Diversity JC 2015 review- Ian’s edition

The #DiversityJC managers are all going to write year end posts with thoughts about the discussions we’ve had about Diversity in STEM and perhaps some things looking forward to 2016. 

In March, I think, Doctor_PMS and Emily asked me to join the editorial team and be a discussion moderator and pitch topics, etc.

I’m happy to be part of the DiversityJC team, but I was nervous about becoming part of the regular crew, after all, I’m a white, straight, male in STEM working at an Ivy League institution. When one of the central problems is unconscious bias, I’m probably as blind as they come.

I did take the implicit bias test for gender in STEM and fell in the middle as not particularly biased. And I’ve been mostly listening to discussions surrounding diversity, women in STEM, etc. on Twitter the last few years before becoming a moderator here.

I also got to help coordinate putting together a panel on Diversity for the Future of Research Symposium in San Fransisco. And I found the Diversity panel at the Future of Research symposium in Boston this last fall was enlightening.

I believe in fairness and equality; I genuinely get upset at injustices I see in the world even though I feel powerless to do much about most of them.

My lens into diversity is two topics we did discuss this year: mental health (I’m working to manage depression) and introversion. In the US at least, the quieter ones among us are often discounted or ignored. I’ve had my ideas in meetings and other places ignored only to have something similar brought up by someone else and given credit. But from the stories I’ve heard of the lived lives of women and POC in the world, my experiences with feeling like an outsider or unwelcome somewhere are minor.

In some ways I prefer being invisible, but that also feels like a privileged position for me to be in to make that choice (& it isn’t all upside, either).

So with that, I’ll list a few thoughts that I’ve had in thinking about diversity in STEM more this year than I have probably in any other year.

  1. Even being aware that there’s bias in the world and it affects certain populations isn’t sufficient to prevent bias. It’s like the general cognitive biases all humans have. Being aware of confirmation bias or loss aversion does not make me any less prone to do it. I can be aware of biases, but the fact is I will almost always be able to put it aside to go live my life while those with direct experience can’t really do that (barring a cultural change which I do think is starting to happen, but it’s a long slow process).
  2. Time matters. A lot of diversity issues seem to come from people having a lack of time, feeling rushed, and not incorporating empathy into their daily routines. I think there’s a famous study where seminary students were induced to feel late and therefore a lot less likely to give money to a homeless person on their route to a class. Listening, empathy, not dismissing someone out of hand takes time. Learning about diversity takes time (it’s not a light switch you flip). If you’ve said or done something offensive, thinking about it and learning takes some time. And when someone in an institution does something wrong, it will take at least a few days for them to act to dismiss anyone too (by all means call out the behavior and ask for dismissal, but demanding it be immediate is unlikely to occur).
  3. Economics is a factor. In STEM, there is a problem in many fields of not having many women or POC. And there are many cultural factors at play that have to be addressed. The life sciences have done a bit better on the gender front at least, achieving parity of PhDs awarded and getting there at the postdoc level. The pool of talent is there for promotion to the faculty level and yet it’s been at ~20% for at least the last decade. What gives? Some of it is certainly culture that needs to change; those making decisions about hiring are too often not aware of their unconscious biases and it is difficult to envision a blind academic interview. However, another factor is the economics of the STEM world right now. Funding is tight, there aren’t that many tenure track jobs available and they are fiercely competed for. While I can’t say for sure, diversity would be more easily increased in an expanding job market, or at least one that’s not as restrictive. And for white male postdocs like me, being pro-diversity almost by definition feels like it means leaving the career path (note: this isn’t a woe is me statement, but I, by definition don’t currently contribute to the diversity of STEM, luckily I want to find something outside of STEM). I know the booming tech world might be a counter example here, though I also find it possible that #gamergate and the #IamAnEngineer flash points are happening because diversity is rapidly increasing in those sectors and the negative reaction might be an extinction burst; a unleashing of outrage before something changes permanently. At the same time, tech has had a huge diversity problem since at least the 1980’s and probably before (but women did used to be the majority of computer programmers).
  4. Build diversity in from the beginning and being a good mentorTwo things brought up at the Future of Research Diversity panel brought up some good points that diversity works best when it’s jus there from the beginning of planning anything, any panels, etc. Making it an afterthought is almost always problematic. Moon Duchin, a professor of mathematics at Boston College (I think) talked about two dangers that mentors (esp. men, but anyone) of an under-represented groups or women can tend to over-praise and fail to warn mentees in their work that can ring false or not do the mentee any favors down the line in their careers. This is why any mentor needs training in diversity and as the, I hope, well known definition of feminism states: treat everyone as equal.
  5. Being pro-diversity. I don’t call myself an ally, feminist, or other supportive person, though I’d like to think I generally am. And I do my best to write in a gender neutral way (following the Finkbeiner rule). This is because self-labeling champions of diversity often seem not to be. I don’t need thanks or praise or acknowledgement for something basic like trying to treat people as they would like to be treated. I’m sure I am not perfect in this and as noted above feel like I have many blind spots still and though I haven’t analyzed this, I don’t have a huge amount of exposure to diversity (except maybe on Twitter, but even there, probably not great).
  6. (Added post-posting): Remembering science is done by people. I’ve been doing a lot of literature searching and reading of science and was struck by just how often I ignore the authors of a study to get right to the content, data, etc. It’s hard to remember that science is done by people. Sometimes it’s possible to note the lab or senior/corresponding author of a paper. Though this may not be an explicit example of bias as I skip it no matter who the authors are (especially if theres’s a long author list), it is a step where we just miss those that are contributing to science and that might well impact women/URMs more than men (not that it’s OK to dehumanize men, either). There’s an obscuring of contribution that can happen. I’m not naturally a self-promoter, in fact, I’m the opposite. I am aware science is done by people, but going back to point 2, in the rush of doing science, it’s easy to look over that fact.

In 2016, I look forward to continuing diversity discussions here and listening more to other’s stories in the new year.

Look for Doctor_PMS and Emily Klein’s posts in coming weeks and for some questions on Twitter about our 2016 schedule.

Ian Street (@IHStreet).



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