How To Identify Yourself as a Diversity Hire

One of the most important things a job document can do is communicate an applicant’s status with regard to diversity hiring. If you qualify as a diversity hire, you must make sure the committee knows it. But how does one do that? In my work with clients, I find that they tend to either not mention it all because they don’t know how, or else devote an entire paragraph of the job letter to a long, involved, sometimes overwrought story about all the painful trials and tribulations they had to overcome to get the Ph.D. and how passionate they are about mentoring students in similar circumstances.

Both of these are mistakes. The first, obviously, because diversity hiring is a door that you want to make sure is open to you, if you qualify. The second, because even when speaking of your identity, you still have to remember the basic rules of job documents: show, don’t tell, eschew adjectives and emotion, focus on professional outcomes not personal process, remain factual and evidence-based.

Here’s one method that works. In the basic template of the job letter described in the Why Your Job Letter Sucks blog post, open the paragraph on teaching with this phrase: “As a Native American/African American/Latina/queer/disabled scholar, I am sensitive to issues of diversity in the classroom/I prioritize a diversity of perspectives in my classroom/I make a point to include a range of diverse voices in my classroom. In all of my courses I assign readings by xxx and yyy, and incorporate projects that include ppp and qqq….” You can then add a line such as, “because of my background I am familiar with challenges faced by students of color/queer students/students with disabilities, and am committed to mentoring them for success in the university setting.”

Why does this work? Because it makes your identity an asset in your work for the department. You are showing in concrete and evidence-based ways how your identity informs and enriches your pedagogy, and by extension the pedagogical offerings of the department as a whole.

You can of course write similarly with regard to your research, but the advantages here, in terms of the job search, are not as clear. Departments are going to be less moved by invoking diversity in research than they are by invoking it in teaching, because departments are under the gun to demonstrate to higher administration, accrediting agencies, state legislatures, and the community at large that they are not elitist bastions that train only the white and the wealthy. Indeed, as my niece said recently, about her experience collecting recruitment brochures from colleges across the country, “you’d think that no white kids go to college at all…” so intent are the brochures to proclaim (usually not very truthfully) the supposed diversity of their student body.

In any case, the larger point here is this. A flat statement of identity, or a story of struggle based on identity, is valuable in many contexts but not in job documents, because these do not do the work that your job documents need to do. To be effective, your identity has to be shown to inform your contributions to the department, and that is achieved by showing in factual and unemotional ways how it is mobilized in your classroom teaching and student mentoring.

A little goes a long way in this. Just the line, “As a xxxx scholar…” immediately identifies you as a candidate who can be considered a diversity hire. Search committee members are alert to this and will not miss it.

By the way, in my examples I included queer and disabled as examples of diversity identities, but in terms of university hiring in the United States, these may or may not “qualify” as diversity hires. The criteria will vary by campus and department, and in some cases by the priorities of the particular hire. In STEM fields just being a woman is often “diverse.” I’m not making any statements here in this post about what does or should constitute a diversity hire. I’m making the point that if your identity plays a role in your status on the job market in your field, there are better and worse ways to signal that in your job documents.


Comments

How To Identify Yourself as a Diversity Hire — 57 Comments

  1. Getting a job is one thing but keeping a job is an entirely different beast. There is still an inordinate amount of attrition among diversity hires because of various, sometimes invisible, forms of structural inequity. Why would someone want to accept a job in which they’ll be beat down day after day after day? Where there colleagues will judge and disrespect them and where the few minority colleagues they encounter are similarly discouraged? At this point, I think the best thing minorities can do is let the white man confront his racism by staying out of his institutions.

    • How is staying out of the academy, and thus “out of sight, out of mind” for white men, “letting the white man confront his racism” in any way?

  2. As an Afro-Caribbean young woman pursuing my PhD, your words are a welcome change to the monotony often proffered as “real advice” for PhD holders. Thank you for this information.

    Sincerely,

    Gwendolene

  3. Really good advice, Karen. I had at least one on-campus visit this season where the job ad specifically wanted people who could mentor students from under-represented groups. That made my identity as a queer trans woman relevant, and I took exactly the approach you suggested. Since I do teach about issues relating to issues about sexual orientation and gender identity in some of my courses, and I incorporate it into some of my research, it was fairly easy to take the ‘asset’ approach you suggest.

