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Our department is currently hiring a new faculty member. At the moment, the faculty gender ratio in our department is very skewed, even for our field. I believe that this has a negative impact on the department environment.

There is general consensus among the grad students on which candidate we support. This candidate is highly qualified in terms of her research and teaching. Moreover, among all the candidates who have visited, she is the only one who has any experience with diversity initiatives and getting underrepresented groups into STEM. This is very important to many of us, especially since the department is planning to add an undergraduate program in the near future.

We are planning to write an open letter to the department in support of this candidate, citing her qualifications as someone who has worked to make science a more inclusive place for women and other underrepresented minorities.

My main question is is whether it is appropriate for us to additionally express our desire for a woman faculty member.

EDIT: Thank you for all of the answers, it certainly gives us a lot to think about. I would like to follow up on a couple things.

  • When I say something like "we think the department should hire a woman", I don't strictly mean that the next faculty should be a woman regardless of any other factors. Rather, I mean that the department should hire someone who will be able to relate to the issues women face in academia and STEM, and help champion female students in our department. The average woman will be in a better place to do this than the average man, so perhaps I should have been a bit more precise about what I meant in the original post.
  • While "diversity programs" designed to get underrepresented minorities into stem are discriminatory in the strictest sense of the word, they are in place to address systemic injustices which have existed for a very long time. The hypothetical examples of discriminating against men and women don't account for the fact that many gender/race imbalances in academia exist because of previous institutional discrimination.

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    could you add statistics? How many women, how many male faculty you have? what is ratio in student population? – aaaaaa Feb 3 at 2:10
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    Moderator’s notice: Answers in comments and extended discussions have been moved to chat. Please use comments only to suggest improvements to the question and mention related material. Read this FAQ before posting another comment. — Also, please refrain from using sarcasm and similar in answers and comments. It will be misunderstood. Finally, please remember to be nice. – Wrzlprmft Feb 3 at 8:51
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    What country are you in? There are very different legal prespectives in different places. – Chris H Feb 4 at 10:41
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    Howdy! Just some context questions about your environment: Is it normal for students to write letters requesting certain people be hired to teach them? Has this proven effective in the past? – Haakon Dahl Feb 4 at 12:56
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    The question's title feels a bit off. I mean, of course it's fine to request hiring a female faculty member; but, what's actually being asked if it's okay to request a faculty member because they're female. It may sound a bit more offensive when directly stated, but if that's the question, it ought to be clearly expressed rather than downplayed. – Nat Feb 6 at 22:07

14 Answers 14

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the new faculty should be female in order to help address the wildly disproportionate gender ratio in our current faculty.

This is not a good reason. Gender imbalance is fought by educating everybody (males, females and any possible group) equally and hiring the best people, regardless of their gender, not choosing people by gender; that's sexism.

The candidate that we support is highly qualified in terms of research and teaching. Moreover, among all the candidates who have visited, they are the only one who have any experience with diversity initiatives and getting underrepresented groups into stem. This is very important to many of us, especially since the department is planning to add an undergraduate program in the near future.

These are very good reasons to hire someone, and reasons to be proud being hired for. If I were her, I'd find disrespectful being hired first because I'm a woman and second because of these good reasons.

We are planning to write an open letter to the department in support of this candidate, citing her qualifications as someone who has worked to make science a more inclusive place for women and other underrepresented minorities.

Again, these may be good points to write in the open letter, but the fact that she's a woman shouldn't matter. She's a great candidate no matter what her gender is.

I find this logic of hiring women because they are women very sexist, towards both men and women. Towards men because they are at a disadvantage, towards women because you're treating them like kids, giving them a preferential route they don't need. Women can clearly be good enough to be hired just for their skills and not for their gender.

Fight for her to be hired if you think she's the best choice. Write the letter and explain why she's the best choice, that she's better than the other candidates because she is better, not because she's a lady.

