How do we nurture an academic landscape that is more accessible to women? Let’s start by getting rid of the in-person interview

In the lead up to International Women’s Day on Friday March 8th, we posed a series of questions to leading academics. Here Laura K. Nelson, explores how we nurture an academic landscape that is more accessible to women.

By Laura K. Nelson, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Northeastern University


The stalled revolution was coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild way back in 1989. In the 1970s and 1980s women changed. In particular, there was an influx of women into the workforce. But the cultural understanding of women’s place in the home, and the relationship between the workplace and family life, did not change. The resulting tension meant that, while women were working more, there was, and remains today, a persistent gendered pay gap, promotion gap (particularly in academia), and housework gap. There was, in other words, a stalled revolution.

Thirty years after Hochschild coined this phrase here we are, still talking about it.

International Women’s Day, is the perennial opportunity to revisit this question. What will it take to unstall the stalled revolution?

What do the data say?

Three important things, actually.

  1. Calls to Lean In notwithstanding, recent research suggests that the stalled revolution is not a result of women acting any differently than men while at work. Based on email communications, schedules, and sociometric badges to track in-person behaviors, researchers at Humanyze found almost no perceptible differences in the behavior of men and women. Gender inequality, they find, is not a result of differences in behavior, but in differences in the reaction people have to the same behavior.

  2. All else equal, women are actually more skilled than men at certain tasks. Despite the (thoroughly debunked) stereotype that women are not good at promoting themselves, researchers Kray and Kennedy found that women actually “possess unique advantages as negotiator,” including greater cooperativeness and stronger ethics. But these strengths are typically overlooked and undervalued in in-person negotiating situations precisely because of the biased understanding of what it means to be, and look like, an effective negotiator.

  3. Women are more successful than men in certain economic environments. We know, for example, that women succeed at higher rates than men on crowdfunding sites. In research with Andreea Gorbatai, we find that this success is partially explained by the way women write campaign pitches: women, compared to men, are more skilled at writing in a way that resonates with the crowd.

Why are women’s skills rewarded on crowdfunding sites but not in negotiating? Because crowdfunding sites side-step the direct interpersonal interaction that triggers biased reactions. In the case of our study, the only indicator of the gender of the founder on the crowdfunding site was a small picture placed at the very bottom of the campaign. Crowdfunding proves that there are decision making environments where women’s skills have the intended effect: they are properly rewarded.

 What do the data mean?

What if, and bear with me here, we completely eliminate all in-person interviews, job talks, business pitches, promotion meetings, etc.?

This is arguably one of the most important thing we can do to promote gender and racial equality in the academy and in workplaces (many of the same processes that trigger gendered reaction bias also trigger raced reaction bias). If women are more often rewarded for their skills, we may begin to shift stereotypes that lead to reaction bias more broadly.

It’s well-known that blind auditions greatly reduced gender-biased hiring in symphony orchestras. Why aren’t we doing the same in workplaces and in academia? In-person interviews, in-person business pitches for investment, the all-important campus visit and job talk in academia: these are all staples in the economic and academic world. We should ask ourselves, why? Is this really the best way to do things? Why not, for example, leverage our new communication technologies to make all hiring, promotion, and investment/funding decisions based on written proposals/pitches/portfolios? What do we have to lose?

Despite the evidence supporting this change, for some reason, our culture simply does not want to give up this type of interaction. For seven hours in January 2013, for example, the online dating site OkCupid removed all pictures from their app, and found that people actually interacted more. Yet users hated it. They demanded those pictures. Simply removing pictures was too much for our culture.

On this International Women’s Day I still ask, what if.

Equality may hinge on it.


Laura K. Nelson is an assistant professor of sociology at Northeastern University. She is also a core faculty at the NULab for Text, Maps, and Networks, a Faculty Affiliate at the Network Science Institute, is on the Executive Committee of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program, and is on the Editorial Board of Signs.

Laura has held positions as a postdoctoral research fellow at Digital Humanities @ Berkeley, the Berkeley Institute for Data Science, and the Management and Organizations Department in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and was also a research affiliate at the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems.

Laura uses computational tools, principally automated text analysis, to study social movements, culture, gender, institutions, and organizations.