    I eventually withdrew from that search to accept a position at another institution. 🙂 I had a busy season. It was really encouraging to know that at least some departments didn’t shy away from interviewing me (and hiring me!).

  4. Question: Though I know it does not count towards a “diversity hire,” the fact that I am the son of a lesbian mother does in fact move me to “prioritize a diversity of perspectives in my classroom.” My parents are a part of my identity. Otherwise, though, I am a white male and might appear quite “undiverse.” There isn’t any way to plug in the fact that I happen to be the child of a gay parent into my teaching paragraph, is there? “As the child of a lesbian mother” doesn’t really have the same natural flow as saying “As a XXXX scholar . . .” and might sound like I’m desperately trying to make myself look diverse. Am I right?

    • That’s a bit of a stretch. I *might* play with language like “as the product of a queer family, I…” and see how that reads in the overall context of your letter. These things require pretty careful parsing and choices.

      • I would think that the choice of language also depends on the job. That line might speak well to the search committee at a teaching-centric institution that actively seeks to meet the needs of a diverse student population. At an institution where “diversity” just means “our department has too many white people and we’re getting heat for it,” that line won’t trip the “diversity” wire and it will just sound bizarre unless it’s a seamless and organic part of the teaching paragraph.

    • I thought a similar thing. Can I use the fact that my wife is Hispanic to count for this? I could say: “As a member of a Spanish family…” Or slyly drop that often Spanish is often spoken in the home? Not by me, of course, but still true.

      In all honesty, I would probably wait until I was asked about diversity in an interview to bring this up.

  5. In the hiring process for my position, the Dean bluntly asked me how, as a white woman, I would relate to our diverse and mostly low-income student body. I told her, equally bluntly (though respectfully), that I had grown up working poor in a single-mother household and university education had been my family’s ticket out of poverty. Whiteness does not equate to an inability to understand poverty and challenges, even if it does mean I will never understand the unique barriers to ethnic minority people. I never said anything in the hiring process about being queer. It just didn’t occur to me to think of that as “diversity” or as an asset.

  6. This advice is spot on! One of the rare African American males in academic librarianship, I often write how my being African American, male, and Catholic inform my my pedagogy. I show how these attributes are assets to potential employers. This approach works much better than simply stating that I am a Black man in a profession dominated by white, middle-class females.

  7. This is a very interesting post and one that ties in well with the recent guest post on chronic illness and heteronormativity. Disclosure of disability is something that I have wondered a lot about lately, noting that many applications have a statement to the effect that the hiring institution wishes to increase its percentage of employees with disabilities. However I have always tended to conceal the fact that I am physically compromised out of fear that my application will end up compromised by the admission. Perhaps it is irrational, but I tend to be concerned that I will dismissed as somehow unfit for the position. I would be very interested to hear what other people’s views are on this.

    • This question is right in line with saymwah’s on learning disabilities and my own struggles with blindness. I’m always hesitant to reveal my disability for fear that hiring departments (or grant funders) will read it as negatively impacting my productivity and even my (dis)ability to do the work. For many disabilities, the individual has multiple methods for coping, and once the institution implements the required infrastrucutre and understanding about how to handle special circumstances, things run along smoothly. But until then… and informing the hiring department that there will need to be some (extensive) accomodations… it’s a scary prospect from the point of the job application. I question how wise it is to reveal a diability diversity when it’s stigmatized, when it comes with additional work for both the individual and the hiring institution, and when it can impact productivity. Perhaps a post on disabilities in the academic workplace (job applications and all) is warrented.

  8. All due respect, the EEOC wording is just a nice statement–it baffles me how departments continue to hire lilly-white candidates for everything from English history to African history to Latin American Studies. Yes, sure, there’s a token here and there but as a woman of color with a PhD, I can tell you that “creating a diverse faculty” is a bunch of baloney. In the course of my PhD studies I was repeatedly the target of both sexist and racial micro and fullblown aggressions by faculty who otherwise prided itself for it’s “enlightenment.” Over the past few years on the job market I have witnessed the consistent discomfort in the room and lunch whenever I was present even when presentations and q&a’s went very well (an experience echoed by other peers of color). Why bother hiring the large woman of color when we can get the wispy blonde who will talk the “correct subaltern discourse” but will save us all the discomfort of facing our privileged whiteness (and disrupt the idea that academia is an unbiased meritocracy).