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    The current gender imbalance exists because preferential treatment is given to men all along in one way or another. So pushing the question back to "educating the best people" raises the same issues. – Elizabeth Henning Feb 3 at 0:02
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    @ElizabethHenning I'm not sure I got what you mean so I won't answer, could you rephrase it please? – Run like hell Feb 3 at 0:05
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    -1 hiring the best people, regardless of their gender - While I agree with this sentiment, there are many roles of a faculty member, and when there is a large gender imbalance, the gender of one candidate can put them in a better position to do things like serve as a role model and mentor to female students. Who is to say what is best? Gender aside, it's hard to decide who are the "best" candidates. – Kimball Feb 3 at 4:30
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    I moved most comments to chat and left only a few standing that outline the main debate. If you post another comment, please make sure that it contains a direct, new criticism of what this answer proposes, and read this FAQ. If you want to argue for an alternative way of action, please post another answer (and perhaps link it here). If you want to reply to an existing comment, please take it to chat. Finally @Runlikehell: please consider editing your answer in reaction to comments. – Wrzlprmft Feb 4 at 7:16
  • Hiring a woman who is worse than the best man (but still good) can be beneficial for the college (to motovate female students). Of course, this is probably not fair (in the sense that the man is rejected only because of his gender) but can be the best choice. – guest3 yesterday
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If you write such an open letter and she is hired, there is a risk that rumor will spread that she was only hired because she is female and your open letter will help substantiate that rumor. Such rumors are harmful even if she was clearly hired on merit alone.

So consider the possibility that your letter does more harm than good. And, if you do write such a letter, make it clear that you think she is the most qualified candidate for the job, not that you think she should be hired for her gender.

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    I'm not voting on this, but the point should be made that traditionally marginalized people will be suspect for being hired because ... they belong to a traditionally marginalized group, as an "affirmative action" candidate ... whether or not that plays a decisive role. So, then, ... ??? – paul garrett Feb 3 at 5:14
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    @paulgarrett That is true, but such suspicions tend to get magnified by the existence of anything like a letter of support as proposed in the question (people who want to point to a hire as having been biased love to have something concrete to point to...). – Tobias Kildetoft Feb 3 at 9:46
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    @paulgarrett Yes, it's pretty hard to escape being labelled a diversity hire, but I imagine that the existence of such an open letter would make it much harder, especially if "open" means "easily googleable". – Thomas Feb 3 at 10:15
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    The risk is greater and a bit different. Without the letter, there is a risk of a rumor that she is a diversity hire. With the letter, the rumor will be true. – B. Goddard Feb 3 at 22:45
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    @TobiasKildetoft I do not see the problem, when following the question. If they want her because she is a woman, than she actually is the candidate because she is a woman. Why hide the reason, when its exactly the reason why you wanted her? – allo Feb 4 at 15:58
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(The answer is written from a US perspective but may apply in certain other countries as well - hopefully this is of some relevance for OP.)

I am not a lawyer, but I’m pretty sure that what you are proposing (taking gender into account in hiring of faculty) would be illegal in any public university in my state, and I suspect it may run afoul of other US states’ and perhaps US federal legislation. See here and here for more information. I advise you to inform yourself of the laws and policies where you are before writing any letters.

Asking your department to do something that breaks the law is not only completely inappropriate, but it even risks leading a risk-averse administrator to choose (consciously or subconsciously) to take the opposite course of action from what you are proposing, just out of fear that they might later be accused of illegal discrimination, with your letter being used as evidence that they acted out of impure motives.

I do think it’s probably appropriate (under reasonable assumptions about your institution’s culture being a relatively normal and healthy one) for you and other graduate students to express your opinions to the department about which candidate is most qualified for the position, based on objective criteria that are unrelated to gender.

