A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science


Most senior scientists aren’t from ethnic backgrounds underrepresented in the sciences, and don’t train many scientists from these backgrounds either. The day-to-day issues facing black and Latino students in the US might be on the minds of people in charge, but the people in charge don’t face the same day-to-day challenges.

I haven’t experienced those problems myself (as a tenured white dude), though I do I work in a minority-serving and Hispanic-serving institution. So, it’s my job to understand and to do what I can to provide the best opportunities for my students.

Nonetheless, mentoring students from underrepresented groups doesn’t validate one’s ideas about equity and diversity in science. To illustrate this point, let’s look at the recent comments of Michael Rich, the PhD advisor of Neil deGrasse Tyson (who is arguably the most famous living scientist, and definitely the most famous living black scientist):

I think my colleagues would agree that no overt barriers based on race, gender, etc. remain. (In fact, incoming graduate classes tend to be 50-50 in terms of gender and there are many special programs to help under represented minorities.)

Now, before we decry Dr. Rich for being horribly wrong, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he might have been on crack, or stoned, or taking psychotropic mediation when he wrote that. It’s also possible that he was jet lagged from space-time travel from an alternate universe and he hadn’t gotten his bearings settled back to our own dimension.

But if he wasn’t on drugs or returning from another reality, then he’s bearing a massive anchor of delusion and seclusion. I guess he hasn’t asked any black men, any women or Latinos about how they feel about overt barriers. I guess he hasn’t chatted much with his famous former PhD student.

Dr. Rich observes a 50:50 ratio of men to women in graduate classes, but he’s not bothering to look at the proportion of women in permanent academic positions. Or how many women are selected to win awards.

Dr. Rich sees special programs for minorities, but he is ignoring the conditions that necessitate these programs. Black Americans comprise more than 12% of our population. So, I’m guessing that the proportion of black students in his program is at least ten percent, right? Are 10% of senior scientists black?

Oh, there’s a helluva lot of work to do. We are nowhere near equity. This is so damn obvious that I feel stupid even writing it.

But I have to write it, because Michael Rich, and those who share his views, aren’t just failing to fix the problem. They are part of the problem we need to fix. Those of us who are pushing up from the grassroots for equity and access need those senior faculty to validate the need for change. Those of us who are training students at the K-12 and undergraduate levels need people in graduate programs to not only recognize, but take concrete steps, to support and recruit minority students starting their science careers.

A lot of senior scientists feel just like Dr. Rich. I’ve heard it far too often. We need to inoculate the current generation of scientists in training against these toxic views of Dr. Rich. It’s probably too late to change Dr. Rich’s mind, as there’s nothing we can say that his famous former graduate student hasn’t already said or embodied. But we can keep pushing to move this mountain shovel by shovel. And we can advocate for heavy equipment that can really move the mountain.

In my undergrad years, my college president was a unicorn. Or, something almost as unique as a unicorn: A black electrical engineer. From Kansas. The story of John Slaughter is mighty amazing. When he recounted his path, from childhood, to grad school, to professor, to university president, I was both inspired and amazed by his tenacity in an environment that was unrelentingly opposed towards his progress in the direction of his choice.

Dr. Slaughter has long been retired. In the emerging generation of STEM leaders, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is yet another unicorn.

If one of my black students ends up being a global ambassador for her discipline, will she be a unicorn?

According to Dr. Rich, those problems have already been fixed. Of course, he’s flat out wrong, though I wish he wasn’t.

13 thoughts on “A mountain of progress still needed for equity in science

  1. We’re both thinking of diversity in science today! My post today is on stereotype threat, which is when negative stereotypes about a particular group (such as racial and ethnic minorities in academia) leads members of that group to underperform, especially on high pressure tasks. Here’s my post today that gives the evidence for the problem: http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/stereotype-threat-a-summary-of-the-problem/
    Tomorrow’s post will talk about some ways to counter stereotype threat, and Wednesday’s post will talk about how it might relate to mentoring and ally work.

