Visualize Diverse Scientists

In conversations over the past few years, colleagues and I have discussed ways to make our work and organizations more inclusive and diverse. Most of us are white, and for a while I attended talks, joined panels and mentored, and still kept thinking it wasn’t enough. We convened a group this year to consider different aspects of making the STEM fields more diverse and inclusive, and we are tackling different questions.  

With the Movement for Black Lives adding further energy to Black Lives Matter and a strong national shift to consider diversity, equity and inclusiveness, and justice, it seems like the right time to reflect on what we think of when we imagine scientists: Who are the ones we know, why and how do we know them, and what’s keeping us from knowing a more diverse set of scientists? It is a great time to reflect on unconscious bias (take this assessment), what we see when we look at different people, and the assumptions we make. 

Lastly, I started thinking about the ways scientists are represented  in the media and how this plays a part in the way they are perceived. Just this fall my friend’s son did an activity in middle school to draw a scientist—and nearly everyone drew a man in a lab coat with glasses. This provides a clear example of why doing the work to widen people’s perspectives of who scientists are and can be is so important and necessary. 

In WHYY The Pulse podcast “The Hidden Cost of Science” as well as the recent documentary “Picture a Scientist,” women from different backgrounds note that science is supposed to be based on impartial observation. However, it is performed by humans, and historically, mainly white men. And this culture of white maleness means that a specific kind of norm has been put into place. 

Certain assumptions are made about our actions because of how we fit this norm, or don’t fit it. Therefore, there is an implicit push for Black, Indigenous and people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ and other identity folks in the sciences to act differently than their authentic selves, to “code switch” to a special kind of professionalism, described very clearly by Shahamat Uddine

500 Women Scientists leadership team in 2019. The group works to make science open, inclusive and accessible. Photo by Caity Hines

In the “The Hidden Cost of Science,” Jasmine Chodras noted that scientists are expected to leave behind certain aspects of our personality. This is not new information for many of us. Black colleagues have discussed a need to straighten their hair, dress and speak differently, to code switch into a different persona in professional settings, scientific or not. 

I myself strive to have a wardrobe that is undoubtedly unsexual so that my gender is somewhat less “present” at work. Recent conversations with Drexel University’s Office of Research and Innovation’s Diversity Dialogues highlighted that “professionalism” is completely built on white patriarchal supremacy. Aysa Gray defines these standards as: 

“white and Western standards of dress and hairstyle (straightened hair, suits but not saris, and burqa and beard bans in some countries); in speech, accent, word choice, and communication (never show emotion, must sound “American,” and must speak white standard English); in scrutiny (black employees are monitored more closely and face more penalties as a result); and in attitudes toward timeliness and work style. (Aysa Gray, 2019) 

By establishing such a narrow definition of professionalism, organizations support deeply racist and sexist cultures and subliminal biases that deliver a message of not belonging to many folks who are talented and passionate about their studies and work.

In the workplace, biases and concepts of professionalism do more damage than just leading us to change our wardrobes and speaking styles. In the “Hidden Cost” podcast, Nicole Cabrera Salazar noted that she was accused of cheating when in fact it was her white female colleague who was the cheater. Acts of injustice and discrimination are prevalent against women and Black, Indigenous and people of color groups, people with disabilities, and the intersections of those groups and LGBTQIA identities. 

The white, patriarchal foundation of science has been so widely accepted that it has even been a challenge to show that it exists and is problematic. For example, the meritocracy ideology (“pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”) supports it with the idea that if you just worked hard enough, you would be successful. Many of us know from experience that this is not true. 

Fellowship for the Future was founded to recognize and amplify the crucial role of women of color in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine. Members include (from left) Dr. Susan Chen, Dr. Stefanie Bodison, Lauren Edwards, Dr. Gabriela Fernandez-Cuervo, Dr. Natalie Nevárez, Dr. Jane Zelikova. Photo by Dr. Jane Zelikova

Selective network building, strategic interactions, pleasantness and other facets of navigating academic and scientific culture are heavily influenced by the white patriarchy.  Nancy Hopkins, PhD, said she didn’t want to have to fight this fight at MIT where she worked, she just wanted to do science. But to get the resources she needed, she felt she had to lead the fight.  Many sources have noted that on top of being Black, brown, LGBTQIA+, and other non-dominant identities, these groups  are also expected (usually unintentionally) to drive the conversations and initiatives in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (Hunt et al. 2018, a McKinsey report). 

The environmental sciences still are  predominantly white (83.4%) despite greater interest in environmental issues by African-American communities than whites. While many might think that Black, Indigenous and people of color are not as interested in the outdoors, this has been shown to be untrue. In her book “Black Faces White Spaces,” Carolyn Finlay discusses several reasons we may perceive Black folks as less interested in the outdoors. Principal among them are the way in which Black folks were driven by whites from rural to urban areas, and the discrimination and sometimes danger for Black, Indigenous and people of color to be present in remote natural spaces. 

In addition, the founders of the environmentalist movement were extremely racist and subscribed to eugenics. Consciously or not, are these sentiments still part of the bias involved when recruiting students and staff?  

Intersectionality of identities further complicates the way women of color, LGBTQIA+ and other multiple identities may be perceived in the sciences. In the question as to whether women and men are equally able to perform science, Handelsman et al.’s  “More Women in Science” notes that there is not a consensus in terms of whether specific aspects of cognitive ability differ between the sexes. The authors then state: 

There is no ideal constellation of cognitive abilities required to be a scientist...  Men and women may differ, on average, in some of these abilities, but that is not a basis on which we can predict success because different mixtures lead to diverse, yet successful, approaches and styles in science (Handelsman et al. 2005).” 

This sentence struck me hard because when we think about a scientist’s personality, we often have a short list of items (Type A and thus very organized, rigid opinions and concepts, and so focused on science with few other interests, from an academic family background, among other assumptions.) But I do not represent every aspect they assume (Oh, you’re not very socially awkward!”). I am also not from a family of academics, scientists or wealth, and there are assumptions of my history that I often, awkwardly or not, have to debunk. But I am white, so there are many assumptions that I can pass for having or that I haven’t needed to identify or defend. 

So what can we do to reduce the effects of bias among scientists and as we perceive them? 

  1. Watch the documentary Picture a Scientist. Some of these examples are extreme cases of discrimination and harassment, but these true experiences are more widespread than you may realize. Consider what your biases may be and how they affect your treatment of people and fellow scientists) 
  1. Publish and post pictures of diverse scientists who look different from Einstein! Read their work, like Christian Cooper’s comic about birding! And 1,000 Inspiring Scientists in America, LatinX scientists, National Hispanic Science Network, scientists with disabilities, 500 Queer Scientists, 500 Women Scientists, Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media Of course, hiring diverse scientists is the best way to show your commitment.  
  1. Encourage young scientists. One of the most important factors for success in science is having a good mentor. You can participate through One Million Mentors and other programs. 
  1. Donate to scholarship programs, programs for Black, Indigenous and students of color and those with disabilities to help them obtain higher education degrees. Collegescholarships.org has a long list of options.  
  1. The World Economic Forum published an article on 6 ways to support diversity and inclusion in STEM

To read the full articlevisit the author’s Medium site

By Stefanie A. Kroll, PhD, project science director for the Delaware River Watershed Initiative at the Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research. She is an assistant research professor in the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science. 

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