One Man’s Perspective on Diversity and Inequality in Science

[This blog was originally posted at the Women in Astronomy blog. Thanks to Jessica Kirkpatrick for editing assistance.]

It’s obvious, but one thing I’ve noticed over my career so far is that many departments, institutions, conferences, organizations, committees, high-profile publications, big research grants, etc., both nationally and internationally, and especially leadership positions, are filled with straight, white, men. There are notable and impressive exceptions, but the trend is clear. The distributions of people in the scientific workforce clearly don’t reflect their distribution in the overall population. For example, according to the AAS’s Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy, 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. This is not explained by historical differences in gender: if women were promoted and retained at rates comparable to men, then the fractions advancing to higher career stages should be equal. The demographics in terms of race aren’t good either: according to the American Institute of Physics, African Americans and Hispanics combined account for only 5% of physics faculty.

Of course, this isn’t news to readers of this blog. And the disturbing lack of diversity doesn’t just affect us in astronomy and astrophysics or even just in the physical sciences. For example, as you’ve probably seen, the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley has deservedly been in the news lately. Tech companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have all been criticized for being dominated by white men (and recently, also Asian men). We definitely need to work more at improving diversity in all STEM fields.

I’m a half-white half-Iranian man in astronomy and astrophysics. Everything is competitive these days, but in my opinion, if I’m applying for a job or a grant, for example, and if a black or Latino person or a woman with the same experience and qualifications as me has also applied, I think she should probably get it. While the grant and job markets in STEM fields are very competitive, I think we should look at the big picture, in which we need to strive for more equality in our universities and institutions. It’s also important to keep in mind that both men and women leave academia (though at different rates) and find important and fulfilling careers elsewhere.

I’d also like to point out that, in Iran, STEM fields are not seen as “male” subjects as much as they are in the US and they therefore have almost gender parity in these fields. For example, 70% of Iranian science and engineering students are women and when I last visited Tehran, I met many brilliant female Iranian physics students who could speak about science in both Farsi and English. And in recent news, Maryam Mirzakhani recently became the first woman to win the Fields Medal mathematics prize, and Azeen Ghorayshi won the Clark/Payne award for science journalists. (She recently wrote a story for Newsweek about smog in Tehran, which keeps getting worse.)

In any case, we all benefit—and science benefits—when we have a diverse community. A more diverse workforce, including among leadership positions, helps to produce new ideas and perspectives and to guard against bias. In business, when there is more diversity, everyone profits.

Speaking of bias, how can we deal with “unconscious bias”? In practice, two applicants are never identical, so we have to assess people on a case-by-case basis. It turns out that both men and women surprisingly have similar biases against women in STEM fields, though the biases can be reduced when people are more aware of them and when diverse committees make decisions about hiring and leadership decisions. In addition, diversity and racial equity should be considered at both the initial and shortlist stages of admissions and hiring, and the academic tenure system should be more flexible.

On the issue of leadership and mentorship, I’ve had female and male bosses and mentors and I’ve advised male and female students; in addition, I’ve worked with and for people from many different countries and backgrounds. As far as I can tell, it hasn’t made a difference for me, and I’ve seen a greater variety of management and collaboration styles among men and women than differences between them (though I’ve seen more overconfident men than women). Unfortunately though, some people still do view female leaders differently and hold them to different standards than male leaders.

So what can we do? Many people who are trying to improve this situation are doing excellent work on public outreach and educational programs especially with the purpose of reaching and encouraging girls, minorities, and underprivileged youth. It’s not hard to find such programs everywhere: for example, I recently participated in the Adler Planetarium Astrojournalists program and in a physics outreach program at UCSD with Intertribal Youth organized by Adam Burgasser. The success of such programs, as well as the growing numbers of role models, help to gradually changing cultural stereotypes and reducing biases. For those of us at research institutions, work on outreach and communication should be valued as much as research achievements when hiring and tenure decisions are made. One way to do this would be to explicitly state this in job advertisements and to hiring and tenure committees at our own institutions. It would require more work from such committees, but that’s a small price to pay.

The literature on “confidence gap” issues has been growing rapidly, encouraging women to “lean in” and be more confident and self-assured at work. This is important, but it amounts to encouraging women to behave more like men. We can’t neglect persistent structural and institutionalized barriers and we can’t forget that gender and race inequality is everywhere or that men and white people are benefit from their privileges. (And although class is a separate issue, it’s worth pointing out that there is also a lack of class diversity within higher education and graduate programs. According to the US Census Bureau, the income discrepancy between the working class and the professional class with higher academic degrees is growing, so this problem is getting worse.)

Increasing gender and race diversity is an important goal and an ongoing struggle, but it’s also a means to an end. I believe that we need to set our sights higher than merely having a few more white women and people of color among faculty members. We need *paid* maternity leave, universal or child-care options, better dual-career policies, and paternity leave should be expected. We shouldn’t praise 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. Work-life balance issues affect everyone, including single people and those without children. We can advocate for new policies at our own institutions, and city- or state-wide or even national policies would make a huge difference. As a potential step in that direction, even Congress is aware of these issues: in the America COMPETES Act (which funds STEM R&D, education, and innovation) reauthorization it’s now directing the Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) develop and implement guidelines for policies that encourage work-life balance, workplace flexibility, and family-responsiveness. In any case, we’re gradually making progress, but much more work remains to be done.

3 thoughts on “One Man’s Perspective on Diversity and Inequality in Science

  1. Just to clarify (and thanks to Mojegan Azadi for pointing this out), although many women in Iran are going into science and math, there is still a substantial gender bias in engineering in the country.

  2. Pingback: Comet Update! Rosetta’s Philae landed, but not as planned | Science Political

  3. Pingback: 8 Ways to Improve the Academic System for Science and Scientists | Science Political

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