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WCU sees record-high interest from female job applicants

WCU sees record-high interest from female job applicants

Diversity within the Western Carolina University workforce has been inching up, with the latest report showing that the last year’s worth of staffing changes held steady the proportion of racial and ethnic minorities on the university’s payroll while strengthening the existing majority of female WCU employees and resulting in a sharp increase in the percentage of employees with a disability. 

Between Oct. 1, 2022, and Sept. 30, 2023, the university hired 303 new employees, of whom 57.4% were female. Adding in promotions and internal hires, a total of 406 hiring actions took place at WCU within that timeframe, with 53.9% of those positions going to women. These changes drove the university’s total workforce of 1,627 from 50.4% female in October 2022 to 51% female as of the latest data in October 2023.

Cory Causby, WCU’s associate vice chancellor for human resources, pointed to the gender ratios within the University of North Carolina System’s student bodies as a possible explanation for the high share of new female hires. In fall 2023, 59.3% of WCU’s undergraduate students were female, on par with the system-wide level of 59.2%. Female enrollment has outpaced male enrollment at WCU for at least the past two decades.

“Of the positions we filled last year, nearly 70% would be what we would classify as professional-level positions that require at least a bachelor’s degree,” Causby said. “Based on those [college enrollment] numbers, it would lead me to believe there are more females coming out with those credentials versus males. And so I think that reflects what’s happening in the educational environment. Those are the folks that become our workforce.”

The differing gender ratio in faculty and staff hires strengthens that argument. WCU’s data shows that 59.2% of recent faculty hires were female, compared to 56.8% of staff hires. Females form an even larger majority in the graduate degree programs required for most faculty positions than they do in undergraduate programs. In fall 2023 at WCU, for example, 69.5% of graduate students were female, significantly higher than the 57.6% of female undergraduate students.

The majority status of females in college and university student bodies is an established trend that has been strengthening in local, state and national data over recent decades. The causes are complex and multifaceted, including a concerted effort since the passage of Title IX in 1972 to remove the roadblocks that had long faced women who pursued higher education and a convergence of factors that now result in lower educational achievement for boys and men, from kindergarten through college.

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The past year’s hiring took place amid a surge in qualified applicants following a post-pandemic drought in 2022. WCU’s hiring report shows an increase of 38 positions between 2022 and 2023 — not because the university created that many more jobs, Causby said, but rather because it was finally able to fill some standing vacancies.

The so-called “Great Resignation” that followed the Coronavirus Pandemic hit WCU hard, with the university seeing 202 people voluntarily leave a position between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022 — more than double the previous four-year average.

“The qualified candidate pools were just really small,” Causby said. “We struggled and had quite a few instances where certain positions, we would have failed searches after multiple attempts just because the candidates weren’t there. And that seems to have turned around over particularly the last 12-18 months.”

The rate of staff turnover began to come down over the past year, with 2023 also bringing an increase in qualified applicants seeking to fill vacancies.

“That’s really helped us not only find highly qualified candidates but find diverse pools, which have allowed us to further diversify our staff,” Causby said.

Of the 6,687 qualified applicants who applied for one of WCU’s 406 positions, 53% were female — the first time that number has risen above 50%. In 2022, only 44.3% of qualified applicants were female, and 36.9% in 2021. Prior to 2023, the largest share of female applicants was in 2019, at 46.6%.

news wcu spreadsheet

Over the past year, roughly one-quarter of Western Carolina University’s workforce is new to the university or serving it in a new role. New recruits are more likely to be female, have a disability or be part of a racial or ethnic minority than the university’s overall workforce. WCU table

The number of qualified applicants is a useful metric to look at when considering diversity in the workplace, but alone it’s not enough to tell the story. A person who is logged as a “qualified candidate” meets the minimum qualifications for the job but may not have all the preferred qualifications that result in further consideration. Though 53% of qualified candidates were female in the 2023 report, females constituted 50.88% of “seriously considered” candidates and 52.75% of those who received an interview.

The gradation among candidates who represented a racial or ethnic minority was even more significant. Of qualified candidates, 26.05% represented a racial or ethnic minority. However, only 13.12% of interviewed candidates and 11.6% of hires belonged to one of those groups. Overall, 10.7% of WCU’s workforce belongs to a racial or ethnic minority, the same as in 2022.

That winnowing effect is not always the result of human resources decisions at WCU, Causby said. For example, those numbers don’t account for the people who have been offered a position or an interview and turned it down. That happens particularly with faculty jobs, which do not post salary ranges on the listing. Often, candidates will self-select out of the pool after learning more about potential compensation.

“We may offer a position, and someone decides the salary is not where they want it, so they turn it down,” Causby said. “Or after visiting, they decide that they’ve lived in Chicago all their life, and the change to Cullowhee is just a little more than their family is ready to make, so they turned us down. All things being equal, you’d think percentages should play out, but there’s a lot of factors that go into that.”

Since 2016, racial and ethnic minorities have grown from 8.3% of WCU’s workforce to 10.7%, an increase of about 50 employees. The 13.8% share of racial and ethnic minorities among faculty leads the 9.1% share among staff.

That’s a vast improvement from the early 2000s, when those numbers sat below 5%, Causby said. Intentional efforts to advertise and recruit in locations more likely to reach diverse applicants have been a big part of the upward shift.

“That starts at the top … from the Board of Trustees on down, just stressing the importance of not only making sure we’re hiring the most qualified candidates but making sure we have the broadest and most diverse applicant pool to choose from as possible as we look to fill positions,” he said.

However, the share of racial and ethnic minorities employed at WCU is still less than half the calculated “expected availability” of such employees. Causby said that’s because federal guidelines calculate “expected availability” based on the pool from which the university recruits a specific job. Faculty positions, for example, are recruited nationwide, so the expected availability number is based on national census data. Mirroring that national data at WCU, which sits in a county that as of the most recent census was 85.1% White, will always be a challenge.

“Our goal would be to always continue to move the needle forward,” Causby said.

Another significant shift catalogued in the report is a four-fold increase in the percentage of WCU employees with a disability. The figure shot up from 1.8% in 2022 to 8.1% in 2023, with 15.8% of new hires disclosing a disability. There are some known drivers behind this increase.

“The increase in current and new hires disclosing their disabilities were both due to intentional recruitment to fill new/vacant positions and to potentially new disabilities acquired or previously not disclosed by current employees since their original hire,” Causby said.

WCU surveys its workforce approximately once every five years, with the most recent survey taking place over the past year. This was a “significant” factor in the heightened number of employees with disabilities.   Additionally, over the past few years WCU has worked with Vocational Rehabilitation Services and promoted job postings with various disability organizations and resources to increase representation from that population.

“We believe WCU is a great place to work (chosen as one of America’s best midsized employers for 2023 by Forbes),” Causby said, “and are encouraged by the increased representation in this area.”

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