Higher Education: Building a Culture of Inclusion Among Faculty and Staff

Not even the most elite universities can avoid the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Faculty and staff are a mirror for the prospective student body and their ability to envision themselves at the institution, as well as their belonging and opportunities for thriving in their chosen fields of study. 

Universities have long been associated with pioneering new thinking, a source of innovation and challenging the status quo. But the state of diversity and inclusion among faculty and staff in higher education does not reflect the breadth of societal perspectives or optimize diversity of thought. 

As business organizations endeavor to become more inclusive and high-performing cultures, in which each individual is supported to fulfill their potential and maximize their contributions, will academia also catch on?  

Underrepresentation of Diversity in Higher Education Staff

According to Unesco, women - despite globally making up a greater percentage of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and being overrepresented in primary (66%) and secondary education teaching staff (54%) - are underrepresented in tertiary education teaching (43%) and comprise only 30% of university researchers. Women are highly underrepresented in STEM teaching faculty (which corresponds to a dearth of female students) as well as among senior faculty and in higher decision-making bodies. 

In the U.S., women represent 57% of instructors, 53% of assistant professors, 46% of associate professors, but only 34% of professors on average. The salary of women faculty is 81.4% of what men earn. As Unesco report authors write: “it is also often a sign of institutional cultures that are neither inclusive nor geared towards broader social and cultural change for greater gender equality … conventional faculty recruitment processes that reward linear, full-time, uninterrupted academic trajectories contribute to women’s under-representation in senior academic positions.”

Beyond gender, university staff in the U.S. are predominantly white, which is even more marked in higher education faculty and full-time faculty positions. As with many industries, the Covid-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the academic labor market, disproportionately affecting staff such as those with childcare responsibilities and minority ethnic backgrounds, while overall making existing inequities more apparent. 

Acknowledging Institutional Biases and Discrimination

First of all, higher education must take off the blinders when it comes to recognizing that bias and institutional discrimination exists in higher education and how the traditional values of elite academia implicitly support the status quo of outcomes at all levels - including the pipeline of academic professionals as well as recruitment, promotion, retention and tenure.

In order to recruit for top talent and innovation, universities may want to be more agile, as businesses are increasingly becoming, in their hiring practices - looking beyond traditional markers of success such as publishing and research funding, that inhibit the consideration of outlier talent and underrepresented groups. This also includes elite universities getting out of the cycle of recruiting only graduates from their own or other elite institutions

According to the League of European Research Universities (LERU), there is harm  in continuing to allege that advancement and promotional criteria which does not play out equitably in outcomes is meritocracy-based: “Denying unequal treatment while it is clear members of different groups receive unequal outcomes also is a form of discrimination, as it implicitly conveys that members of some groups are essentially less deserving than others.”

Further, LERU iterates, male scholars are awarded more research grants, more grant money, more research awards and more tenure positions, while female scholars spend more time on teaching and committee work and are more likely to receive service awards. Senior female academics report less support from their organization and its leadership than their male peers, and report having had to make more difficult life choices and personal sacrifices.

Higher education needs to consider the inordinate value placed upon academic publishing. Assuming a disproportional bearing upon career success, publishing of research articles in academic journals by rank has become equated with academic work, sidelining the importance of job aspects such as teaching and supervision, pastoral care and mentoring, academic administration, peer review, event organizing and other collegial work that maintains and grows fields of study and potentially helps to foster inclusion on campus. Of note, women publish only 38% of academic articles relative to 62% by men, and the gap is greater in the most prestigious journals. Research has shown papers authored by women (sole, first or last authors) are cited less. And while the submission of overall academic papers increased during lockdown months, women’s submissions declined as many grappled with school closures and increased childcare responsibilities. 

Opportunities for Greater Inclusion In Higher Education 

Beyond all of the benefits of inclusion for any organization - such as engagement, innovation, creativity, higher productivity, retention, and organizational appeal - academia has specific motivations for fostering more diverse and inclusive cultures. 

Leaders look to universities, especially research-intensive ones, to provide social-cultural thought leadership, analysis and technical innovations for our greatest  challenges, which requires the infusion of diverse societal perspectives. 

As creativity, cutting edge ideation, and challenging thinking are all positively influenced by inclusion - and innovative research depends upon these pillars, inclusive universities have a greater opportunity to maximize creative output. Greater diversity of perspectives and more varied collective intelligence is important to the framing and breadth of research questions, as well as knowledge transfer.

Revisiting how narrowly established criteria around success, such as high profile publishing, supports the advancement of individuals in certain groups into higher positions in academia, while others remain persistently overlooked, provides an opportunity to acknowledge and promote talent based more on the diverse spectrum of many valuable contributions. For example, if certain groups are overloaded with teaching and administrative tasks in an environment that disproportionately values research, those individuals may be undervalued - which is corrosive to both them and their confidence and the organization. Ensuring that employees are valued and engaged is an essential element for creating an inclusive culture where everyone can bring their best self, and their most innovative contributions, to the workplace and their students.

Turning Research Inwards In Higher Education

Not even the most elite universities can avoid the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion. Faculty and staff are a mirror for prospective students and their ability to envision themselves at the institution, as well as their belonging and opportunities for thriving in their chosen fields of study. 

As with any organization, the first step to improving inclusion in higher education is identifying and understanding what is happening in the eco-system of your organization relative to your organizational objectives. In an environment that champions the pursuit of knowledge, research and data into the relative experiences of individuals from different groups in your faculty and staff is the way you turn the mirror inwards towards your organization. 

By working with third party experts such as Pulsely, universities and institutions of higher education can supply themselves with the depth of insights and strategies necessary to investigate patterns of inequity and support diversity, equity and inclusion, and diversity of thought, at all levels. 


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