    • Thank you for sharing your experience; I have had very similar ones during the course of my graduate studies. I, too, am a large woman of color, and I am currently a graduate student at a British university whose student population is largely monochromatic. I am always baffled by how academics who routinely wax poetic about ‘difference’ become visibly uncomfortable when they are actually confronted with it. They are happy to discuss inequity and privilege only insofar as they don’t have to address their own complicity in it.

    • As a white female academic, I think your assessment is pretty unfair.

      The underlying tone of your argument sounds like you believe certain people (large, women, of color) should be given priority over others, which on the surface appears to be exactly what you are arguing against. If I am a white female African history scholar, should a black female African history scholar with the same experience and credentials automatically be given priority over me?

      I also think your use of adjectives such as ‘lily-white’ and ‘wispy blonde’ are a bit derogatory. Perhaps the lily-white wispy blonde was actually just more qualified for the job?

      • “If I am a white female African history scholar, should a black female African history scholar with the same experience and credentials automatically be given priority over me?”

        yes.

          • Sigh. Combat racism by (1) recognizing that the playing field isn’t anywhere near level, (2) accepting that as a hiring institution you have an obligation to do what you can to level it, and (3) take action on (1) and (2) by making extra effort to promote inclusiveness by incorporating demographic characteristics into your definition of “qualified.”

            Now stop whining about diversity hires taking jobs you think you’re entitled to. You just look pathetic and reactionary.

          • What youre saying doesnt make sense because its essentially stating that race should be the deciding factor over scholarship, which strangely enough also seems to be what you are arguing against.

            What we should be fighting for are jobs for the best candidate, not the best candidate.

            I work at a prestigious research institution. We have many ‘diverse’ people in my department, but they are still underrepresented because there simply arent as many minorities in my field. If a minority was hired over me solely based on their race, and not their fit for the job, I would be very upset. Saying I shouldnt be is encouraging exactly what you claim to be fighting against.

          • A, you missed a central part of anonymous’s initial statement, which reads, “‘If I am a white female African history scholar, should a black female African history scholar with the same experience and credentials automatically be given priority over me?’…yes.”

            Note the qualifier, “with the same experience and credentials.”

            Thus, your remark, “What youre saying doesnt make sense because its essentially stating that race should be the deciding factor over scholarship, which strangely enough also seems to be what you are arguing against,” ignores the fact that the “scholarship” for both candidates is on the same level.

          • I think the trail of comments in response to my observation speaks for itself. The failure/denial to even understand what the issues are is quite glaring. While much work remains to be done, minority students are increasingly obtaining PhD’s in the humanities and the sciences. The white-dominated academy, thus, has done a better job at improving minority student attendance than it has at hiring minority PhD’s as colleagues (gatekeeping 101, folks).

            On PhD graduation rates:

            This for instance:

            http://www.historians.org/pubs/Free/WomenMinorityHiring.htm

            Also, take a look at multiple tables/conclusions offered here (and other .gov tables/statistics):

            http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/infbrief/nsf08311/

            The above link cracks open the fallacy of “there aren’t enough qualified candidates” while the one below shows that faculty of color are not drinking the nonsense kool-aid:

            http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/01/31/minority-faculty-university-pennsylvania-question-presidents-commitment-diversity

            The faculty hiring (and tenure) process is shockingly kafkaesque and the medieval absence of transparency and accountability in both is appalling. Where does the money designated for the “hire and retain” minority initiatives go? Nowhere. Personally, I think it’s just part of the “smoke and mirrors” that the academy both consciously and unconsciously creates to delude itself into thinking that they the problem is not them but rather that “there are not enough qualified candidates.”

