As part of her efforts to improve workplace climate at her institution, Jennifer Sheridan runs workshops teaching strategies for addressing unconscious biases.

Eve Fine

How a sociologist is pushing to improve academia’s workplace climate

After starting her career in computer science in the late 1980s, Jennifer Sheridan knows firsthand how a male-oriented culture can drive women out of the job. The female employees at the software company where she worked regularly faced harassment, she says. When Sheridan presented her work at meetings, questions would go to her male co-workers, not her. Her 3 years in that work environment motivated her to leave computer science and go to graduate school in sociology to study women working in male-dominated occupations. “You can recruit all the diverse people you want, but if you don’t have a good working environment, they’re not going to stay,” she says.

Today, Sheridan works to address these types of issues at the University of Wisconsin (UW) in Madison, as executive and research director of the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute (WISELI). She has found that female faculty members at her institution almost always have less favorable views of their department’s climate—reflected in the department’s unspoken expectations and interpersonal relations—compared with male faculty. Moreover, faculty members of color and those with disabilities rate their department climates worse than their colleagues do. Yet, faculty members from well-represented groups—based on race, gender, and disability status—tend to overestimate their underrepresented colleagues’ satisfaction. Sheridan’s goal is to close these gaps by training professors on countering unconscious biases that create obstacles for members of underrepresented groups, and by working with department chairs to tackle climate issues head on.

Based on 15 years of surveying UW faculty members about their departments’ climates, WISELI’s programs have had some successes. For example, new faculty members who joined departments that participated in WISELI’s workshop on recruiting diverse candidates report greater satisfaction with the hiring process than those in departments that did not take the workshop, Sheridan says.

But department chairs—who are in the position to set the tone for the department and make concrete changes—aren’t always motivated to care about climate, she adds. This is partly because they often don’t think that their departments have climate problems in the first place. According to survey results, department chairs—usually white men—generally overestimate their colleagues’ perceptions by the largest margins.

Providing them with data showing that their view is inaccurate triggers an “‘Oh, maybe I don’t know what’s going on’ reaction,” she says. However, even if the data convince the chairs that there’s work to do, they’re not necessarily eager to take action. Some fear that wading into work environment issues will stir up interpersonal conflicts, which chairs are often not trained to handle and which take a lot of time and hard work to resolve. “They would rather keep the peace by not talking about them,” Sheridan says.

To give chairs compelling, concrete reasons to care about department climate, Sheridan started examining the tangible outcomes associated with department climate. Her first study on the topic reported that, in biological and physical sciences departments, a collegial climate—an environment where faculty members feel included in the department’s informal network and feel that their colleagues value their research, among other factors—increased the number of papers that faculty members produced. Moreover, collegiality impacted men and women equally, which Sheridan plans to emphasize when she presents the data to department chairs. “A lot of times, improvements in department climates are phrased as a way to, say, make women happier or help women’s productivity,” she says, but according to her findings, “really it helps everybody’s.”

Her findings about departments that promote work-life balance, on the other hand, don’t fit so neatly into WISELI’s mission. In departments where faculty members reported feeling comfortable heading out early to catch a kid’s soccer game or requesting family leave or a tenure-clock extension, for example, faculty members published fewer papers, and the drop was most dramatic among senior women. (Sheridan thinks this could be because they are starting families after receiving tenure.) Sheridan worries that seeing this publication drop-off may discourage chairs from encouraging work-life balance. She notes, though, that there could have been improvements in other outcomes she didn’t examine, such as publication impact, faculty retention, and service activities, and she plans to look into these further in future studies.

Changing workplace culture is slow. The discrepancy between male and female faculty experiences, for example, has persisted over the 15 years WISELI has been working to improve climate. However, Sheridan is optimistic that the gap will close. It has already for LGBT faculty members, she says, as recent survey results show. Sheridan attributes the success to a broader societal change in attitude, not to WISELI’s initiatives. But, she says, “if we can change the culture for that group, we can do it for others.”

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