Eh! what’s that?
Exactly! That sort of response probably sums up the scientific community’s collective attitude towards Equality and Diversity. After all is not E&D HR speak, or something that our colleagues in Sociology and Business Schools worry about? How does it concern us?
I wonder if that is how it ought to be.
Who is (arguably) the most famous living scientist of our times? An icon who is known in every part of the world?
Probably Stephen Hawking.
This chap held the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge from 1979 till 2009 and is Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology. You may have read his book ‘A Brief History of Time’ which has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
This chap also sits in a wheelchair and is completely paralyzed. In our language he is disabled.
So his wheelchair bound status hasn’t stopped him being one of the greatest theoretical physicists of our generation, or writing best selling science books, getting loads of honours and degrees, or indeed, doing brilliant science. As scientists we would be poorer without him.
Now look around yourself.
- How many disabled colleagues do you have in your department/centre/laboratory/university?
- How many Deans, Heads of Departments, Directors of Research Centers, Vice Chancellors of universities do you see that are black (or Asian/Hispanic/ethnic minority)?
- When you attend a key international conference, how many keynote speakers are female? Especially in STEM subjects.
- How many of your colleagues are openly gay?
Simple statistical analysis will tell us that in a given population, some x% would be disabled, y% female, z% gay, p% ethnic minority, q% religious minority, etc. with these percentages differing slightly based on sample. So for STEM disciplines as a whole, why don’t we find these percentages reflected in the number of female/ethnic minority/disabled/gay/religious minority etc. colleagues, especially in the upper levels of the academic , scientific career ladder ?
Moreover, why should we care?
Research indicates that gender balanced teams are more productive and profitable than all male/female teams [2,3]. I am inclined to believe that overall teams with more ‘diversity’ perform better. Getting into a room the best people, with differing characteristics (gender/disability/race/sexual orientation etc.) can bring in more ideas and unique ways of thinking. Increasingly the business world has realised customers want to see some of their own identity and values reflected in the people they do business with. Consider, for example:
A university, ABZ, that comes across as unfriendly to a certain characteristic (let’s say race). Would the best students who are of this characteristic, go to ABZ? They would probably move to another university with a better reputation on E&D and take their tuition fee, good grades, research potential etc. with them. As would potential employees of that characteristic or those who just care about E&D.
Do we want to do better research, play with more exciting ideas, solve some really challenging problems, more success?
By ignoring, sidelining or mistreating people based on equality characteristics rather than fairly assessing on performance, we risk losing out some brilliant scientists, visionary thinkers and possible great leaders.
So, why is there such a lack of E&D in the scientific world?
When unconscious bias [4,5 ] (probably the larger factor) and active discrimination (hopefully less and less) become systemic and enter the machinery at every stage we end up where we are: people becoming seriously disadvantaged because they seem to belong to a particular race/gender/caste/religion/sexual orientation/have a disability.
A concrete example of systemic bias studied rigorously is that of gender discrimination:
The number of women in STEM subjects in academia is lower than men especially as we go up the ladder and there is some evidence to show that women are disadvantaged because of their gender in the peer review process of publications, awards and honours, as well as in the letters of recommendation written for them [6-12]. At this time there is a lot of discussion on around increasing the number of women in boards of companies through quotas. The scientific community has produced many reports about women in STEM, but the situation is not improving the way one might hope for.
How do we incorporate E&D?
That is a tough one! To me one key is that we should not approach equality and diversity in a piecemeal way. Some equalit/ies should not be more equal than other equalit/ies! The other key is that we have to really want this, believe in it and then work for it. Simply ticking boxes to prevent falling foul of the law is not sufficient.
It is also contextual: geographical, cultural, economic and discipline related factors must be accounted for in solving this problem. My (ahem) approach would be to devise a system such as this:
- get the data: for each organisation (be it a country/professional society/university/company) collect the numbers on the factual position, quantify and understand (qualitatively as well!) the problem
- set targets: where does the organization want to be in x years from now in achieving E&D
- consider organization specific means to achieve these targets
- monitor: learn from failure and emulate success, share best practices. A collective effort would probably yield more than the sum of its individual parts.
What some specific means could be to implement each of the above has been discussed in some of the excellent studies I have referred to. I have some ideas too, but that is for another day and another blog post!
- unconscious bias: people can consciously believe in equality while simultaneously acting on subconscious prejudices they are not aware of; take the Implict Association Test
- Zuckerman, Harriet. “The careers of men and women scientists.” Women, science, and technology: A reader in feminist science studies (2001): 67.
- Trix F, Penska C (2003) Exploring the color of glass: letters of recommendation for female and male medical faculty. Discourse & Society 14: 191–220