Digest No. 08 - January 2021

Increasing Diversity in Faculty Hiring

O’Meara, K., D. Culpepper, and L. Templeton. 2020. “Nudging Toward Diversity: Applying Behavioral Design to Faculty Hiring.” Review of Educational Research 90 (3): 31–348.



How can universities live up to their commitment to diversity in hiring diverse faculty members? The authors of this study provide a literature review that synthesizes information concerning sources of unconscious bias in the faculty hiring process. The critical assumption underscoring the review is that unconscious bias, or the “social norms and social role expectations” that are active when our “intuitive, automatic system” of processing information goes unchecked may contribute to hiring practices that disadvantage women and people of color as potential candidates for faculty positions (p. 313). Drawing upon 154 studies published between 1985 and 2018, the authors identify prejudicial attitudes and discriminatory behaviors associated with cognitive biases and make concrete recommendations for introducing small behavioral changes in faculty hiring practices, what the authors call “nudges,” that are likely to disrupt these biases.



The authors argue that the achievement of faculty diversity goals over the last 30 years has often been hampered by implicit cognitive biases that occur during several key points of the faculty hiring process. Adopting the National Science Foundation’s (2017) definition of underrepresented minorities and women, the authors examine a wide range of empirical work that draws upon studies in higher education as well as behavioral economics and social psychology to identify specific, actionable interventions intended to disrupt these biases.

The authors employed a narrative and integrative literature review method that drew upon articles specific to the distinctive racialized and gendered context of the United States. In doing so, they sought to “use theory to frame the extant data toward new meanings or hypotheses,” thus generating holistic and meaningful perspectives that were supported by the empirical literature (p. 314).

The initial phase of the hiring process consists of forming the hiring committee and defining the role of the unfilled position. The authors conclude that the literature is unclear whether increased diversity in the hiring committee ultimately results in more diverse hires, primarily because of the length and complexity of the process between forming a committee and actually hiring a candidate. However, the literature clearly and conclusively indicates that the phrasing used in advertisements for the open position positively influences the number of applications from diverse candidates. Statements that place value on diversity, community-engaged research, interdisciplinary scholarship, and mentoring and teaching expertise result in more applications from women and underrepresented minority candidates.

Two major sources of bias tend to arise during the marketing, recruitment, and outreach phase of a search—reliance on passive advertising and overemphasis on the prestige of the institutions with which the candidate has been associated. On the other hand, posting job openings in publications, listservs, and networks specific to various minority communities increases the number of applications from diverse candidates compared to posting in major professional outlets or relying on the personal networks of the search committee members.

A major source of bias during the candidate evaluation phase of a search stems from commonly used meritocratic measures of productivity, such as the number of scholarly papers published and grant monies awarded. When these metrics are used without consideration of the historical and structural inequalities that impede opportunities afforded to women and underrepresented minorities, they often lead to unjustified conclusions.

Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that a process that requires a diverse short list of candidates results in more diverse hires. Also, having highly structured interview protocols and interactions can reduce the discomfort and anxiety that minority applicants often experience in majority-dominated situations.



The oppressions and indignities chronically suffered by women and underrepresented minorities have hardly been more clear or brought to more stark relief than in recent months. In this troubled climate many institutions of higher education have sought to reaffirm their commitment to equity and inclusion. This paper, therefore, is both timely and appropriate, as it highlights ways in which highly qualified underrepresented scholars might be disadvantaged in the hiring process and provides preventive actions that leaders can take to disrupt these hegemonic hiring practices.

Hiring committees should be required to formalize their decision-making process through the use of rubrics or criteria that are determined prior to examining candidates. In addition, the committee should use disaggregated data on the demographics of the field to place their applicant pool in context and to guide their search and selection efforts.

It is worth considering that these interventions are designed to promote the behavioral changes that are often precursors of changes in attitudes and values. Institutions will need to transform both if they are to become diverse and equitable workplaces.

About the Authors

KerryAnn O’Meara is a professor of higher education and the associate dean for faculty affairs and graduate studies at the University of Maryland College of Education.

Dawn Culpepper is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland.

Lindsey Templeton is a doctoral student at the University of Maryland.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Bensimon, E. M., A. C. Dowd, and K. Witham. 2016. “Five Principles for Enacting Equity by Design.” Diversity & Democracy 19 (1).

Marschke, R., S. Laursen, J. M. Nielsen, and P. Rankin. 2007. “Demographic Inertia Revisited: An Immodest Proposal to Achieve Equitable Gender Representation among Faculty in Higher Education.” Journal of Higher Education 78 (1), 1–26.

Kahneman, D. 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Status, and Giroux.