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    I think the legal prohibition also exists at the federal level. E.g., this EEOC page eeoc.gov/laws/practices says, "It is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant because of his or her race, color, religion, sex (including gender identity, sexual orientation, and pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information." Basically the way these state and federal laws work is that they give a list of protected characteristics. Sex is always one of them, and the sexes are treated symmetrically. – Ben Crowell Feb 3 at 17:49
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    Not sure why this got down votes - in the US this is an extremely big deal and you cannot advocate that someone be hired solely on the basis of a protected category. – anonymous Feb 4 at 3:23
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    @zibadawatimmy I’m untroubled by the downvotes, but as for (1), the law seems clear that you cannot take gender into account in hiring. Do you have a reference for anyone suggesting that this is an “erroneous” interpretation? In fact the law in California explicitly forbids what you call “affirmative action”. Some people are unhappy about it, and try all kinds of things to bring affirmative action back through various back doors and guises, but the law is what it is. I’m not taking sides about whether it’s good or bad, just stating facts. Downvoting my answer would be shooting the messenger. – Dan Romik Feb 4 at 8:54
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    @DanRomik No, I'm not aware of such things, I'm just positing that it generates confusion when you can do it (in some jurisdictions, or at least previously could have) for admitting students to improve the educational experience, but you can't do it for hiring professors for (ostensibly) the exact same reason. Since the question has been protected and marked as controversial, I'm risking a guess it's appeared in the HNQ list and we've got a lot of people voting who aren't necessarily intimately familiar with the (legal) workings of academia, but nevertheless have strong opinions about it. – zibadawa timmy Feb 4 at 9:01
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    Folks, this is getting off-topic and is unrelated to OP’s question. If you wish to discuss the minutiae of legal definitions of affirmative action and their history or similar things, can you please take it to chat? – Dan Romik Feb 4 at 23:25
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There is general agreement that more women in STEM would be a good thing. There appears to be considerable disagreement about how to achieve this. However, I would like to address the idea of the open letter specifically.

We are planning to write an open letter to the department in support of this candidate, citing her qualifications as someone who has worked to make science a more inclusive place for women and other underrepresented minorities.

My main question is is whether it is appropriate for us to additionally express our desire for a woman faculty member.

I may be slightly too risk averse, but I believe writing an open letter in support of a particular applicant (regardless of race, gender, etc) is ill advised for the following reasons:

  1. It is not clear if this candidate wants/needs your support. I presume the fact you are aware of her candidacy implies she has made the short list for the post on her own merits (if gender was a factor in this decision is unknown).
  2. The existence of such a letter and a (relatively) wide potential readership could be interpreted negatively by some groups. In my university it is not unusual for even trivial matters, such as the name of a student event, to make national news if it can be construed to be controversial. She may not want to have her name associated with such a potential controversy.
  3. If she is hired your letter may be pointed to as evidence of bias in the hiring process even if there was none. In an extreme case it could even lead to a lawsuit. The university would have to be very careful about how to respond to the letter and may decide it is safer to avoid the candidate.
  4. Your motivations for writing the letter may be questioned by some groups. Did you write it out of a genuine desire for more female faculty members or was she a friend/connection of yours and you're trying to manipulate the hiring process? (I think your intentions are genuine but others may see things differently)

If you would like to write an open letter advocating for more women academics in your department and highlighting the importance of making STEM more inclusive I think this could be a positive thing. But I don't think you should identify a particular candidate in the letter.

If you want to advocate for a particular candidate you should do so privately to the hiring committee. You could write a letter directly to the chair or discuss it with them in person. I also think this would be more effective.

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    - "could be interpreted negatively by some groups" --- "may be questioned by some groups. -- Rather, they may be interpreted or questioned by some individuals. People are real; groups are tools. – Haakon Dahl Feb 5 at 2:50
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It is certainly appropriate for you to express your desire for a particular candidate. In addition to writing to the chair of the department, it would also be helpful to contact the chair of the hiring committee (in case that individual is not the chair of the department).

If you are concerned about blowback for some reason, it would also be possible to write and submit the letter anonymously.

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    +1. You might want to suggest that the female students would be greatly aided by having one or more female mentors available in the faculty. I've known such appeals to be very effective, though it depends a lot on personalities, as you might expect. – Buffy Feb 2 at 21:59
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    The question doesn't ask whether it's appropriate to support a certain candidate, it asks whether it's appropriate to support a certain candidate because she's female. This doesn't address the question. – Ben Crowell Feb 3 at 17:45
  • @BenCrowell No, the question asks whether it's appropriate to cite the fact that she's female as a factor influencing the hiring. Nothing in the OP states that they only want her because she's female. – sgf Feb 10 at 20:10
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We are planning to write an open letter to the department in support of this candidate, citing her qualifications as someone who has worked to make science a more inclusive place for women and other underrepresented minorities.

Assuming that you value inclusivity (and most do, although some don't), then supporting her candidacy for her abilities and experience is entirely appropriate.