          • But Im not the ‘white-dominated academy’. Im just a young, white female in an insanely male-dominated field, trying to get a job. No matter what our ethnicity, we are all struggling to find them in this market. Every time someone is given a job over me based on race, religion, personal connections, etc. and not scholarship, that affects me personally (as opposed to some intangible ‘white’). It might sound nice to promote certain individuals based on their minority status (this includes women in my STEM field), but I dont think that is an ideal plan for maintaining scholarly rigor in the academy.

            Does anyone really want to get a job over others not because they are a better scholar, but because they are a minority? I know as a female in a male STEM field, I dont.

            Maybe I am too idealistic.

          • A, this is in reply to your bottom comment (on which I did not see a reply option).

            The point is that the academy is deeply, in emotional and psychological ways, invested in leaning toward white candidates. This is something I cannot explain to you in two lines but for which there is a large body of literature and methodological proof. I could give you many, many, many anecdotes of what I have been through and what other peers of color have experienced. One deeply illustrative moment that happened to me: I applied to a PhD program and got in without funding. I was puzzled because I graduated with an honors MA degree from the same institution. I went up to speak to the Chair of the Department who actually said to me in the summer of 2000 that “concerns had been raised about the [my] ability about students from certain countries to meet the rigors of a doctoral program” even when I had graduated with an honors MA from the same institution. And, make no mistake, national origin was code for “dark and foreign” (I would have sued had I been able to record that comment). There were a more choice comments in the course of my years at this institution (I took out loans and pursued my PhD at the institution that will remain unnamed).

            I was not born and educated in this country, but the above comment, and additional comments that were said to me along the way, illustrated to me how race/bias operates so profoundly in this society, in education from preschool to college.

            And mind you, the college I’m talking about is very well regarded, with a celebrated faculty in my discipline that considers itself profoundly “enlightened” when it comes to social/race issues.

            Beyond this, I gave you some statistics/links. There is an enormous body of literature for you to inform yourself, so please, please do yourself a favor and go learn. Diversity hires are a way to overcome the deeply somatic academic inclination to dismiss them despite their qualifications (“diversity” is not not because there is a desire for a “kindergarten rainbow” class decoration; this is what white uninformed people think the “diversity” discourse is about).

            Now, I’m done answering this because the burden of understanding what structural racism is about is on you. Please stop repeating the same kindergarten “it’s not fair”. Yes, the market is tough on all of us, but the odds are stacked in white candidates favor (it’s not just about you….think structurally). Peace and go out and learn a bit more about diversity/affirmative action.

          • Thank you for this response, Silvia. I wish to make clear that it is my strong opinion that what you say here is correct, that the job market (academic and otherwise) has infinite forms of preference and bias toward white candidates, regardless of what types of “pc” rhetoric is bandied about. This is exactly what is meant by structural racism, and one of the mechanisms of structural racism is that white individuals believe that their individual good intentions render accusations of racism “unfair,” while enjoying sanctioned ignorance (spivak, look it up) about the manifold ways that people of color are marginalized, demeaned, or excluded. The burden is not on people of color to explain the mechanisms of racism to white people; it is on white people to grasp the multitude of ways that we enjoy privilege, rewards, comfort, and the freedom to be judged “as individuals” as a result of our skin color.

  9. I think that its important to be aware that declaring one’s difference and being a diverse minority works in both directions. Here Karen points out how it can be a positive advantage but I’ve only ever heard it used as a disadvantage. One example is a colleague of mine had to put up with five years of abuse from her PhD supervisor solely based because she’s a woman in a traditionally male discipline and from an ethnic minority. He told her that she would get a job on these grounds which was in his view unfair since he was a man, had a family and was the first generation of his family to go to university. He told her that he’d decided to treat her like hell so she realized that she wasn’t special. She complained several times to the university administration and their attitude was ‘what was her problem’. She changed her supervisor, finished her PhD and is now in have therapy to get over the verbal abuse. Nothing has happened to him. So, I think that people need to be careful when they use their diversity as a reason to be hired…it can work both ways.

    • Wow, your comment is so loaded. Are you saying the victim brought it unto herself for stating she was a minority?

