Adia Harvey Wingfield is the Mary Tileston Hemenway Professor of Arts & Sciences and Associate Dean for Faculty Development at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research examines how and why racial and gender inequality persists in professional occupations. Dr. Wingfield has lectured internationally on her research in this area, and her work has been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals including Social Problems, Gender & Society, and American Sociological Review. She is a former President of Sociologists for Women in Society (SWS) and the current President of the Southern Sociological Society (SSS), the largest regional professional sociological association in the US. In addition to her academic scholarship, Professor Wingfield has written for mainstream outlets including Slate, The Atlantic, Vox, and Harvard Business Review, and is the recipient of the 2018 Public Understanding of Sociology Award from the American Sociological Association. Her most recent book, Flatlining: Race, Work, and Health Care in the New Economy, won the 2019 C. Wright Mills Award.
We Built a Diverse Academic Department in 5 Years. Here's How.
Getting In, Getting Hired, Getting Sideways Looks: Organizational Hierarchy and Perceptions of Racial Discrimination
Host/Writer/Researcher -Tia Palermo, PhD
Guest - Adia Harvey Wingfield, PhD
Audio Editor - Omar Brown
Intro: Hello and welcome to Buffalo HealthCast, a podcast by students, faculty and staff of the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions. We are your co-hosts, Tia Palermo, Jessica Kruger, and Schuyler Lawson. In this podcast, we cover topics related to health equity here in Buffalo, around the U.S. and globally. In this first semester of the podcast, we're taking a deeper look at racism and health. We'll be talking to experts around the U.S. as well as individuals here on campus and in the Buffalo community who are working to remove inequities to improve population health and well-being. You'll hear from practitioners, researchers, students and faculty from other universities who have made positive changes to improve health, equity and inclusion.
Tia Palermo: Okay, hello and welcome to our SPHHP podcast. I'm here with Adia Harvey Wingfield, Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Professor of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. Adia, I'm delighted to be speaking with you today.
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Thank you for having me. I'm happy to be here.
Tia Palermo: This year we've launched a new podcast for the University at Buffalo School of Public Health and Health Professions, or SPHHP. In the first year of the podcast, we are broadly focusing on the topic of racism and health. And today I want to talk to you about one aspect of racism in academia: the hiring of faculty.
You were recently involved in hiring several faculty members for a new Department of Sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, an effort that you detailed in your article in the Harvard Business Review, which was entitled ‘We Built a Diverse Academic Department in 5 Years. Here’s How.’ Can you tell me a little about these efforts?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Sure. So I should say that when I came to Washington University in 2015, I was actually hired as part of a small cohort that was tasked with building the sociology department from the ground up. The university did not have a department prior to my arrival with my two senior colleagues, and our job primarily was to change that pretty much, and to do the work of making sure that the department grew into a top sociology department.
And one of our shared goals early on in those stages was that we really wanted to be indicative of the fact that departments can be really strong academically. They can do a great job focusing on research and teaching, but they also can do so in a way that prioritizes both excellence and racial diversity, and that contrary to what some might think, it's not impossible at all to meet both of those goals and to set those standards.
So our focus was on making sure that we certainly built an outstanding department, but that we did so with an eye towards what it would mean to be a racially diverse department in the university and in the discipline. And that's driven a lot of our focal points on hiring and outreach and building over the last five years.
Tia Palermo: That's great. Thank you. So how did your own research background - examining how and why racial and gender inequality persist in professional occupations - inform these efforts in building this department of sociology?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: That's a great question. I would certainly say that my own research gave me some insights into the types of pitfalls and challenges that many workers of color encounter when they are in spaces where they're in the racial and/or gender minority. I know a lot about that experience from the work that I've done in identifying what those challenges look like and some of the processes that workplaces and organizations engage in that can be unwelcoming or hostile to communities of color.
But I have to say that it wasn't really so much an issue of building from my own research as much as it was working collaboratively with my departmental colleagues and university administration, all of whom were very supportive and enthusiastic and shared this goal of wanting to make sure that we did have a racially diverse department. It was very much a team effort at a variety of levels, which is really critical and important for being able to achieve these goals.