My main question is is whether it is appropriate for us to additionally express our desire for a woman faculty member.

Well, that does depend on how willing you are to be called out for sexism.

What is the difference between the following two statements:

  1. Hire him because we want a man in the position.

  2. Hire her because we want a woman in the position.

Oh, you can get all sorts of justifications, but the heart of it is that specifying the sex of a new hire as a job qualification is sexist. By definition.

Stick with the inclusivity argument. Everybody knows what you mean.

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    The consideration of every hire separately, without looking at the aggregate effect, often leads to the obvious problems. E.g., it's probably not exactly "we want a woman in the position", but, more like "we'd like at least one woman faculty member in the department, as opposed to all men"... I'd claim that it is very naive to pretend that people can look around themselves and ignore the fact that they are very unlike most of the other people in the room, and that the look of the other people is normative, etc... – paul garrett Feb 3 at 5:17
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    @paulgarrett - Well, yes. It's the great paradox of affirmative action. If you want the larger group to express the ideals, it is necessary to ignore those ideals when dealing with individuals, and vice-versa. Your comment is exactly correct, but it ignores the fact that selection is done on individuals, not a group, and selecting any individual based on sex is (again, by definition) sexist. The pattern goes way back. And if the sentiment being satisfied is, "we'd like at least one woman", well, congratulations - you've just established a quota. There are no good answers here. – James Martin Feb 3 at 19:37
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    @JamesMartin If you are sexist against women, then equality feels like sexism against men. So it is necessary to make the men feel uncomfortable just to gain equality. In other words, if not considering gender is leading to an inequitable outcome, then you must deliberately consider gender to achieve equality. Doing so is not sexist, it is antisexist. – Steven Gubkin Feb 4 at 18:43
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    @StevenGubkin - Regardless of comfortable/uncomfortable, is hiring based expllcitly on sex sexist? Yes or no? In common law justifiable homicide is not punished - it is, after all justified. Are you claiming that some sexism is justified? If so, say so and deal with the paradox, but don't take the common practice of refusing to call it what it is. – James Martin Feb 4 at 20:12
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    @StevenGubkin - You are avoiding the underlying paradox by labelling in terms of results, rather than actions. To say that hiring explicitly on the basis of sex is not sexism if it "counters the bias" is obviously tempting (and you have fallen for the temptation), but it opens the door to all sorts of travesties. I suggest you look at the incident at Ben Tre in 1968 - "It was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it." As a cartoonish extreme, if you counter the bias by assassinating the male faculty, is that "antisexism" rather then murder? By your demonstrated usage, yes. – James Martin Feb 5 at 14:48
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You can request that the process is thorough and, for example, short list is open. That is to prevent situation where candidates are all college buddies of some dude (because they went to all-male college or whatever).

You can influence the search processes, but hiring should be merit-based, and gender-neutral. However, in my opinion, "manels" appear because of lack of outreach and openness rather than "we couldn't find female candidates". So when people say

you should hire more women

what they mean (IMHO) is

check your process so that you don't follow implicit and explicit biases

For example, does your college provide day care? Or parental leave? Is there some controversial situation that is unresolved? (see what's up with my school)

And of course, you as students have (limited) power to nominate more candidates you deem high-quality. Nobody can stop you from telling your deans or professors "you should also consider X, Y, and Z because we love their work"

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    There is no reason to believe that when people say "hire more women" they actually mean some subtle and nuanced and completely different thing. Listeners are entitled to believe that people mean what they say. – Ben Feb 7 at 3:12
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This only applies in the United States.

Our department is currently hiring a new faculty member. At the moment, the faculty gender ratio in our department is very skewed, even for our field. I believe that this has a negative impact on the department environment.

It is illegal to consider gender. You could find that if a man were hired, they would alter the environment in the same way you are imagining a woman would. What should matter is whether or not prior or existing hiring practices were/are discriminatory, which resulted in a skewed gender ratio. For example, it can be illegal to hire by word of mouth if that method results in an all male or all female environment. Did you put the desire to alter the departmental environment in your advertisement for the position? If you did, then people of both genders would respond on how they have skills to do that. If someone has certain skills that were not advertised for you cannot assume the others lack them if they do not believe they are supposed to show the skill. Are you hiring based on criteria you did not place in the ad?

