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Advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion is a leadership issue for all of us

As part of the forthcoming RosettaCon 2019 Collection, Joyce Yen discusses diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in STEM. This blog summarises the keynote she delivered at RosettaCon 2019.

More and more people are proclaiming support for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), yet it continues to be elusive. Creating diverse, equitable, and inclusive STEM fields can sometimes feel like a debt or gap we may never resolve. While there are many contributing factors (such as limited access, historical legacies, lack of critical mass, socialization, stereotypes, implicit bias, and pipeline), Joyce W. Yen, PhD., (Director, University of Washington ADVANCE Center for Institutional Change) suggests that focusing only on the problems can stifle our agency in improving DEI in STEM. What if we flipped the conversation and focus instead on agency and what we can do?


When we ask ourselves “Where can I influence DEI in STEM?”, we move from solely focusing on areas of concern to considering areas of influence. This proactive question asks us to examine our own leadership role. We may begin to realize that in some ways we might be part of the problem. We will also begin to understand that each of us can most definitely be part of the solution.

This perspective highlights that advancing DEI in STEM is actually an issue of leadership, both personally and structurally. I borrow from the work of Jackson Katz who is a gender violence prevention expert; he says we need leadership training rather than sensitivity training when it comes to addressing male violence against women. I believe the same concept applies to addressing DEI in STEM.  We need leadership training, not just diversity training. A leadership stance moves us beyond being concerned or informed to being actively engaged in addressing the issue.

We can initiate our DEI leadership development by considering the following four strategies:

Acknowledge that we are all biased, stay on guard, and commit to growing our DEI skills

When we want to grow our scientific skills or knowledge, we engage with experts, review the literature, ask questions and open ourselves to learning. The same approach applies for growing our DEI skills. Having a DEI leadership lens means making a commitment to becoming informed about the issues and acknowledging our own role in either advancing DEI or maintaining the status quo. We must learn about bias, privilege, history, socialization, experiences in STEM of people different from ourselves, and other topics that significantly influence DEI in STEM. It is also important to acknowledge how we all are susceptible to and influenced by these very issues. For example, when we think we are objective, research [paywall] shows that we actually tend to behave in more biased ways. Thus, we need to stay on guard about our own biases. This approach helps us better understand the nuances, complexities, and long history influencing DEI in STEM. Becoming educated about DEI is just the first step. Leadership requires actively using this education.

Build accountability measures

Leaders acknowledge the issue and recognize their role. They create accountability mechanisms that can reset norms, practices, and even policies. Change is hard, but when accountability mechanisms are built in, change is more likely and easier to manage.  Accountability can be nuanced practices such as clearly defining and using evaluation rubrics or examining how evaluation is conducted. It can also be simple strategies such as tracking spreadsheets that allow examination of patterns and trends over time. Without accountability, we can trick ourselves into believing we are not susceptible to bias or that our good intentions lead to fair and equitable outcomes. Addressing DEI in STEM takes persistent effort, as demonstrated by efforts to eliminate all male scientific panels, and accountability. When we create accountability measures, we build a feedback loop that can illuminate the consequences of our (in)action.

Go beyond goals (“what”) to create action plans (“how”)

Many people say they are supportive of DEI in STEM, but are at a loss for what to do. The question should become not what, but rather how. The “what” are goals we want to accomplish. Goals are lag measures; they are outcomes-based metrics. However, goals (“the what”) do not address “the how.” For that, we have to turn to lead measures. According to the book The 4 Disciplines of Execution, lead measures are new behaviors (actions) that drive success, are implementable, and will impact the lag measures. Lead measures are agency metrics that I can readily influence. For example, if my goal (lag measure) is more diversity among my department’s seminar speaker slate, my lead measure could be interacting with scientists of color at conferences. I could hold myself accountable by tallying how many scientists of color I connect with at conferences. This lead measure impacts who I know in science which could, in turn, impact who interacts with my department. Using this behavior lens highlights my agency for impacting DEI in STEM.

Examine norms, structures and systems that perpetuate bias

Norms follow power. Thus, leaders and leadership are critical to fostering norms, policies, structures, and systems that advance DEI. Robin DiAngelo writes in White Fragility, “Who is allowed to belong and be successful is granted by those in power. That is culture. Not what we individually decide. But what our structures and systems, which are controlled by those in power, support and allow.” A recent article illustrated this concept when they showed that a culture of structure in chemistry (such as clear expectations and processes and multiple faculty formally engaged with each student) eliminated the publishing gap seen in other science disciplines between women and people of color and white men. In another recent example, the Space Telescope Science Institute changed the proposal review process for Hubble telescope time in response to documented gender bias in the time-allocation process. Leaders must carefully examine their organizational culture with a DEI lens, intentionally applying ideas such as the previous three strategies. Otherwise, they may find that policies intended to be neutral may actually inhibit DEI, as was the case when gender-neutral stop-the-tenure-clock policies intended to level the playing field for female faculty actually ended up advantaging male faculty.

It is never too late to start working on diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM. As with any debt, diversity, equity, and inclusion debt compounds over time if we are not attentive to it. On the flip side, just as financial debt can be reduced through difficult and deliberate strategies that require changing behaviors and practices, DEI debt can be addressed a similar fashion. Each of us can make DEI in STEM an area of personal responsibility [paywall] and execute strategies such as those shared in this post. We all have spaces we can influence and shape — whether it is our individual interactions, our labs and research groups, our departments, or our scientific fields. We can become educated about DEI and use intentional strategies that change existing norms and practices to create new ways of being and working in STEM. As the saying goes, many hands make light work. Let’s all get to work.

Image Credit: Joyce W. Yen.

Relationship to RosettaCon 2019 Special Collection: A version of this post was presented in a keynote talk at the 2019 RosettaCon meeting.


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