Tia Palermo: When you and colleagues decided that you wanted the new hires to be racially diverse, did you face any pushback? So you talked about how you had support at multiple levels, but was there pushback from any corners and how did you overcome this?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Again, luckily we all were of the same mindset and the fact that we believe that racial diversity and really working to achieve it was important. So there were not issues internally around why this mattered or if we could do it or if it was something that we really wanted to focus on, or, again, this false dichotomy between diversity and quality. None of that was an issue at a department level, and certainly it was not an issue at the administrative level either. We're really very fortunate that we were very clearly supported in this goal by the administration and the workers that we dealt with that level, the dean, the provost, the chancellor at the time, were all very much on board with this being an important factor for us, which is part of why I write in the article that for these types of initiatives to succeed, I believe it's really critical to have support from multiple levels of leadership.
I think it would have been a lot more difficult for us to achieve the diversity that we did, if I were a lone voice with making this argument in a department with colleagues who did not share this principle. Similarly, I think it would have been very difficult for us to achieve the outcomes that we did if, as a department, we had to face a lot of headwind from the administration, if we were working with leaders who did not share our commitment to these values and see this as important. I think that my experience shows that the synergy along those lines indicates that change certainly is enabled when it comes from the top, but that that change also has to have buy-in at, what you might think of as middle management levels as well. But when you do have those synergies lining up, it really opens up a lot of potential doors and opportunities for what you're able to build and accomplish.
Tia Palermo: Thank you. When you were going through the hiring process, what efforts did you make for the candidates when they were visiting? Both so that they would feel that Washington University in St. Louis was a welcoming environment for them, and then once you hired candidates, how did you make them feel welcomed and supported once they arrived on campus as new hires?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Yeah, that's a great question. So when going through the interview process, I think it's really critical to make sure that people get a feel for what their experience on that campus will be like, should they decide to join the department. So you have to make sure that people see that there are opportunities for them that relate to the things that they want to pursue.
If you have a candidate who might, for instance, be interested in studying issues related to immigration, it's important to let that candidate know that not only rebuilding that in our department, but there are other people on campus that you might want to connect with who are doing this kind of work. We're talking about attracting faculty of color. It's critical for faculty of color to see that they won't be alone, isolated or excluded in everyday campus interactions and deliberations.
So I think it's really key to make sure that when you are trying to recruit underrepresented minority faculty, it's important to make sure that they see other people on the faculty and that they have a chance to talk openly and candidly and privately with them about what their experience has been like, rather than having simply people tell them, "This is a great place for scholars of color," and "People are really happy." That doesn't carry as much weight unless you hear it from the scholars of color in question who can tell you again in a private setting where they can speak honestly whether or not that's that's actually true. So when we were recruiting candidates, we made sure to try to show them that there were links between their personal and professional identities, that the university recognized, respected and wanted to support so that if they accept an offer and they joined us in the university community, they would have a view from their interview with what that experience would look like for them up front.
When it comes to people actually being here, I think if you want to build on the groundwork that you've laid through the interview process to make sure that once people have accepted the offer, you can't then pull a bait and switch and have them in an environment where they and their work are not supportive and are not respected or treated equitably and fairly. So we a pretty robust mentoring program in our department to make sure that everyone has access to mentors and support and people who can guide their careers, particularly for assistant professors who are going through the tenure process. But we also make sure that assistant professors, particularly underrepresented minority faculty, continue to remain aware of and feel connected to the life of the university, whether, again, those are through initiatives and groups that speak to their personal identification and/or things that speak to their professional research interests.
Tia Palermo: So it sounds like you had a lot of support systems built in, in this department from the beginning. Do you have any examples of cross campus initiatives that help support those incoming candidates?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Sure. Well, so our vice president provost for diversity and equity and inclusion actually runs a number of initiatives that are designed to reach out to all areas of the university and provide those kinds of supports. There are informal activities. There are more formal activities. There are monthly lunches for women faculty of the university to make sure there's a sense of camaraderie in cohort building. There are also leadership development seminars for faculty of color who may be interested in pursuing those types of initiatives there, and that's just in one office. So there are a number of programs on campus that are in place to draw attention to the fact that if WashU is going to be a place that does want to take seriously these imperatives of diversity and equity and inclusion, it's not enough simply to say that. That has to be matched with clear, robust directives that speak to acknowledging those issues, tackling them head on and making sure that the university is working to do all it can to support faculty who are underrepresented.