This candidate is highly qualified in terms of her research and teaching. Moreover, among all the candidates who have visited, she is the only one who has any experience with diversity initiatives and getting underrepresented groups into STEM. This is very important to many of us, especially since the department is planning to add an undergraduate program in the near future.

This is an appropriate reason to support a candidate if you placed in the advertisement. If you have an ad that says we are hiring based on X, Y, Z and you support them because of A, then you may have a problem. Did you ask the other candidates if they had experience in this? They may, but may have felt it not relevant to the advertised job. In Watson vs Fort Worth Banking and Trust, the court held that if discretionary criteria were used then suit could be brought under equal employment laws if there was a disparate impact. This sounds like disparate impact to me but in the opposite direction of usual enforcement.

We are planning to write an open letter to the department in support of this candidate, citing her qualifications as someone who has worked to make science a more inclusive place for women and other underrepresented minorities.

Also appropriate, although weird. By the nature of an open letter, it is open, which means it can be used by losing candidates in lawsuits for improper hiring practices.

My main question is is whether it is appropriate for us to additionally express our desire for a woman faculty member.

It is illegal for anyone with the power to consider a candidate's appropriateness to consider gender. If you are considering gender and you have a vote, then you are in violation of US civil rights and employment laws.

When I say something like "we think the department should hire a woman", I don't strictly mean that the next faculty should be a woman regardless of any other factors. Rather, I mean that the department should hire someone who will be able to relate to the issues women face in academia and STEM, and help champion female students in our department. The average woman will be in a better place to do this than the average man, so perhaps I should have been a bit more precise about what I meant in the original post.

This is gender discrimination. The illegal assumption is that men are unable to relate to women and their issues. It is not legal to assume that a woman can do something better than a man or a man better than a woman. You are confusing skill and knowledge with gender. You are assuming that men are unaware of their environment or the work or professional issues women face. You are also assuming they cannot encourage women into STEM. The US Department of Education is investigating complaints on this under Title IX currently.

While "diversity programs" designed to get underrepresented minorities into stem are discriminatory in the strictest sense of the word, they are in place to address systemic injustices which have existed for a very long time. The hypothetical examples of discriminating against men and women don't account for the fact that many gender/race imbalances in academia exist because of previous institutional discrimination.

In Wards Cove Packing Co. v Antonio, the court ruled that you cannot consider the cumulative effect of past practices, but only specific policies. So if discrimination existed in the past resulting in a current imbalance, then prior women who were not hired may file suit, but it is against the law to now discriminate to fix a prior policy. Affirmative action for students comes under a very different legal structure than employment discrimination and rely on different parts of the legal code.

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Please, do yourself a favor and skip the [sex, gender, skin pigmentation, ...](delete as appropriate) of the candidate at all.

It does not matter whether the candidate wears skirt or trousers. It does not matter whether the candidate prefer a night with a man, woman or both.

The other qualities do matter: their qualification, their teaching and mentoring skills, their research work, their managerial skills...

If you mention or even highligh their sex, the message you actually deliver is:

We want her beacuse she is a woman. Period. No matter how bad she is compared to other candidates.

Your message, on the other hand, needs to be:

The candidate we are supporting is the best candidate in the list.

Build the open letter on truthfully higlighting why you think the candidate is the best.

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    I think it's more about gender than sex here, could you consider editing to swap? I think that when it comes to employment discrimination, what's involved is of which gender a person appears or claims to be, not about what nature gave them for sexual organs. – avazula Feb 6 at 9:47
  • My answer was about all sex, gender, preferences and skin colour. It was about anything that "matters" although the qualities that truly matters are marginalized. I think the [whatever] discrimination truly vanishes when all possibly discriminating factors will be ignored at all. – Crowley Feb 12 at 15:39
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My main question is is whether it is appropriate for us to additionally express our desire for a woman faculty member.

It is not appropriate. Full stop. How can you think it can be?

(Being a female is not related to competences or work done or brilliant mind or attitude... or whatever! What kind of job selection could be that which starts from such a factor? Think twice!)

