An Inclusive Academy: Q&A with Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian

Why do most colleges and universities that embrace the ideals of diversity and inclusion fall short of creating truly diverse and inclusive academic institutions? In their new book, An Inclusive Academy: Achieving Diversity and Excellence, professors Abigail J. Stewart and Virginia Valian set out to understand the various obstacles that block the road to diversity, inclusion, and excellence, as well as to propose solutions for universities that seek institutional change. Below, Stewart and Valian field our questions about meritocracy, homophily, tokenism, and belonging. 

You mention throughout the book that inclusive practices and meritocratic ones aren’t at odds with each other, but instead go hand in hand. Why do you think so many people believe that the opposite is true, and how can we change their minds?

Most people want to think that they are fair and meritocratic, and fully intend to be so. The underrepresentation of women and people of color in positions of power and prestige is, on its face, a challenge to that perception that we live in a fully meritocratic world.   

Both men and women have schemas (similar to stereotypes) that represent men as more competent in professional settings, and most White people have schemas that represent Whites as more competent than African Americans.  We know that through a variety of different subtle experiments. However, rather than consider that their perceptions are faulty, many people prefer to think that their judgments are correct and that the skewed workforce is due to people’s abilities and accomplishments. We think that understanding how our perceptions work can reduce our confidence in their accuracy. Fortunately, by slowing down the evaluation process, and making it more systematic, it is possible to overcome the impact of these schemas.


What are some of the most effective ways to combat subconscious, biased tendencies such as homophily (preference for people we believe to be similar to us)? What are some obstacles to confronting these biases?

We advocate changing our procedures in ways that will make errors less likely.  We are fully committed to a meritocracy, and part of our critique is that we fall short in that area: we overestimate talent in some groups and underestimate it in others, and we are more comfortable with people who are familiar—like us.   Our cognition is fallible in areas that have nothing to do with education, gender, race, or ethnicity, or even with others being different from us.  We are, for example, too influenced by single examples.  If we experience rude flight attendants on a plane, we don’t want to fly that airline again, even though that occasion might have been highly atypical.  When you add in similarity in terms of education, gender, race, and ethnicity, those fallibilities are exacerbated.

We think it’s possible to make some changes in our behavior, but our preferences, such as homophily, will lead us astray unless we can reduce their effective range of action. 

People don’t want to think that they are biased, perhaps especially in academia.  But the data suggest that we are influenced in our evaluations of others by our reactions to their personal histories, their similarity to us, and our schemas.  It’s partly our belief in our own good nature, and our reluctance to see that our good will is not enough, that perpetuates the status quo.


How does diversity promote innovation? What are some other perhaps less-known advantages of diversity and inclusion?

Interesting problems require minds that do not think alike.  Diversity promotes innovation by its very nature, but only when the context encourages that diversity to contribute to problem-solving and innovation, rather than encouraging rapid consensus.  Innovation requires different perspectives, and diverse groups work well if everyone has an opportunity to contribute from their own unique perspective.  We know that through various studies of work groups, and we describe those studies in our book.

Another important advantage of diversity is the message it sends to newcomers to a setting.  It says, there is room for you, no matter what your background.  The door is open.

Finally, although it may be difficult at the beginning, it is rewarding to learn from people whose perspective is very different from one’s own, and to learn how to work productively with individuals and groups of people who do not share a single point of view. 


What are some examples of what you call “cues of belonging” in the hiring process, and why are they so important so convey?

One set of cues comes out in interactions:  making eye contact, listening without interrupting, and responding without making a face (!) when a candidate is speaking. Other cues are in the environment – do candidates see a variety of people?, is the physical setting one in which people can feel at ease?, do people treat their colleagues with respect?

Still another set of cues is provided by the documents the department or other academic unit develops, both online and in print, and the built environment: pictures on the walls, lists of individuals who matter in the department.  Do those cues point to diversity and inclusion, or do they signal a homogeneous, possible “closed” club of those who are valued?

Candidates want to determine whether a department and school will be a good place for them.  They have a limited amount of time in which to gather first-hand information, so all the cues, subtle and blatant, are important.


What does tokenism look like (i.e., how can it be identified in the workplace?)? What are some of the consequences of tokenism, and how do you suggest leaders work towards more significant inclusion practices?

We are reminded of a story one woman told us, of interviewing for a faculty position and being told, “You don’t have to worry that we’re hiring you just because you’re a woman – we already have a woman!”  When people are hired as tokens, or to comply with perceived regulations, they are often not taken seriously as scholars and researchers, but are seen as “diversity” candidates.  In addition, the token individual is often seen through the filter of people’s schemas about that group—whether those are about social qualities (warmth, aggressiveness) or academic ones (creativity, competence). If the new person makes suggestions at odds with how the department has always does things, the person in token status will likely have no influence. As a result, procedures that should change, don’t.

We recommend avoiding tokenism (representation of a whole group by a single person) by listening to people as individuals, becoming educated about schemas and inclusion, and adopting procedures that are fair to everyone.


What role do ambiguity and inconsistency in peer reviewing, hiring, evaluating, and promoting practices play in underscoring inequity in those processes, and how can departments work towards solutions?

One of the best aspects of faculty life – when it works – is the intellectual comradeship among faculty, the sense that the faculty are of one mind about the academic virtues we describe in chapter 1 of our book.  We want that to continue.  We also want that comradeship to be more widely shared than it currently is.  That means examining and, when necessary, changing how faculty operate.  It means having discussions about what qualities are important for candidates for hiring or promotion to have, with all voices heard, and discussing what evidence will best reveal those qualities.  It means committing to asking the same questions of all hiring candidates and using the same criteria for promotion.

Without those discussions and agreement, some faculty have too much power in shaping the form of the department and some faculty have too little.  Without clear guidelines, the door is open for individual preference to hold sway – “I like this candidate”, “this candidate seems like a good fit.”  The important point here is that both systematic biases that are outside awareness, as well as idiosyncratic factors like the domineering personalities of some individuals, are features that can be mitigated, and should be, if procedures are to be fair.  Guidelines for those procedures have to be clear and practical, without being straitjackets.  We think it’s possible to do that.