Tia Palermo: Thank you for that insight. Have you seen the success that your own department effort has had, influence other departments or initiatives university wide in their hiring practices?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: It's a little hard to measure just because there's so much variance across arts and sciences and there's so many different disciplines within that one college alone that there's a lot of range among them. But I will say that I think that the fact that we have been so successful and done so well in building a racially diverse, academically strong department in a short period of time has certainly been recognized in the university community. And I think serves as a clear message and indicator to other departments that, again, this is something that's possible to do with the right programing, plans, commitment and initiatives in place. I will say that I do think that the work that we have done that functions to show that this is a step that that departments can take, to follow this lead.
Tia Palermo: That's great. And it really is an impressive group of scholars that you have in your department.
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Thank you.
Tia Palermo: You have a recent paper entitled ‘Getting In, Getting Hired, Getting Sideways Looks, Organizational Hierarchy and Perceptions of Racial Discrimination.’ The participants in that study were from the health care industry, not academia. But in this work, you demonstrated that position in the organizational hierarchy is linked to perceptions of racial discrimination, whereby individuals at the top of the hierarchy, some examples in that study where doctors, reported fewer individual incidents of racism but identified more structural and organizational discrimination as compared to individuals lower in the hierarchy. Examples of structural discrimination included the education pipeline, hiring decisions, and developing a mentoring relationship, something you spoke about earlier. What parallels can you draw between that study and implications in academia, given that academia is also vertically ranked in terms of students, professors and hierarchy among professors?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: So that's another great question. And I first want to offer the caveat that the study, as you mentioned, is focused exclusively on health care workers. So I think that there likely are some parallels, but I don't want to give the impression that I'm speaking from data when I answered a question. I did not interview primarily academics. So I cannot say with certainty that the patterns that I described among health care workers would necessarily be present among people in academia. But that said, I do think that it's at least likely to, I think it's safe to hypothesize that there may be some comparable outcomes and there might be some some parallels, right? So by way of example, when we think about how academia is hierarchically organized and how it's very hierarchically structured and ordered in a lot of ways around similar ideas of status and prestige, I think that it may certainly be the case that for faculty, the experiences that they cite with how race has an impact on their work may certainly be more likely to include more structural processes as well as the more interpersonal ones, which was what I found with with actors in my study.
They cited that there were some cases when they had interpersonal experiences with racial discrimination. But as you mentioned, by and large, what stood out for them were the structural barriers that made it difficult to advance into and thrive in medicine and in physician work in particular. I think it's not difficult to speculate that similar processes might be true for black faculty and certainly for black administrators in ways that I think might reflect different outcomes. If we're talking about black employees of a university who are in staff positions, particularly if they maybe a lower level staff positions that don't offer the same autonomy or status or ability to shape one's work environment.
That, I think, is certainly true for professors. So I think that there are likely some comparable outcomes that we would see between academia and the health care industry. Even though the study didn't focus on those fields, I think it's safe to guess at least, and hypothesize that the higher one is positioned in the organizational hierarchy, the more impact that may have on perceptions of racial discrimination in academia as well. But that's a question for maybe a future graduate student to just study a little bit further and to see if my hypothesis is correct.
Tia Palermo: That's great. We're exploring ideas for future research here. Thank you. Can you say anything about the resistance to hiring more than one underrepresented minority in a department or what's sometimes termed as the ‘only one’ syndrome? Have you seen this played out?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Fortunately, in my current department, that's not an issue that we have. Like I said, we've worked hard to make sure that we do have a racially diverse department, both among our top ranks of faculty who are full professors, and that that continues throughout the department as well at the untenured ranks as well. But I will say that this experience of being the only one or organizations that seem to feel as though hiring one person at a high level ranking is sufficient and gets the job done, is not only something that exists, but something that is inaccurate in terms of the ability to really diversify an organization or a level of an organization.
Research indicates pretty clearly and conclusively that when workers are white women or people of color, and they are underrepresented in positions to the point where they are the only or one of very few at that organizational level, they’re are a lot more likely to be mistrustful of the organization's commitment to equity and equal opportunity. They are, if they are women, more likely to experience sexual harassment, they are more likely to consider leaving and they are less likely to be satisfied with their employment in that company.
