Building gender equity in the academy (Laursen & Austin, 2020)

After being “invited” to do some service work because someone noticed “that there was nobody on the committee without a beard” (gee, thanks for making me feel like you appreciate my qualifications!), and then the next day feeling all kinds of stereotype threats triggered in a video call where I noticed I was the only woman out of more than a dozen people, I finally read Sandra Laursen & Ann E. Austin’s book “Building Gender Equity in the Academy. Institutional Strategies for Change” this weekend. And it was great!

The book compiles many years of experience in the NSF’s ADVANCE program into a compelling collection. After setting the scene and describing the structural problems that women face in academia, all based on hard data that show the scope of the issue, the whole book is basically a call to action to “fix the system, not the women” while giving actionable suggestions for how to do this.

The book is structured along four main themes:

  • Many processes in recruitment, hiring, tenure, and promotion are biased, but there are ways to counteract the biases.
  • Workplaces themselves need an overhaul to make them more equitable, for example by addressing institutional leadership, improving climate at departments, or making gender issues more visible.
  • People need to be seen and supported as whole persons if we want to attract diversity into the workplace, for example by  supporting dual-career hires, allowing flexibility in work arrangements, or providing adequate accommodation.
  • While we are still working on the whole system becoming more equable, individual success of people who are already in the system can be supported by providing grants, development programmes, or mentoring and networking

For each of the four main themes, four strategies are presented together with different examples of how the strategy has been implemented in one of the ADVANCE projects, and reflections on how it worked.

The authors explain that even though their focus in the book is on gender (because the program that funded the projects they were evaluating was one focussing on gender), all the strategies most likely work for increasing diversity for other characteristics, too.

I found this really interesting from several different perspectives:

  • As someone who wants to support cultural change, I like that this book gives actionable suggestions and reflections on how they worked in different contexts. It will be great to refer back to this book whenever I see that there is potential for changes in policy and procedures, because there will certainly be good ideas in there that have already been tested and that we can build on! For everybody working in uni admin in any capacity, I would totally recommend keeping this book close by
  • As a woman in science, I used to be very active and on the leadership board of the Earth Science Women’s Network, where I met Sandra and really appreciated her perspective on things (and that she would join me for early morning swims in the lake!) and I’m just super happy to see that there is such a great body of work that we can all build on together and change things!
  • As someone who’s getting more and more interested in exploring the literature on faculty development and cultural change, this is a really good review of the literature related to gender equity in the academy. This is a great starting point for quickly finding relevant literature on this topic

So there is really no reason for anyone to not pick up this book and learn how to build gender equity in the academy :)


Laursen, S., & Austin, A. E. (2020). Building gender equity in the academy: Institutional strategies for change. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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