Unlearning Sexism in Montana - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Unlearning Sexism in Montana

Unlearning Sexism in Montana

By Meghan Walsh


Because it’s 2016 — and some 80 percent of professors are still white men.

By Meghan Walsh

Jean Dixon was eight months pregnant when she was called for an interview for a geology faculty position at Montana State University a few years ago. Both sitting and standing were acts of will, it felt like there was a psycho bouncing around in her belly as if it was a room of white-padded walls, and at any moment she knew that little psycho might come bursting through. So she was surprised that the hiring committee, aware of the situation, asked her to come for an in-person visit that same week. And she was even more shocked when she told the recruiters women aren’t allowed to fly that close to the due date — and they asked if she would then drive the more than 1,000 often-desolate and snow-banked January miles from California to Montana. After Dixon said no, the committee said it would get back to her. 

What was less surprising: The earth sciences department didn’t have a single full-time, tenure-track woman at the helm of a classroom. And of the university’s 23 science, technology, engineering and mathematic departments, 81 percent of the faculty were white men. Dixon waited only halfheartedly for that return call. 

But the school did reach out again, and, the Dartmouth Ph.D. says, “I could tell someone had talked to them.” Dixon was right: There had been an intervention. Several years ago, with a National Science Foundation grant, a team of self-motivated faculty set out to see if they could bridge the gender gap to upper academia by recalibrating the hiring process. They didn’t undertake a particularly complex restructuring; instead, they made a cheesy, low-production webinar reminiscent of an ’80s corporate sexual harassment training video and brought a family advocate in to talk confidentially with finalists for 15 minutes during the interview process.

And guess what? It’s working. When her little girl was six weeks old, Dixon did go for a visit. The university also paid for her husband to come along and offered the new mom a private room to nurse every two hours. “I was interviewing them as much as they were me,” she says. The next semester, Dixon and two other women joined the department as tenure-track faculty. Quite the change from 2009, when only a quarter of the university’s new hires in science-related positions were female; for the past three years, it’s been roughly half. 

But it’s not just that recruiters are now 6.3 times more likely to make an offer to a female candidate, it’s that she’s 5.8 times more likely to accept it. The National Academy of Sciences recently suggested that the underrepresentation of women in academic science may not have as much to do with sexist hiring anymore as making the job more appealing to both sexes. So while universities spend millions of dollars trying to develop new tools to attract women to STEM, this campus of 15,000 students in little old Bozeman has shown that a few simple, inexpensive adjustments can go a long way.


Let’s start from the beginning. When it comes to attracting women to STEM professions, it’s a supply and demand issue. Sure, they have to be given opportunities to advance, but first they have to choose to go into the field — and stay in. When John Paxton became head of the MSU computer sciences department in 2007, there had been no tenure-tracked female faculty for 10 years, and only 11 percent of the student body claimed a double X chromosome. That’s not what it was like when the 53-year-old was in college. Nationally, the proportion of undergrad women in computer sciences peaked in the mid-1980s at 37 percent and has since dropped to less than 12 percent. Paxton’s theory, at least in part, is that back then the field didn’t have the same reputation that it does these days. 

For some college-age women, the idea of sitting beneath fluorescent lights with a bunch of Mountain Dew–drinking, Doritos–eating dudes obsessed with coding isn’t appealing. Paxton, the translucent-skinned, bespectacled grandson of an architect, thought he could make the atmosphere more palatable; he repainted the labs in hues of eggplant and lemon, dimmed the lights, added couches and made sure the Japanese paintings on the walls featured an equal number of women and men. He also changed CS-100 to “The Joy and Beauty of Computing,” rewriting the curriculum to be more conceptual than technical. “We’re trying to convey a different picture of what the field is like,” Paxton says. Today, female enrollment has grown more than 50 percent.

