September/October 2020Vol.XXXIII No. 1

Push the Pause Button on Teleconference Interviews for New Faculty Hires

W. Craig Carter Amy K. Glasmeier Susan S. Silbey

Teleconference interviews are unfair to all faculty candidates, especially those with children at home. Evidence is mounting – the brunt of this unfairness falls upon female candidates.

Working and Zooming from home creates unexpected challenges for our faculty colleagues with children at home. For many of these, it compounds the stress of childcare that is apparent from MIT’s 2020 Quality of Life Survey1. The Administration’s response is important in recognizing and providing additional childcare support2 and adapting tenure policies in response to Covid-19. Rather than adopt one size fits all policies, however, if choosing to be a leader, the Institute should respond to the diverse conditions of and within our faculty. For example, a person with twins or triplets has a different need than someone with one child at home; a single parent is in a different situation than is a two-parent family. Some of the women faculty have asked that each case be treated separately. One size fits all eliminates local adaptation and discretion, restricting degrees of freedom in managing family responsibilities and places undue burden on women faculty.

Why is this so important? Data show that female faculty have already been disproportionally affected during Covid3. Men are submitting 50% more papers during the Covid era than prior to it, while there are estimates that women’s scholarly productivity has dropped by 50%4. The pandemic threatens the ability of young mothers to manage a work/life balance – and their daughters are observing the extra stress, extra work, and societal pressure that harkens back to the 1950s5.

Why shouldn’t we also err on the side of discretion and postpone faculty searches in the era of Covid? At this moment, we have few means of leveling the playing field for faculty candidates who face the same challenges.

Because we cannot take domestic status, gender, and identity into account during the interview process, we are hamstrung from repairing the inequity ourselves. But are we really? Only in an ideal, non-pragmatic, empirically unsubstantiated model of the world does this thinking prevail. We are expected to look past idiosyncrasies and focus on a person’s science. Variations from some abstract models of human behavior are condemned as irrational or poor quality. Yet, to ignore variation is certainly unscientific and the bias becomes intentional.

The emerging research indicates that faculty-hire evaluations are being adversely affected: a faculty candidate’s interruptions and distractions during a stressful interview provide catalysts for the emergence of implicit bias – systematic but unacknowledged variation in treatment by some category of difference. Or worse, the disproportionate interruptions and distracting comments provide self-justification for evaluators to vocalize such gender biases. If differential standards for assessing a candidate prevail in an institution that goes on record as opposing such actions, the implicit bias becomes explicit despite the institution’s regulations prohibiting such practices. Observing whether Covid-19 has had a measurable effect on hiring-related gender-inequity is a research topic being pursued by our social science colleagues: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7302767/.

Teleconference-only interviews put candidates with children at a marked disadvantage. If we cannot commit to postponing faculty searches now, then there is a partial remedy. There is good evidence –nationally and locally – to suggest that inviting observers to the hiring process enables full, yet less biased, discussion. Such an approach could be an enactment of faculty collegiality and a celebration of One MIT – and would be good practice going forward.


We have superb female graduate students and postdocs currently competing for faculty positions. Certainly, we want that competition to be fair for them. There is a recognition that Covid-19 inequities should be addressed in evaluating new faculty hires6. But, if we cannot (and we should not) take identity into account – how can we?

Let’s sequester those precious faculty hires until the Covid madness passes and then reenter at a time when the playing field is more easily and legally leveled. Let’s stop before we get further behind.

Footnotes
  1. 29% of female and 18% of male faculty indicated that they were somewhat or very dissatisfied with their ability to integrate the needs of [their] work with those of [their] personal/family life. 76% of female faculty have children living in the same household compared to 59% of male faculty. 72% of female faculty indicated being the primary caregiver for a child compared to 47% of male faculty (non-binary gender data was unavailable.
  2. https://hr.mit.edu/covid19/childcare-subsidy#:~:text=MIT%20is%20pleased%20to%20offer,19%20supplemental%20child%20care%20subsidy.&text=Employees%20may%20request%20a%20nontaxable,of%20three%20children%20per%20household
  3. https://www.natureindex.com/news-blog/decline-women-scientist-research-publishing-production-coronavirus-pandemic
  4. https://www.thelily.com/women-academics-seem-to-be-submitting-fewer-papers-during-coronavirus-never-seen-anything-like-it-says-one-editor/?fbclid=IwAR24svhKANR6tAE6GIgQURzuHLduXwzITsvuTTZoUJM0F_V413Pn_ubJ-rI,
    https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity
  5. https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2020/jun/18/uk-society-regressing-back-to-1950s-for-many-women-warn-experts-worsening-inequality-lockdown-childcare
  6. https://www.pnas.org/content/117/27/15378
    https://www.mtu.edu/advance/resources/articles-books/supporting-faculty-during-and-after-covid.pdf