woman or a member of another underrepresented group. There’s going be someone out there who’s going say that and think that. I think our process is empowering because you don’t have to carry that baggage with you for the rest of your life. Someone can say, “Without anyone knowing my gender or race or nationality or sexual orientation or whatever—they knew none of these things about me—they saw something in me.” And for me, as a first generation Cuban American—that is why this is really worth it.

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