So organizations in many cases may see this idea of this only hiring phenomena as progress. right? That we've got one person in our C suite, and we've done a great job because we've got one person at this executive level, so we can brush up our hands and say we've solved that diversity problem. But again, that's short sighted and it's not correct. And it comes with creating an environment where in the short term, you may be able to say that you have this one person filling this role, but that one person's experiences are likely more challenging than they would be if they had a cohort experience of more robust representation. And if ultimately what that leads to is that person not producing as well as expected, or that person looking for other opportunities, or that person being disengaged from the organization. The organization is not really winning if they're not maximizing and making full use of that person's talents and opportunities.
Tia Palermo: That's a really great summary of how the challenges that the individuals can face, but also how those challenges can play out in adverse ways for the organization as well. What would your response be to people or departments who say we've tried to diversify our hiring, but qualified scholars of color either aren't accepting our offers or they have too many offers to choose from. They don't want to come here.
Adia Harvey Wingfield: One wants to know what exactly trying to diversify your hiring looks like. Does that mean making an offer to one person? And then if and when that one person declines, not trying again? Does it mean trying to hire someone that you know is already in demand from other places who has multiple other options, and then saying, well, we made an effort, but this person just doesn't want to be here. These people don't want to be here. There not much more that we can do. Does it look like that?
If that's the case, I would not really find that to be such a compelling argument. I'll put it that way, right? I mean, we know if we look at data that there, in most cases, research indicates, are more candidates of color available for positions than there are actually positions. So given that mismatch, it's not that we see the glut on the supply side, right. The issue is not that we see the narrowing on the supply side, more so on the demand side. And if that is the mismatch, then it strikes me that most departments, if they really have the will, if they really have the interest, if they really want to put the work into finding really strong candidates of color, this this is achievable. And I think that my department and the success that we've had indicates that this is achievable, right?
But it may mean not simply going back to your networks of people that you already know and looking for candidates through them. It might mean looking for candidates through other networks that are specifically inclusive of and designed to include candidates of color. It may mean reaching out to people and explicitly saying that you really want to have a racially diverse applicant pool and asking your connections and your networks to make sure that they mentioned that you have an available job and encouraging candidates of color that they may be advising to apply for this position on top of the accessing list servs and professional organizations and things like that, that are more racially diverse.
Those might be critical steps that organizations have to take when it comes to hiring. But I believe that doing so really has implications for what the applicant pool looks like. I'll also say that taking those first steps should not be the sum total of what those efforts to racially diversify looks like, because if organizations take those early steps and build an early pool of candidates that are racially diverse, but then as we go through the whittling process, somehow it just happens that you happen to whittle out all the candidates of color. You want to be a little bit more reflexive at that middle stage about what you're a long short list is looking like, or what your fly out list is looking like, or whatever you want to term it. So I would say that I don't really think in this day and age when organizations or departments say that they've tried, but they are simply unable to hire candidates of color. That makes me wonder what processes they are using to engage in hiring, because it makes me suspect that perhaps it's those processes that are returning a dearth of strong candidates of color, more so than a lack of strong candidates of color really being out there.
Tia Palermo: There's some really great recommendations in there about directly reaching out and exploring new networks, and making sure that the early steps in the process are not just where it ends. So those are really great suggestions. Thank you. What advice do you have for departments? Probably some similar advice along those lines, but advice for departments who are aiming to diversify but perhaps can't do so as rapidly on the scale that your department did?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: So that's a great question. And one thing to acknowledge about our department is, like I said, when I started, we were brand new, we knew that we had to build. We had support for from our administration for doing a lot of hiring in a short period of time because we had to. And I obviously recognize that every department is not going to be in a position where they are granted 10 hires in the state of three years. I think most departments are not going to be in that position. Again, that said, that does not necessarily mean that it's impossible to achieve these goals. And the fact that our department had these hires didn't necessarily automatically translate into making sure that our hiring process would turn out to be racially diverse. That didn't happen just because we had hires. That happened because as a department, we made an explicit, intentional commitment to making sure that that was the outcome and that that commitment was supported by administration. Had we not had that commitment and had administration not been supportive of it, we could have very easily not had a racially diverse department. I could have not written that article at all because there wouldn't have been anything to talk about. So I say that to make the point that most departments are not going to be in a position where they're doing that much hiring that quickly.
