Diversity in Science

Diversity in science and diversity in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) in general are important issues, and I’d like to write more about them. This post is related to my previous post, in which I discussed work-life balance issues. I’ll only review some of the relevant issues here, and I plan to follow up and write more about them in later posts. On diversity in astronomy and astrophysics, I recommend checking out the Women in Astronomy blog, the American Astronomical Society’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy (CSWA), and the STEM Women blog. I focus on the situation in the United States here, but these are issues that people are seeking to address internationally, though the specific situation and possible solutions vary among different countries. (For statistics on members of the International Astronomical Union, see this paper.)

By diversity, I mean the distributions of people in the scientific workforce, including graduate students, postdocs, and tenure-track and tenured faculty as a function of gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation don’t reflect their distribution in the overall population. In other words, the disproportionate majority of the scientific workforce is composed of white men. Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to STEM fields; we also see a lack of diversity in the media, law, among policy-makers, the tech industry, corporate boardrooms, etc. I will take it as given that diversity is an important goal: it’s important for equality, and everyone benefits when work environments are more diverse.


To give some specific numbers, according to the CSWA nearly half of undergraduate students who obtain bachelors of science degrees are women, but only a third of astronomy graduate students and ~30% of Ph.D. recipients are. Women compose ~25-30% of postdocs and lower-level faculty, and this drops by half (to ~15%) of tenured faculty. The female participation rate drops as you look up the “ladder”. Unfortunately, the situation is worse in non-astronomy physics, engineering, and math. For example, only 18% of physics Ph.D.s are women. Among the physical sciences, biology is doing the best on gender diversity. The following figure (taken from this Scientific American article) shows the breakdown among these sciences.


While I’m focusing on gender in this post, the lack of diversity by race and ethnicity is also a major problem. Fewer than 3% of US citizens receiving Ph.D’s are African-American and Hispanic, though together they represent more than a quarter of the US population. Clearly much more work needs to be done to rectify this situation and improve racial diversity. People are working on the whole “pipeline”, from elementary school students to people holding faculty and other senior positions. I should also make the obvious point that there generally appears to be a lack of class diversity as well within higher education and graduate programs. In addition, according to the US Census Bureau, the income discrepancy between the working class and the professional class with the higher academic degrees is growing.

These are not encouraging numbers, but at least they are an improvement over the situation a decade ago and much better than two decades ago. Nonetheless, the rate of improvement is very slow, and the problem will be not be solved simply by waiting for the pipeline to flow (i.e., the senior people retire and the more diverse lower ranks are gradually promoted). Even if overt sexism and racism did not exist at all in departments and hiring decisions, some inequality would persist in STEM fields. Many people are asking what is causing this and what can be done about it.

These are issues with which physical scientists could benefit from the research and input of social scientists. For example, consider these articles by Aanerud et al. (2007) and Timmers et al. (2010), which I found from a quick search of the literature. Aanerud et al. argue that in order to understand women’s tenure status, we should widen our lens and consider the role of labor market alternatives to academic careers; consequently, “we must be cautious about women’s favorable tenure ratio in fields with interpreting gender strong alternatives to academic tenure as indicating academic gender equity.” (In other words, in physics and astronomy we may not necessarily want to emulate the policies used in more diverse fields.) Timmers et al. argue that “Three sets of factors explain women’s low shares at higher job levels, notably individual, cultural, and structural or institutional perspectives, and policies to increase the proportion of women therefore should address these factors.” Policy measures that address the cultural perspective (such as expressing responsibility for applying a gender equality policy at department levels and women in selection committees) and structural perspective (such as accounting for the recruitment of women, adapting job advertisements, and bonuses for hiring women) appear to work effectively in combination.

Also, sociology professor Crystal Fleming has a well-written blog post on privilege and the importance of resilience in the face of rejection and failure while working in academia. This is important because scientists and academics, but more female than male ones, are affected by “imposter syndrome.” (Personally, I can tell you that I’ve had to work hard applying for numerous positions, fellowships, research grants, etc., and it’s difficult to be rejected by the vast majority of them.) As one more example, Adam Burgasser, a faculty in my department at UCSD, has worked with social scientists recently to better recruit and retain diverse graduate students. They’ve found that it’s important to follow-through and continue mentoring students through their graduate career.

What other kinds of things are being done or can be done to improve the situation? It’s important to encourage and mentor undergrads, grad students, and postdocs, and also to talk to them about alternative career paths outside academia, as there are many possible careers for scientists. As important, it’s good to reach girls and boys in primary and secondary school about science, and it’s important to try to reduce currently prevalent cultural stereotypes. For example, when many people think of typical scientists, they imagine a nerdy white man (such as in the TV show “Big Bang Theory”) in a lab coat. There are many ways to encourage girls’ interest in science, though some ways may be more effective than others (see this Slate article, for example). Members of university departments and other organizations have developed a wide range of outreach programs targeting girls and children of color, including numerous programs at UC San Diego that bring secondary school students and underprivileged youth to UCSD for interactive demonstrations, labs, lectures, and other activities aimed at enhancing their interest in science.

There are other cultural issues to deal with as well. For example, some people have stereotypes about their own bosses, but women are great leaders (maybe better than men) and people’s views about female bosses vis-à-vis male bosses are improving in some ways. It’s also difficult for people of color; an African American leader who appear authoritative or offers criticism of particular policies, for example, can be stereotyped as an “angry black man” or “angry black woman.” Whites and males should be more aware of gender and race privilege, and this is something that should be more frequently and openly discussed. (See this excellent blog post by Caitlin Casey.) In addition, some people, inadvertently or not, might act in a sexist or racist manner at work, and this should be challenged and called out. And we have to be very careful about “unconscious bias”: for example, both men and women surprisingly have the same biases against women in male-dominated fields, though the biases are reduced when people are aware of them and when diverse committees make decisions about hiring and leadership decisions (see this article by Meg Urry).

It seems like the literature on “confidence gap” issues has been growing rapidly, encouraging women to “lean in” and be more confident and self-assured at work. All of this is great and important. In my opinion, however, it’s also potentially misleading. We can’t neglect persistent structural problems, power relations, pernicious cultural frames, and we can’t forget gender and race inequality.

Increasing diversity is an important goal, but it’s also a means to an end. In my opinion, we need to set our sights higher than merely having a few more women and people of color among faculty members. We need *paid* maternity leave, universal or child-care options, better dual-career policies, and paternal leave should be expected. There should be no benefit for men who continue working full-time rather than spending time with their new children, and we still have a long way to go until men share housework equally with women. This is related to work-life balance issues, which are definitely not a “women’s problem”. (See also these NY Times articles continuing the struggle for gender equality.) We’re gradually making progress, but much more work remains to be done.

5 thoughts on “Diversity in Science

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Academic Job Market in the Physical Sciences | Science Political

  2. Pingback: Climate Change Resilience and Governance: Preparing for the Effects of Global Warming | Science Political

  3. Those of you following the budget debates in Congress will be especially interested in this. From Josh Shiode (AAS Public Policy Fellow): “The Senate just released a draft for its authorization bill for the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP), NSF, NIST, and STEM Education programs (i.e., the America COMPETES reauthorization). It includes, in Sec. 107, direction that OSTP develop and implement guidelines for policies that encourage work-life balance, workplace flexibility, and family-responsiveness. Those familiar with NSF’s Career-Life Balance Initiative will find this familiar.” This is a positive sign! http://news.sciencemag.org/funding/2014/07/senate-bill-backs-nsfs-practices-and-calls-big-funding-boost

  4. Pingback: One Man’s Perspective on Diversity and Inequality in Science | Science Political

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.