Increasing gender and racial diversity in science departments is a stated goal of universities across the nation. Progress, however, has been uneven, with some departments making significant advances while others lag far behind, according to a study in the Journal of Chemical Education by Sandra Laursen and Timothy Weston of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Analyzing data on “top 50” chemistry departments, they found considerable variation in the percentage of chemistry Ph.D.s that institutions awarded to women and underrepresented minorities, ranging from 49% and 20%, respectively, at top-scoring Louisiana State University (LSU) to 20% for women at Harvard University and 0% for minorities at Columbia University, among other institutions.

Departments most successful in increasing diversity of graduates tended to share some characteristics, the authors note, including a strong and explicit focus on the goal. “[D]epartments had actively worked to increase their minority representation; it was not automatic,” the authors write. “[A]n important first step to progress” is “awareness of the data” on diversity, they continue.

Talking with program officials showed that “many departments perceived themselves as average in their representation of women, when in fact the quantitative data made clear that some of these very departments were not keeping pace with national trends. In contrast, interviewees from departments with strong records of women’s or minority representation were more likely to be able to cite specific departmental data and specific actions taken to monitor it.”

LSU and Purdue University, which ranks second in percentage of minority Ph.D. graduates, have developed relationships with minority-serving institutions, helping them identify and recruit able candidates. Successful institutions also supplement such “stepped-up recruitment efforts with specific plans to support and retain students after they arrived on campus … [including] targeted scholarships, strengthened mentoring, support of graduate student groups for peer mentoring, and earlier and more frequent benchmarking of student progress toward the degree,” the authors write. These efforts happen to benefit students of all backgrounds they add. What’s more, “when such ventures were successful in increasing diversity, departments observed a snowball’ effect: by building a critical mass of underrepresented students, recruitment and retention of future students began to take care of themselves.’ ”

In contrast to a great deal of the diversity literature, the percentage of female faculty in departments did not correlate, in this study, with production of female Ph.D.s, but small numbers may account for failure to find a trend, the authors note.

The study provides other useful insights into how diversity works in departments. You can read it here.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.