Assistant Professors are Like Fish

Kim Kastens
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published Nov 14, 2009

Cathy wrote here recently of how profoundly a systems approach had "infiltrated her thinking," enabling her to "make sense out of seemingly mystifying behavior" across a range of real-world contexts by thinking in terms of "drivers and feedbacks operating on the various players." This perspective, in turn, enables her to prioritize where to focus her energies and identify ways by which she can effectively influence a system.

I'd like to enthusiastically endorse Cathy's idea that systems thinking is a skill transferable to problems outside of geosciences, and back it up with a real-world example. Ten years ago, I found myself on a writing team comprising myself, an English professor, an astrophysicist, and an institutional research professional trained in social sciences. On and off for two years, we collaborated on what became the Commission on the Status of Women report on Advancement of Women through the Academic Ranks of the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Where are the Leaks in the Pipeline?

None of us had scholarly training or expertise in the content of the pipeline report. Instead, we all brought to the table our discipline-appropriate habits of mind and perspectives and expectations for what constitutes evidence or a persuasive argument. The English professor wrote eloquent prose. The social science researcher wanted tables of numbers and statistics. The physics-trained guy wanted graphs.

Key to flows and stocks And I, "infiltrated" by systems thinking, well, I saw the problem as one of flows, and stocks, and influencers--something along the lines of a populations dynamics problem in fisheries management. The university has a stock or reservoir of people, and individuals are recruited into the stock by various influx routes, and individuals leave the stock by various outflux routes. Depending on the rates of the influxes and outfluxes and the femaleness of each influx and outflux, the femaleness of the stock either rises or falls over time. Change the attributes of the influxes (and perhaps outfluxes), let time elapse, and inevitably the attributes of the stock will change.

We applied this systems thinking line of reasoning to various stocks and fluxes throughout the university, and several interesting and non-obvious results emerged. For example, it turned out that the search committees and departments were actually doing a perfectly fine job of identifying and attracting qualified women from among the tenure-eligible applicant pools. Across all of arts & sciences, the flux from applicant pool to tenure-eligible faculty was 34% women, drawing from applicant pools that were only 23% women. The problem lay further upstream: women were not entering Columbia's applicant pools at rates commensurate with their representation in the national availability pools.

flow chart for tenure eligible

Another unexpected finding was that women were not being lost at the promotion step from tenure-eligible to tenured. That flux was 16% female in natural sciences and 40% female in social sciences, similar to the femaleness of the corresponding untenured stocks, and more than sufficiently female-rich to increase the gender balance of the tenured stock. Rather, the problem at the tenured level lay in external hires. Those fluxes were only half as female-rich as the promotions from within, and thus were not contributing to diversity in the tenured ranks.

flow chart for entry into tenured ranks

The insights that emerged from this analysis were typical of systems thinking in that they revealed non-obvious leverage points at which change could be initiated. And, in fact, this report did lead to changes, slowly but surely. It wasn't only the systems thinking that did it; there were also the eloquent prose, and the tables and the graphs and the statistics, followed by much hard work by many women and men. But I, and others, believe that the systems-based lines of reasoning were key, not so much for documenting that problems existed but for providing clues as to how they could be tackled. One of the claims coming out of the Synthesis project is that geoscientists' habits of mind, including systems thinking, can be a valuable contribution to interdisciplinary collaboration and problem-solving. Here is an example where that really worked.


Columbia University Senate Commission on the Status of Women, 2001, Advancement of Women through the Academic Ranks of the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences: Where are the Leaks in the Pipeline?, 39 pp.

Assistant Professors are Like Fish --Discussion  

This post generated an email from Sandra Laursen of the University of Colorado, who called my attention to this interesting and relevant paper:

Marschke, R., Laursen, S., Nielsen, J. M., & Rankin, P. (2007). Demographic inertia revisited: An immodest proposal to achieve equitable gender representation among faculty in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 78(1), 1-27.

Laursen and her colleagues also used a box model to examine the flux of women through the academic career pipeline, but they carried their analysis beyond what we did in our 2001 Columbia pipeline report, in that they built a runnable model and generated forecasts of future gender balance under a variety of conditions. Good work!


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