However, I recognize that we're in a pretty difficult situation now for many universities where budgets are lean and positions may be cut, but knock on wood, eventually we've got to get to another side where universities and departments do begin hiring again. When we do get to that point, I think that any department is in a position where they can follow these steps. Think about how you are initially seeking candidates for open positions in your departments. Are you simply posting an ad on a list serv and waiting for people to come to you? Or are you actively trying to cast a wide net so that you can attract candidates of color to want to apply to your department? Once you are going through the applications that you have, are you doing so with an eye towards making sure that you are not somehow systematically weeding out candidates of color from those who make the initial applicant list to those who make the long shortlist? Are you doing the same thing when it comes to your your fly out list? When you do bring in candidates, if you do bring in candidates of color, are you making sure that on the campus visit you are not creating an experience that is alienating? Are you making sure that they have access to or have a window into what their experience of campus life would look like, were they to be hired? And if you ask yourself that question and the answer is that the window of what campus life would look like for a candidate of color is campus life would be pretty bleak, that's a point to some bigger issues that could be useful to reconcile. What would it take to make your university campus one that is approachable and welcoming and inclusive of a variety of candidates of color? If that's something that is a sticking point at that point, it's useful, I think, to have a bigger conversation to raise these bigger questions of how the university at large may want to change, to be a place that is more attuned to the importance and need for more racial diversity on campus.
Tia Palermo: Thank you for that. So we've been talking a lot about the hiring side. But let's flip it. And do you have any advice that mentors and advisors should give their underrepresented minority PhD students, when they're going on the job market in terms of finding an environment that's a good fit?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: That's a great question. Again, I think that it's useful to look at the experiences that faculty in a place already have a place. Right. So if you are a mentor or an adviser to a person of color who's going on the job market, I think it's useful to encourage them, and they may already be thinking this, but I think it's useful to encourage them to get a sense of what life in that department and in that university would be like. If they are applying to departments where the department in question hasn't tenured any faculty of color. Are they applying to a department where the department in question hasn't ever hired any faculty of color? Those are things that are going to matter, and those are things that the faculty of color have to navigate when making employment decisions and weighing particular particular options.
So I would encourage mentors and advisors to make sure that they are assisting their advisees in doing the legwork of finding out what the general climate and experience for them is going to be like. You don't want, in my view, simply to say that you want to send someone to a top rate program in whatever field if being in that environment is going to be miserable for that person. In my view, that is simply not worth it. Other people may think differently and probably do think differently. But I think that that's not a fair trade off to ask junior faculty of color to make when they are looking for employment.
So I think it's important for advisers to make sure that they take into consideration that advisers of color have a relatively unique experience and that they consider what the entirety of department and university life will be like for them as people of color in these settings, and to make sure that that is a factor that they weigh in determining whether to apply for positions and ultimately whether to accept.
Tia Palermo: Some really great advice for advisors and PhD students on the market.
This has been really insightful. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our listeners about the topics or related topics that we've been talking about?
Adia Harvey Wingfield: I believe I would just add that I think this is really a critical moment for universities right now for a lot of reasons. We are seeing the ongoing protests for more racial equity and an end to systemic racism in society right now. We are at a point where the nation is becoming increasingly multiracial. Students of color are growing numbers of those who are attending universities. The numbers of faculty of color have not necessarily shifted in commensurate ways.
And this presents a real problem that I think universities need to devote some time and energy and effort into tackling. That kind of mismatch, in my view, does not bode well for outcomes for students. But not only that, it doesn't necessarily bode well for universities as we continue to move into the 21st century and becoming a more racially, more multiracial society. I believe that universities will be largely better equipped to come to terms with those demographic changes if they actually reflect those demographic changes. So I think it's really critical to grapple with these questions of how best to do that in ways that make sure that both students and faculty are adequately represented and completely included in environments that have a long history of being very exclusive and unwelcoming and alienating and hostile.
Tia Palermo: Adia, this has been so insightful and really a pleasure to speak with you. I really just want to thank you for sharing your insights with me and with our listeners here at SPHHP. It's been really great to talk to you. Thank you.
Adia Harvey Wingfield: Thank you for having me. I'm happy to do it.
Outro: This has been another episode of Buffalo HealthCast. Tune in next time to hear more about health equity in Buffalo, the US, and around the globe.