  10. Not exactly a diversity issue, but a related matter: Universities in Canada are required by law to give priority in hiring decisions to Canadian citizens and permanent residents. I’m Canadian but went to grad school in the U.S. so when I was applying for jobs in Canada, the second sentence of my cover letter was, “I am a Canadian citizen planning a career in Canada.” I figured there was no elegant way to incorporate it anywhere else, so I might as well put it right up front so they didn’t have to wonder.

    • I was wondering about this as well. I did my BA and PhD in Canada (MA in the UK). Is it reasonable that people will assume I’m Cdn (I am)? Or do I need to signal it directly? Currently I’ve added a citizenship section in my cv, I hadn’t thought of putting it in my cover letter.

  11. Has anyone–or any of your clients, Karen–had success in identifying themselves as learning-disabled for diversity purposes? LD seems to be one disability academics have no problem being ignorant and judgmental about, so although it should be a positive attribute for hiring, I’d be terrified to bring it up.

    • I was wondering the same thing – along the lines of autism spectrum disorders. They’re quite common among academics, but is it actually a good thing to bring it up in an application?

  12. Thank you, Karen, for taking the time to write a personal, thoughtful response. Yes, I’m familiar with Spivak. I am just tired of experiencing the hypocrisy of the industry and the inoperative nature of EEOC statements. Even more frustrating is how white applicants do not understand that diversity hires are not a leg up nor a “create a rainbow cupcake” kiddie project but an effort to correct the deep seated psycho-emotional dismissal of qualified candidates of color. That is why I highlighted my personal experience: racist bias cost me tens of thousands of dollars in addition to the outright hostility of several faculty members. Granted, I also made terrific allies in the process who respected and supported my intellectual work (but I had to claw my way in first in a manner that white students did not). I really appreciate your work, Karen, and thank you for allowing a safe space for this conversation. As for me, I do not think I will apply to academic jobs anymore.

    • Silvia, the “spivak, look it up” was not directed at you! It was directed at anyone reading this exchange who does not understand the workings of structural racism! Sorry that was unclear.

  13. I’m female with an obviously female name (and letters of reference would refer to me as ‘she,’ also with a disability which I choose not to disclose), do I need to signal in some additional way that I’m female (this is almost always on the list of diversity features)? Sometimes there’s also an additional form where I have to declare myself female, but otherwise I’ve just been saying nothing on the gender front.

    FYI Canadian job ads typically end with this paragraph:
    All qualified candidates are encouraged to apply; however, Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be considered first for this position. XXX University is strongly committed to employment equity within its community, and to recruiting a diverse faculty and staff. The University encourages applications from all qualified candidates, including women, members of visible minorities, Aboriginal persons, members of sexual minorities, and persons with disabilities.

  14. As a queer women in a male-dominated STEM field who is out personally and professionally, I can’t imagine coming out in my application materials would do anything but reduce the chances I’d be offered an interview. In person I’m not scary at all and I have no trouble coming out in person. But disclosure before meeting face to face? I’d be curious to hear how others have handled this, especially because in my case, my sexuality does not inform my scholarship (though it does inform my mentoring style).

  15. Karen, thank you so much for this post. Your strategies and the tips I have used from your site helped me to get several phone interviews and two in-person site visits in this year’s cycle. However, I just realized that I do not have a reference to my diverse background (Afro-Caribbean) in my cover letter. I just revised it as you stated to include this. It explains several of the questions I have received about being responsive to diverse students during the phone interviews.

    Although I am still looking for a tenure track position, your posts thus far have been very helpful. I just returned from a professional conference in my field. The contacts I made there may very well pan out and I feel prepared to move forward with the next steps. Thank you.

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  17. Karen (and commentators),

    Thank you for this open and very helpful information. I have a question/dilemma if anyone cares to respond. First off, I am a white, female recent PhD, and am not underrepresented in higher ed, in any way. Broadly, my (limited) research is on (the lack of) white faculty socialization regarding “race” & institutionalized racism (as it pertains to the academy and American culture), at one elite R1 majority institution. There are many avenues for me to develop the research, with theoretical and practical applications, & I got positive feedback when presenting at a major conference. Very little has been written about this. I have also been a long-time activist/ally in my local school district on matters of race, equity, & education.
    The uni where I got my PhD now has an unconventional postdoc in “Academic Diversity,” which I’ve wanted to apply for (they welcome their own grown). The RFP has veiled verbiage regarding who can/should apply, and when I sent an email to ask about this, the response was that the uni takes a broad view of diversity, & I am welcome to apply, but….