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In current circulation, the common phrase people throw around is "We need more ____ in (advanced positions)" or "more representation for _____ in (advanced positions). This is a result, obviously. Meaning starts to get lost when people interpret the statement as implying "we need to correct for (discriminating criterion) when we position leaders", which is not what people mean when they say that at all. The means to achieve that result is not discrimination based on sex or race or what have you. That said,...

Mentioning gender at all is a sure way to spark backlash. If you're not hiring her specifically based on sex, don't mention it. The key is to mention in this letter the results she will achieve for the company. Refrain from all speculation on why she will achieve this.

Your letter could go something like this:

We believe she should be hired, as she is the best candidate for the job. Among other merits, she has experience with diversity initiatives and getting underrepresented groups into STEM.

You should not write:

We believe she should be hired because we need to support underrepresented groups in STEM.

That'll seem like you mean that you're hiring her due to her status as underrepresented.

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I can see this from two perspectives:

  1. The college benefits from recruiting. If the female candidate in question can help with STEM recruiting of females, it will bring more applicants (and money) to the college. The college could also then (later on) boast to be "in top-5 colleges for graduating female STEM grads" or what-not. (E.g., the college I go to boasts about being in the top-5 most diversified colleges in the US due to all the exchange students it brings in.)

  2. The college is about cranking out research, not balancing gender gaps. As such, they won't care about what gender someone is, or what value they bring to gender diversification initiatives. They're just looking at everything from a research puppy mill perspective, and will hire whatever workhorse they think can crank out the research.

(As a side note, while researchers get stuck teaching, teaching is not their main job. So, a researcher that can teach well is probably a secondary attribute the college considers, but not as highly as, say, students would prefer. Some colleges don't care about a researcher's teaching ability or past experience. It's all about research with them. All of this really hinges on what the college values: research vs. bragging about what they provide for the students.)

  • Unless you are a research professor, teaching is part of the job description of a processor, so even universities that value research expect their professors to be competent in front of a classroom. – anonymous Feb 4 at 3:25
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There are several examples worldwide of the best Universities posting academic jobs that are only open to women (most of the best unis in Australia have done this, including the Math department at the University of Melbourne [Australia], and the engineering department at the University of Adelaide). This is not a common practice though in most countries. Its generally only done when the department has a rather extreme gender imbalance.

The practice has been shown to drastically increase the quality of female applications for the position compared to open job advertisements. Women on average tend to apply less to positions where they don't feel they match the job description perfectly. For example, a male mathematician who works on partial differential equations that are often used by biologists, but who doesn't specialize in biological applications, is much more likely to apply for a job listed as "A/Prof in mathematical biology" than a similarly qualified woman. This is a big issue because academic committees often don't realize exactly what they want from the ideal candidate until they see the applicant pool. Often, great applicants don't fit the job description perfectly, and they get offered the job.

That said, I wouldn't author an open letter to the department requesting them to hire the female applicant. Instead, I'd write a confidential letter to the hiring committee offering strong support for this candidate. The letter should carefully explain why graduate students think she is the best for the position, and why the gender balance and inclusivity of the department has an effect on the department's performance. Most departments would take this letter very seriously, and it could sway the committee towards the candidate in the case where the decision is very close.

Note though that an open letter is not appropriate because many aspects of a job search (in many countries) is confidential and releasing the identity of candidates is a big no-no, and in some cases even illegal (depends on the country).

If they don't hire the female candidate, I think it is absolutely fair to schedule a meeting with the chair of the department (and potentially even higher up the academic administration) to discuss your concerns. They are legitimate. And any department worth a grain of salt would take these concerns seriously.

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My main question is is whether it is appropriate for us to additionally express our desire for a woman faculty member.

Let's make it simple: Do express that desire, but put it in a different letter. (And don't send the two together...)

Also, considering the harsh responses you've gotten here, instead of suggesting a sort of a counter-bias, claim that your department currently has a bias which must be corrected. That is, don't sail against the wind, but with it: Counter-bias for women is controversial, but bias in favor of men is unacceptable. Correcting the latter is, in practice, somewhat of the former. I wouldn't make personal accusations in such a letter, but would suggest forming a committee to review and suggest changes to the hiring process.

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