    Related to your post, my research for this post involved reading Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi. Steele is a black man who is the Dean of the Grad School at Stanford and was the Provost at Columbia University.

    And, finally, have you seen this response of Neil deGrasse Tyson to a question about Larry Summers and diversity in science? http://www.upworthy.com/neil-degrasse-tyson-reveals-that-hes-been-black-his-whole-life-hilarity-and-wisdom-follow
    It’s really interesting.

    • That was a great post on stereotype threat. Both useful and important (especially for people who work at institutions where minorities are in the minority!). Another good book to add to the queue, it looks like.

      I wrote this, in part, because of that video! For those that don’t want to deal with unworthy, I made a direct link to the video and shared it:

      • I have transcribed Tyson’s comments and put a post with that in the Dynamic Ecology queue for Thursday. I’ll try to remember to come back here to post the link once it’s available.

        Glad you liked the stereotype threat post! The Steele book is really interesting and worth reading, in my opinion.

        • I have so many thoughts about his remarks in that video. The one that sticks with me is that absolute nonchalance and acceptance that he shows. He’s just so entirely used to the fact that in the department store down the street from the Planetarium that he is immediately suspected of shoplifting because he’s black. I could only imagine recalling the incident right rage and righteous indignation. And he made funny quip about it. That ability to handle such injustice with aplomb day after day, decade after decade, looks like a prerequisite for success. You see the same kind of thing way back in the writing of Frederick Douglass. The ability to externalize the overt racism is something that’s hard for me to fathom, but what so many people live with on a daily basis. There was this time last year when my student was pulled over coming back from an academic conference for Driving While Brown, and when he told me the story I think I was more upset than he was. But I think Tyson is probably a more apt model for understanding how to constructively respond to situations like that. I think there’s a reason that people talk about race so much. It’s baked into everything.

          I’m looking forward to the transcription, and the resulting comments.

        • I have always found it amusing that Claude Steele and noted black conservative and opponent of affirmative action Shelby Steele are twins (identical, even). I keep wondering what their family holiday dinners are like.

  2. I don’t think you have fairly represented Dr. Rich’s comment here (although you did link to it). From my reading, he was trying to convey that there are no “written into the regulations” (i.e. “overt”) barriers to recruiting women and minority students to science. He did not imply that there are no non-overt barriers, and in fact suggested one such barrier: the economic uncertainty of a science career. One thing he did not say is that all the problems have been fixed.

    • They aren’t written into the rules, but they are nonetheless overt. Any student of color at, say, the Ecological Society of America meeting can tell you that. The existence of the Seeds program is wonderful, and it seems to be effective, but the fact that it has to exist, and that these students need to identify mentors outside their own institutions to bring them to the meeting, means there is a lot of work in front of us. (Also, check out today’s news, which is full of Donald Sterling. The sign of progress, though, is the uniform condemnation and outrage at what he had to say. I find this very heartening. I imaging when racist stuff like that came out when I was a kid, it wasn’t seen as the massive huge deal which appears to be the case right now.)

  3. There has been progress at least, even thought it’s been slow. I take the 50:50 Ph.D. M/F ratio as a pre-requisite for more women getting promoted in the system (it’s not the end, but perhaps the end of the beginning of getting more women/minorities higher up within academia/society). Although I know that ratio is true in the life sciences, I don’t think it’s anywhere close in computer science, engineering and physics and don’t know numbers for other fields; so yes, a lot more work to do even on this front in science as a whole– and still a long way to go with under-represented populations.

