Recruiting women professors in mathematics: a case study

By Simon Chandler-Wilde (Dean for Diversity and Inclusion and Professor of Applied Mathematics).

I’m grateful to my colleague Prof Jennifer Scott for commenting on a draft of this post, in particular suggesting that I add in the first bullet point in the list below. I’m grateful also to Dr Eugénie Hunsicker for suggestions for additional reading.

The proportion of mathematics professors in the UK who are women is disgracefully low. An influential report in 2013 for the London Mathematical Society (LMS) reported that 6% of maths professors are female while 42% of students taking undergraduate degrees in mathematics are female. There has been some progress since then, but the pace of change is slow. This is a huge waste of talent for the mathematics community – we’re essentially recruiting our mathematics professors from only half the potential pool – and we have too few female role models to provide inspiration, encouragement and advice to our female undergraduates and PhD students coming through.

This is a case study of recruiting to a chair in mathematics. It is a case study in obtaining the best international field of candidates so as to make the strongest possible appointment, of whatever gender. It is also a case study of working to maximise the possibility of appointing a female professor, as a small, local step towards redressing the gender-balance in mathematics at professorial level, nationally and in our own department. It is a case study of simple actions that attracted a superb field of candidates (male and female) in a gender-balanced shortlist, and led (through selecting from the shortlist the best person for the job) to a new female professor in the department.

This recruitment arose following the resignation of Prof Beatrice Pelloni, who left in 2016 to become Head of the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences at Heriot-Watt University, following a career at Reading in which she was promoted from her first academic post as Lecturer to become Professor and Head of Department (in a job-share), and then became the first Director, jointly with Prof Dan Crisan at Imperial, of the Mathematics of Planet Earth Centre for Doctoral Training, a large EPSRC-funded centre joint between Reading and ICL. This joint CDT leadership, of Beatrice and Dan, sent a superb signal of gender equality and provided gender-balanced role models to the PhD students coming to our new CDT (and as at October last year we had 34% female PhD students in the CDT compared to the national average of 28.6% across mathematical sciences).

We advertised in 2016 for the role of Professor of Mathematics and Director at Reading of the Mathematics of Planet Earth Centre for Doctoral Training with the aim of recruiting the best possible candidate from the strongest field of candidates, but seeking as we did this to maximise the possibility of appointing a new female professor, maintaining gender equality in our leadership of the CDT. This recruitment led ultimately to the appointment of Prof Jennifer Scott, who at the time of her appointment held the position of Leader of the highly successful and respected Numerical Analysis Group at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, based near Didcot. Jennifer also held (and continues to hold) the prestigious position of STFC Individual Merit Research Fellow.

Here are the simple steps that we took in our recruitment. These are mostly best recruitment practice that one would wish to follow in any recruitment process to ensure the strongest possible field of candidates, but with a slant to them that led to a gender-balanced shortlist, and ultimately to the appointment of Prof Scott.

  • Write an advert, job description, and further particulars that seek to attract a wide and diverse pool of applicants. Concretely in this recruitment this included a number of elements normal in our recruitment to all our posts, namely:
  1. We minimised the number of essential criteria to widen the pool who see themselves as qualified (Jennifer asked me to emphasise this!), and where we had a criterion around subject area (some connection to mathematics of planet earth) we made clear that this was interpreted broadly.
  2. We included as an essential criterion “commitment to diversity and equality”. This is really important for running a CDT, and its inclusion helps to attract a more diverse field: under-represented minorities in mathematics are disproportionately represented in diversity and equality work.  The successful candidate’s evidence for this included many years’ work in the LMS Women in Mathematics Committee.
  3. We signalled our commitment to gender equality in the job description by flagging the Silver Athena SWAN Award that we held (and continue to hold) as part of the larger School of Mathematical, Physical and Computational Sciences.
  4. In the further particulars, building on the University’s standard “[commitment] to having a diverse and inclusive workforce” and “welcome [for] applications for job-share, part-time and flexible working arrangements”, expressed in every job advert, we made clear that this was a reality on the ground, including links to our local flexible working and parental leave webpages which give examples of men and women at all levels working flexibly in our department and the wider school.
  • Appoint a diverse search committee (in particular with gender diversity). Our search committee comprised 10 staff (at Professor and Associate Professor level) of diverse nationalities (7 different countries), and included two female maths professors, an external (Dan Crisan from Imperial), and representation from a range of relevant subject areas including from our meteorology department. The female representation on the committee was critical to achieving gender balance on our shortlist through the better connection of these female professors into networks of women mathematicians. In particular one of the female professors suggested we approach Prof Scott who we finally appointed.
  • Be explicit in communications to your search committee, and to your wider department, e.g. through communication up front from the search committee chair, that you want in your search to attract a diverse field of candidates. This was done, and as part of this we flagged that we “would be pleased if we came up with names of potential female candidates” and that “it is an undoubted strength of the current [CDT] leadership that the directorate is mixed male/female”. These explicit communications undoubtedly led to more names of prospective female candidates being suggested.
  • Invite suggestions for candidates from across the search committee, and the wider department, and do some brain storming with the search committee, with reminders about seeking a diverse applicant pool as you do this. Great suggestions for possible candidates came in from across the department, e.g. Sarah Dance (then Associate Professor, now Professor), suggested (male and female names) for conversations that led to strong applications.
  • Sound out a wide range of possible candidates across the UK and internationally by email, suggesting that you follow-up with phone calls/skype if they might be interested. And speak on the phone to senior colleagues internationally seeking suggestions for possible candidates (and raising diversity of the candidate field as you do this). We spoke to very many potential male and female applicants, in the UK and internationally, discussing the role, and encouraging possible applications, leading very naturally to a diverse (in particular 50/50 gender-balanced) shortlist. In many cases, following an initial conversation with the search committee chair (or another member of the search committee), there were follow-up conversations, including confidential conversations with other senior colleagues (not least the other CDT Director Dan Crisan). It may be that female candidates are less likely to apply without a personal approach, but in fact all of our shortlist were candidates that we had approached and then spoken to (in multiple conversations) encouraging applications. And indeed the person finally appointed had no idea that she wished to move jobs to a university and become a professor before we picked up the phone!
  • Have a diverse group do the shortlisting (including mix of genders). A slightly smaller group carried out the shortlisting, including some formal elements (e.g. the Dean of the Graduate School, Dianne Berry, as the agreed interview panel chair, signed off on the final selection).

The above reads very like standard (good) practice for recruitment. I think it is, with a diversity flavour, and I commend all the above as good practice in any maths professor recruitment; indeed, with some tweaks, as good practice across all academic recruitment, particularly at senior levels.

Let me mention for completeness other features of the final selection process. As is standard in our department the Head of Department organised presentations by the candidates open to the whole department, plus informal meetings of the candidates with a number of small groups of particularly relevant prospective colleagues, and a feedback meeting (open to the whole department) in advance of the interviews, this part of the transparency of the process throughout. The final selection was done by the interview panel, which again had a mix of genders and included Dan as external.

Much other advice on addressing the under-representation of women in mathematics has been published by the impressive Women in Mathematics Committee of the London Mathematical Society that won the inaugural Royal Society Athena Prize in 2016. In particular the 2013 report “Advancing Women in Mathematics: Good Practice in UK Mathematics Departments” has recommendations and examples of good practice on recruitment of academic staff (see section 4.4 of the report) that significantly overlap with the above list, as did the discussion at the LMS Good Practice Scheme Meeting in October 2016, see these slides.

There are surely other things that we might usefully do, more imaginative ways that we might rethink recruitment. Here is one blog (thank you Eugénie!that provides very much food for thought and much additional reading.

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