Skip to content Skip to navigation

President, deans, speak about gender equity and leadership at Stanford

Mar 3 2014

Four male academic leaders were joined by a female peer during a lively panel held Feb. 26. Since women hold 22 percent of tenured faculty positions at Stanford, this ratio might appear unremarkable. However, the topic of discussion, gender equity, made this lineup noteworthy. Organized by the Faculty Women's Forum, participants explored what the university—in particular, men—could do to advance the position of women faculty at Stanford.

President John Hennessy was joined by Lloyd Minor, Jim Plummer, and Richard Saller, respectively deans of the schools of medicine, engineering, and humanities and sciences, to discuss progress, hurdles, and strategies concerning gender equity. Hennessy reflected back to his first department meeting as a new faculty member in electrical engineering, during which the sole female professor was not mentioned in the chair’s address to the “men.” Saller, meanwhile, noted the range of gender diversity across humanities and sciences departments. The representation of women in some of these departments exceeds the university average, he said, while in other departments it falls below.

How does a university with seven schools and a complex mix of academic disciplines and structures achieve gender equity? 

“Constant vigilance,” said President Hennessy. From “the day a talented young woman walks on this campus as an undergraduate,” to being “aggressively opportunistic” in recruiting female talent in faculty searches, Stanford’s president said he supports a holistic and proactive agenda.

Gender equity promotes innovation and excellence...

Minor underscored the importance of gender equity as a core institutional value because “diversity and excellence are inextricably linked.” The other panelists agreed, emphasizing that innovation demands varying perspectives. “Everything is better” when problems and opportunities are addressed by diverse teams, Plummer said.

The 33-percent increase in women faculty over the past decade has broadened the research agenda, Saller said. The richness of the research agenda reflects diversity at many levels, including gender, race, ethnicity and disciplinary focus.

…but more work remains

Law professor and panel moderator Deborah Rhode said that Stanford, in one generation, has witnessed real progress in promoting gender equity as a cultural value and a numerical reality. Much of this progress is due to “the commitment of men in leadership positions in this university,” she said. However, she added, the “fact that we’re still all here in need of this conversation testifies to progress yet to be made.” Although blatant gender discrimination has largely ended, the panelists agreed, nationwide inequalities persist in hiring, salary and access to positions of power.

As President Hennessy said, women were reasonably represented in the early development of computer science but men quickly became overrepresented as the field exploded in the 1980s. 

Today, women make up only 15 percent of Stanford engineering faculty, Plummer noted. "Although this is twice the percentage of just a decade ago, and higher than national numbers, it is obviously too small," he said.

Vigilance in hiring has led to progress

At Stanford, the majority of hires are in the science and engineering departments of the schools of medicine, earth sciences, engineering, and humanities and sciences. Since these fields have the fewest women in the faculty pipeline, this creates a problem for increasing the representation of women. 

However, over the past decade, the School of Engineering has hired female faculty at a higher rate than the availability pool would predict, Plummer said. One way that happens is by doing junior faculty searches across a broad set of fields rather than focusing on narrowly-defined search areas.

“If there is a terrific woman who graduates in a certain year, we can get them in the pool of potential hires by having broadly-defined searches,” Plummer said. “Having her in the pool is the first step to having her in the faculty.”

Each dean discussed techniques for diversifying search committees, and emphasized that, as Plummer described, ensuring a diverse pool of top talent is the “responsibility of everybody on that search committee,” not relegated to a particular individual.

Eliminating bias is key

Unconscious bias must be addressed to ensure fair hiring practices and a welcoming culture, the panelists said. Minor noted the ways in which unconscious bias, documented in social science studies, potentially shapes hiring, tenure and salary increases. Structural issues of tenure clocks conflicting with biological clocks, and the fact that women continue to shoulder greater family responsibilities, create additional barriers, Hennessy said.

Male leadership is critical to addressing the unconscious biases that can skew results without conscious intent, Saller said. When staff in the School of Humanities and Sciences reviewed gender pay equity, they found that women faculty with outside job offers ended up earning lower average salaries at Stanford than male colleagues who also had outside offers. Market biases, Saller warned, resulted in disproportionately lower competing offers and risked creating a pay gap that corresponded with gender, not merit. Saller corrected the imbalance, using the example to show the subtlety of inequality and the importance of actively preventing “slip-back.”

The panelists also noted that commitment to faculty diversity must be reflected in university oversight as well as individual action. Clear goals and accountability help structure department strategies aimed at achieving a diverse faculty. Meanwhile, faculty leadership must ensure that everyone is heard in faculty meetings. Department chairs must also balance female faculty representation on committees with the danger of overtaxing them with too much committee work.  

President Hennessy invites faculty input

In closing, Shelley Correll, director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, said, “If there’s one thing that the literature on organizational change is clear about, especially when it comes to diversity, it's that an essential element is support from the top.”

Hennessy ended with a request for suggestions. “What ideas do you have for us about what we might do to try to speed up the progress on this issue? It’s an open question, send me an email,” he told the audience.

Stanford must be innovative, creative, take risks, and perhaps consider changing some of the rules of the game, Correll concluded. But Stanford is no stranger to innovation, she said. “This is a place where we can solve tough problems and I think we’re starting to do that here in important ways.”


A gender lens
exposes gaps in knowledge,
identifies root causes of barriers,
and proposes workable solutions.