    I don’t know what the attitude is of current young African American scientists (or other groups for that matter…To quote Homer Simpson “I’m a White Male aged 18-49! Everyone Listens to me!”//no, I don’t actually think everyone listens to me), but right now, it’s a terrible time to be a young scientist; there are more people at the base of the tower than ever and a narrowing top; that’s already a really high rate of people not breaking through, regardless of who you are– and it doesn’t look to be getting better (I know, it’s always been hard; it seems worse now though). I love science, but it is hard for me to actively promote it as a career path right now– to anyone (that may be me talking from my privileged bubble– but if I feel it’s bad for me sans overt barriers, does that mean it’s even worse for underrepresented groups who do face those barriers as well as the dismal jobs environment? I would think the answer is yes, but I don’t truly know). This would be an easier problem to solve if the number of opportunities pie were expanding, not contracting.

    If it’s the stated goal of the US science system (I know it probably isn’t explicitly so, maybe it should be) to achieve gender parity (& for under-represented minorities)– and I think that would be a good thing– then it has to be the case for the near future that white men get hired less often (for the dwindling TT positions out there– I think that’s just how the math works). I’m not saying woe is me here because I don’t face the biases women & minorities do; I want to be an ally for increasing diversity in science and remove those overt entry barriers/biases. I half-joke that my diversity statement for jobs should be one sentence: “Science needs less people who look like me”. It’s true, I state my support for diversity, and potentially undermine my own science career (or is that just leveling the playing field?)– I think the research shows that if you have someone (even better: someones) who looks like you advanced in the field you’re interested in, it makes it a lot more likely that you’ll persist– it partly inures you to stereotype threat.

    Maybe there needs to be a ‘Rooney rule’ in science hiring/award selection/conference speaking (from the NFL; it states you have to interview at least one African American/minority candidate for any head coaching opening– obviously it’d have to be modified a bit for a given science situation; e.g. more than one featured female speaker in a conference session). Once overt barriers are gone (I’m convinced that that will happen), how long will it take achieve a more diverse & equitable science community?

    Other than treating all of my colleagues like the intelligent human beings they are (I happen to work in a majority female lab-space), I’m not sure how to best be an ally; or if it even matters if I am one (after all, I’m just a postdoc).

    It took me over an hour to write this comment and still feel like I haven’t said anything intelligent, more just stating what I struggle with. Questions I asked myself as I wrote: Am I being one of those ‘I say I’m an ally without really understanding what that means or what active steps I can take that would be useful’? (Probably). Or one who’s “doing it wrong/saying things that seem good but will end up being bad because of the bubble I’m in and haven’t/can’t burst means I’m still truly clueless despite not trying to be”? (God I hope not, but probably have slipped up some how); “am I allowed to talk about this directly or is it only my place to point a spotlight at others who are speaking intelligently about diversity?” (I don’t know, but I re-tweet anything I find enlightening on the topic). “Because I’m in the privilege bubble, can I possibly ever ‘get it’ ?” (no, I probably can’t; must seek out those who do & talk with them about it). “By even talking about this, have I made it ‘all about me’?” (I hope not, because I shun spotlights; how I feel about it doesn’t really matter; there’s a problem with diversity, especially in the higher up reaches of academia and it needs to be talked about/addressed, and I hope I highlighted what I see as part of the hurdle to overcome). “Is it OK that I struggle with this?” (I don’t know. I hope a learning process is allowed; Twitter has woken me up to recognize my own privilege bubble in the last year or so, and learning can be an uncomfortable process.

  4. The results of this study seem highly relevant: http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2014/04/28/on-privilege-and-luck-or-why-success-breeds-success/
    Basically, they demonstrated that early, “lucky” breaks seem to snowball socially, so that people with a few awards/endorsements/etc tend to accumulate more. A small early advantage leads to continued privilege, while no early advantage leads to continued “bad” luck. Now add in a societal bias against certain races and genders, and you can imagine the inevitable outcome. This is why I didn’t want to add up points for numbers of awards and papers in CVs when considering students for an award, because those with more would get more, and those with less would continue to get nothing. It seemed better to just look at the quality of the proposal/letter.

You can leave a comment anonymously, just don't give your name or email.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s