Alas, recruitment is nothing without retention. No matter how progressive Paxton is, he can’t replace the value of having a woman at the podium. For years, the department head conducted the candidate search the way it’s always been done — sometimes netting a lone lady candidate, to whom Paxton would ultimately offer the job (more likely than not, she’d turn it down). Then, in 2012, when the university began staging sexism interventions, Paxton learned another way: Make sure women are considering the job postings. That means contacting special societies, having staff personally reach out to their network, even rewording the ad itself. Men apply for a job if they think they’re 60 percent qualified, it’s said, but women hold themselves to 90 percent. Paxton learned to make the description broad, avoiding words that skewed masculine, like “ambitious” and “competitive,” and opting instead for, say, “accomplished” and “committed.”  

The next step was harder, though. It involved looking in the mirror.


Academics, it turns out, chafe against introspection as much as anyone. And sure enough, there were grumblings about “lowering standards to fulfill a quota” in Bozeman. The truth is, few are deliberate misogynists. Hiring committees — for the most part — don’t actively discriminate, says Rick Sander, co-author of Mismatch, a book about the unintended consequences of affirmative action. But they do tend to see their mini-mes as the nebulous “best fit,” perpetuating the unseen biases that are often etched into the subconscious: Type “computer programmer” into Google and pictures of white men show up; put in “nurse” and smiling women appear. The media and society constantly rebroadcast stereotypical images, leaving a cultural thumbprint on the mind.

But there’s good news: Pathways are malleable and can be prodded to form new associations, according to research from the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute. Indeed, when Al Zale takes me through Montana State’s webinar training, the aquatic wildlife conservation specialist seems to pick his words very carefully. He uses football recruitment metaphors and starts with, “We’re just here to help you get the best person.” Zale keeps the focus on objectivity, rather than discrimination and, God forbid, affirmative action. The curriculum teaches hiring staff to recalibrate their intuitions by making subtle adjustments, such as slowing down, setting specific evaluation markers rather than relying on gut instinct, and simply thinking inclusionary instead of exclusionary.

Political science professor Sara Rushing, who recently co-authored a study proving the effectiveness of the Montana State intervention method, says the real hurdle is building buy-in. Her next mission — along with equal rights advocates everywhere — is to convince faculty the value of diversity, and not just when it comes to gender but also sexuality, religion and race (the campus has only one tenure-tracked Black professor and no African-American ones). It’s a conversation the entire country is having and one the Supreme Court will soon weigh in on, when it decides the case of Abigail Fisher, a white student who sued the University of Texas at Austin for considering race in its admissions process after she was denied entry. Most experts anticipate that the current ruling, in favor of the university, will be overturned. And this after the high court in 2014 upheld Michigan’s ban on affirmative action in its public university admissions. Those cases involve race and students, but the same conundrum applies to hiring faculty: Is the point of promoting diversity the emotional and intellectual depth it brings, equality or redress for centuries of oppression?


Even if Zale doesn’t want to advertise it, the fight for gender symmetry sweeping the country is a type of affirmative action; studies confirm that with equally qualified male and female résumés, STEM hiring committees are more likely now to pick the latter. Julia Haggerty, who was hired along with Dixon, even went as far as to say she’s worried about the job prospects for one of her white, male postdocs.

And there are other problems that the movement creates. Haggerty recalls being at a bar with a bunch of engineers when a local article about MSU’s intervention study came out. To her dismay, the overwhelming sentiment among her group was one of contempt. Many women now at the top didn’t get any favors on their way up; they forfeited family and fought for every advance, so they’re not always sympathetic to the 21st-century working woman’s plight. In his book, Sander warns that preferences actually encourage stereotypes and breed animosity. Affirmative hiring practices “are a Band-Aid,” he says. “They don’t fix the structural problem.”

Consider this: More than 83 percent of women scientists have partners in academic science, but the most common reason they turn down jobs is because of their significant other. On his mission for diversity, Paxton had to hire a husband just to get the wife as well. But perhaps perception is half the battle. In the computer sciences elevator, on my way up to Paxton’s office, I end up surrounded by three other women. When we get to talking about some of the recent gender conversions, one says, “They’ve changed the face of the campus.”

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