    I am 100% in favor of all programs that address & redress systematic discrimination in HE. While perhaps my research could work toward this, is it beyond the pale (no pun intended) for me to even apply for this? I deeply appreciate any thoughts. ~J.T.

    • No.

      It is the structure of white privilege that is problematic, something which is certainly qualified if that person is female, queer, or both.

  18. Thank you for your excellent blog, Karen. Quick question: I was born, raised, and retain citizenship in another country. I moved to the U.S. six years ago for graduate school. Is my status as an “international student” worth mentioning this in the cover letter? I didn’t intend on stating it explicitly—for example, “As an Australian, teaching in the U.S. college classroom has . . .”—but I was wondering if I should mention it in some other way. Thank you for your time.

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  20. What if you are a hijab-wearing, Muslim woman of Eastern European descent? I’ve had mixed experiences interviewing with the headscarf that range from wide-eyed, terrified stares to awkward and over-the-top displays of politeness. I’ve held a visiting position, but have to say that some search committees only welcome certain types of diversity.

  21. I’m a Christian east Indian, and gotten my foot in many interview doors, after I changing my name to sound less anglo-christian and used a common Indian name. Also I consulted a name-numerologist before officially changing my name. So that could be a thing.

  22. Christ, if you’re a “diversity hire” you should be ashamed, since you’ve just acknowledged that you weren’t hired for either your scholarship or teaching ability but to fill an arbitrary quota.

    Among scholars, the term “diversity hire” is not a compliment.

    All it means is that you manage to get out of bed (most) mornings.

    • This comment here is a perfect example of why more diversity in academia is needed. Being hired for the ability to contribute diversity to a department is not mutually exclusive with excellent scholarship and teaching ability – it is, in fact, possible for a minority scholar to be hired because he or she is an excellent teacher and researcher AND because she or he will bring much-needed diversity to a department.

      Diversity hiring also doesn’t involve “arbitrary quotas”. Just like someone commented above – it’s not about kindergarten rainbow-colored decorations; it’s about the unique perspectives and interests that minority scholars bring with them as well as a chance to remedy real structural and historical inequalities that favor white/straight/male applicants.

    • Yes because “diverse” academics like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Sue Spivak, Edward Said, bell hooks, Sherman Jackson, miriam cooke, Maya Angelou, Irene Pepperberg, and Angela Y. Davis are clearly morons. How sad that white men were denied their rightful places in academia when these idiots somehow got through the gate

  23. I’m thankful for this article. I’ve often wondered how does one not reveal their ethnicity by describing some of the organizations you belong to but at the same time apply for positions that’s looking to fill a “diversity” opening. Also, my resume and now CV has always been chronological. However because I’m over 50 now, and have had numerous jobs and positions over the years, I’ve been told NOT to put things in chronological order because it will set me up for age discrimination. I’m really needing help in that area.

    • these are pretty complex questions that would need to be addressed in individual consulting. If you’re interested, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. But in general, all elements of a CV must be in reverse chron. order, without exception.

  24. I consider myself someone who would benefit and would offer the benefits of my diversity to a company. That being said, my diversity is my mental illness, which I have under control, but may need rare accommodations. I feel like the programs have been created for people like me. That being said, because of the stigma of mental illness, it’s not as easy, nor recommended that I bring up my “diversity.”

    I feel like I’m being hosed out of a program that would be a great hand up after years of education and systems holding me back.

  25. If I am a military veteran looking for an academic position in the US, should I mention this in a cover letter? Should I worry about discrimination? My field (sociology) tends left-of-center, and though I had a pretty supportive experience in graduate school and my PhD went off without a hitch, should I worry?

    • It’s not a definite yes, but it’s not a definite no either. Being a veteran doesn’t play great in the academy, and doesn’t count as a diversity hire. But if you feel it matters to your research, teaching, or overall practice as an academic, then a brief mention near the end wouldn’t be out of place.

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