On support.

On March 18, 2pm Eastern, #DiversityJC will discuss allies and being a person in STEM supportive of inclusion and diversity for its own sake. Look for Emily’s post introducing the discussion later this week. In this post, I’m going to offer my reflections on being a supportive of inclusivity/diversity.

I was talking to a colleague today who talked about a job search at a major research university.

Colleague: “They interviewed 12 people for 6 positions and only one was a woman”.

Me: “That’s Bullshit”.

I said this without hesitation. Because it is. No job search in 2016 has any excuse to be that skewed. The chair of the search was apparently female too (not that that fact alone precludes bias).

I don’t know if this counts as being supportive. But I guess it signals something of my frustration that it is obviously an unfair system.

My saying that doesn’t change any facts about that major research university and its faculty search. And no, I’m not going to name the institution; I don’t have permission from my colleague to say more. I’m sure it’s not the only such skewed job search happening.

The best way I’ve found to be supportive is mostly to get out of the way and point to voices from underrepresented/marginalized groups speaking up about inclusion. That means a fair bit of listening too. Listening is not just in person, but also paying attention to the Twitter conversations surrounding diversity, to blog posts on the topic, and even op-eds in the New York Times (this one by Hope Jahren on Sexual harassment in academia and it’s pervasiveness and effects on women in STEM).

The term ‘ally’ is a loaded one. Proclaiming yourself supportive of underrepresented groups in science is often not a sign that someone is. So I tend not to refer to myself that way and prefer to be as quietly supportive as I can be.

At the AAAS meeting the organizers seemed to do a good job of balancing the panels, speakers, etc, at least in terms of gender. No doubt a reflection of AAAS President Geraldine Richmond’s leadership (though they may have done OK on this in year’s past– this was my first time at the conference, so I don’t know what their track record is). So it is possible to achieve some level of equal representation.

I had a button from the AWIS booth at the AAAS meeting that I wore around the conference and a few people stopped to ask if I was really supportive of women in science. It was a rare instance of me (I’m a cis, white male, if you don’t know) apparently encountering some part of what women must face– questions about their commitment to something (there’s more to it, I know).

Again, though, it’s not clear to me that wearing a pin around is making a huge difference.

I’m a moderator/writer here at DiversityJC. But I still feel like I’m learning even though I’ve been contributing for a year.

Though my route there was different, I do think I understand the isolated feeling so many under-represented groups and women talk about feeling at times. I’ve experienced it because of depression. The feeling that there doesn’t seem to be anything that will make the situation better and the feeling of aloneness is crushing and getting out is the only option. So perhaps I understand the mental space if not the route there.

For senior academics that have some influence over the system, it’s a lot more obvious what they can do to support inclusion: challenge bias when you see it (even in themselves), ensure a diverse pool of talent for any hiring/funding/conference panel, listen to under-represented colleagues for things that will help them, and if it needs to be stated, don’t attempt to intiate romantic relationships/contact with those junior to you, period. Those things will and do make a difference.

As a postdoc, it’s less clear what I can do. I can call out bias (that I don’t see often except on the internet sometimes), I can listen, and I can work on projecting a welcome environment, but my influence is still minor in terms of changing the system– I don’t make decisions that can affect the entire population of STEM workers.

That’s not quite true. There is one thing I can do– leave STEM. At least leave the traditional academic path (My current career goal is what I like to call “science adjacent”). That might be hard for some who’ve been pursuing that academic job their entire lives, but with a limited number of faculty jobs available each year, reducing the majority population seeking them might well increase the number of women and underrepresented groups getting faculty jobs. It’s not a guarantee of course, but it’s something that might help, especially in a field like life sciences where there really is a large pool of talent there to promote.

It will also take cultural change amongst hiring committees, but that seems more and more feasible as there really have been some gains in under-represented groups in STEM in the last 40 years and that influence is being felt (of course, it’s not all solved as my initial anecdote notes).

Part of being supportive is also to note social progress. Because it is happening (you, underrepresented groups are being heard by at least some of us). Taking women in professional life as examples: Geraldine Richmond as President of AAAS, Hilary Clinton running for president with a real shot at winning the election, and Jennifer Doudna being hailed as one of the key innovators behind CRISPR. It’s just not that exceptional to see successful (even moderately successful) women anymore– and that normalization is a good thing (this is not meant to diminish lived experience, it just means being treated as a scientist when talking to another scientist independent of how they identify because, in the moment of discussing science, it does not matter). There are still a lot of people that don’t get the recognition they should, of course, but examples are coming to light more and more, both contemporary and historic.

Mostly, I try to follow the platinum rule: treat people as they want to be treated. I also strive to follow the Finkbeiner rule in my writing. And listen. Treating a person as a person, giving them what I can when I can (sadly, I’m not always unlimitedly available and I hope no one expects me to be). There are still a lot of things for me to learn. I don’t really know the reporting structure at my institution for harassment cases (my first instinct: refer them to the ombudsperson who does deal with these cases off the record). I don’t know if conferences I attend have extensive anti-harassment policies (they all have something, I’m sure– just may not be sufficient).

And last, I’ve written this entire post on being supportive of inclusivity/diversity and I don’t expect to get any praise for it. It’s almost like an etiquette column: it’s what everyone should do and it’s not that hard (except the changing career paths; that is not easy, but something I want to do and just need to make happen).

What thoughts do you have on being supportive/inclusive of others in STEM (or anywhere)?

Ian Street (@IHStreet).





One thought on “On support.

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