Kelly J. Baker

Editor at Women in Higher Education

The Myth of the Academic Lottery

Full lotto

Image: Lotto, by Flickr user Duca Di Spinaci

“I’ve won the academic lottery” is a phrase I’ve heard countless times. It usually signals that someone has acquired one of those elusive tenure-track jobs. It’s a way to announce your new position (hooray!) while also admitting that luck played a significant role in your entrance to the tenure track (sorry, not sorry).

While I appreciate the attempt to reckon with the mysterious yet fateful nature of academic hiring, this phrase hinders more than it helps. To say you’ve won the lottery overshadows the structural realities of the job market, which are significant factors in why you won the game and whether you deserved to. The insistence on lottery language pushes against the claims that academia is a meritocracy. Did chance or merit determine your hire? It becomes to hard to say. Does hiring in academia amount to a lottery? I doubt it.

What frustrates me about “I’ve won the academic lottery” is the suggestion that faculty hiring might actually be a game of chance. It isn’t.

The game is not fair. Hundreds of qualified candidates compete in an arena in which only one gets the gig. Yet all participants don’t have equal footing. Gender, race, age and class status all matter greatly in hiring, even if we would like to imagine that they don’t. Numerous studies showcase that job candidates are judged by their names regarding ethnicity, race, and gender. Implicit bias and discrimination influence who gets hired and who doesn’t. This is not about the luck of the draw.

Demographics suggest the racial and gendered politics of academic hiring. As of 2011, 75 percent of full-time instructional faculty members were white, and 44 percent of the faculty were white men. Among professors, 60 percent were white men (a figure that is down by only 3 percent since 1999), while 25 percent were white women, 4 percent were Black, 3 percent were Latino, and 8 percent were Asian/Pacific Islanders. (The gender breakdown of those last three groups was unavailable.)

In short, academia is overwhelmingly white and predominantly male. What does that tell us about academic hiring? Academia reflects the common bias and prejudice prevalent within our culture. There are more CEOs named John than female leaders of big companies; neither is the ivory tower immune to the glass ceiling.

Recognizing how cultural bias influences academic hiring is often difficult because of those tired assumptions that academia is a meritocracy. In “The Paradox of Meritocracy,” Emilio Castillo and Stephen Bernard demonstrate that workplaces that claim to value meritocracy instead show bias in favor of male employees over equally well-performing women. The assumption of meritocracy, and the supposed objectivity of merit, benefits men. When combined with cultural gender schemas that mark women as inherently incompetent and men as competent, it shouldn’t be surprising that men get hired into the tenure system and women dominate the contingent ranks.

But it gets worse. The American Association of University Women’s new report, Solving the Equation, explores the shortage of women in engineering and computing despite increased recruiting efforts in STEM fields. What the report shows again and again is that hirers, both men and women, tend to select male job candidates regardless of qualifications.

More distressingly, bad hiring decisions (choosing the low-performing candidate) are even more gendered. When employers made decisions based on the appearance of the candidate, they were more than twice as likely to pick a man over a woman. By contrast, when employers had clear metrics to evaluate the candidate’s past job performance, they were 81 percent more likely to pick the top performing candidate.

What can we do to remove implicit bias from academic hiring?

Start by taking the Implicit Bias Test. Read and learn about how implicit bias affects faculty hiring. Set clear criteria for a job search with minimum qualifications for the position. Employ blind auditions. Symphony orchestras were notorious for gender imbalances. When they employed auditions in which they couldn’t see the musician, more female musicians were hired. For academic searches, that would require removing the names from applications and then assessing candidates on their qualifications.

Or maybe, we should make academic hiring a true lottery.

Writing in The New York Times, Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, argues that institutions should rely on a lottery system for admissions. Each campus should create a set of criteria to determine precisely what students need to maximize the chance of being successful there. Each student, then, would only need to be “good enough” to meet the criteria for the college. At that point, the student’s name would be dropped into the proverbial hat and selection would be by lottery.

Students would be relieved of the pressure of being the best and would just have to be good enough. As Schwartz notes, “Any honest admissions dean will tell you that the current system already is a lottery. Only now, it’s disguised as a meritocracy.”

What would happen if we ran faculty searches this way? There are so many qualified applicants for each position, so departments should have to figure out what are “good enough” criteria for a faculty member in their department. Open the process up to chance. Put all those names in a hat and draw. Then it really would be an academic lottery. Dismiss those narratives of meritocracy, and maybe academia’s demographics would start to reflect the diversity of the applicant pool.

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