#BlackLivesMatter… but what about in academia? A #DiversityJC recap.

I don’t know about anyone else, but in the wake of the non-indictments of Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner (and allllllll the other people of color assaulted and made dead by police), I had a tough time getting work done. I felt distracted and depressed, exhausted from the excuses I saw on social media and how backwards everything seemed. Yet, as Jon Stewart (another person of considerable privilege) put it, I could only imagine what it would be like to actually live these experiences as a person of color. On twitter, we discussed briefly if the Diversity Journal Club should address the current state of things more directly, or if we needed to stay more academic.

Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci) had a great solution:

For me, these articles (found here and here) made painfully clear that diversity issues directly concern academic and scientific communities. Even if you feel racial injustice doesn’t affect you directly, these articles demonstrate they do impact your colleagues, your friends, and your students.

Our discussion opened with the divide between racial groups, and how this persists in academia. These can be physical, such as living in a very white or racially divided area. They similarly exist in academic communities, where departments are very often dominated by white men.

Yet the divide also manifests in less obvious ways: When you are not part of the minority group, you don’t have to care about minority issues. We don’t have to talk about them, even when we talk about other major social events.

And if we do talk about them, we can be woefully, painfully, ignorant.

And this is at the mild end of the spectrum. The excuses I heard on social media were downright disturbing.

But even if you do care, and you are aware of the real issues, and you do discuss them appropriately, as the articles make clear, they don’t affect you nearly as acutely.


This has real repercussions across academic communities, and across the career arc of minorities
. As students, as the article points out, their science may not feel as immediate as the injustice they and others deal with every day – injustice that may get them arrested or dead. This is a real threat to their person, and their ability to work and learn.

Furthermore, if the community around them while in school isn’t discussing very real injustice, or is outwardly dismissing it, this only increases the divide, deepening the difference between a student’s life and their academic training and community. They can feel so disconnected, as albatrossphd (@albatrossphd) noted, some mentees don’t even know others would care. If this isn’t enough, they are often also expected to shoulder the responsibility of enacting change, while others around them don’t have to care.

As students progress in their careers, they continue to be the minority as faculty. They continue to be surrounded by colleagues that don’t appear to care or be affected, and remain responsible for changing things when others don’t speak up. They are likely to also want or be expected to sit on a range of committees and do additional work as the token minority faculty member. Little of this work is acknowledged, valued, or included in the tenure process.


This is how diversity directly impacts peopleyour colleagues and peers and students if you aren’t in a minority groupthroughout their careers. From start to finish.

Add to all of this the fact that white peers and colleagues don’t have to care about anything but their research, and can focus their passion on science and science alone. This is likely not the case for minority students and academics, as one of our articles argues. There is a struggle to balance your life’s work, with your life.


In addition, academia operates as if we are all under the same standards. It wants us to believe it is a meritocracy. If you are smart enough, work hard enough, are passionate enough, you will succeed. This idea is willfully ignorant of reality.


So. What do we do? While we discussed why and how diversity matters to academia, we also discussed what steps we can take – especially as allies for people of color. First, we talked about whether or not we should bring these issues up with our students – is it appropriate to talk about Ferguson in class? Did we need to? How do we bring it up and in what space?

Personally, I believe we have a responsibility to discuss these issues, to make clear that we do care and we are not going to be silence. We need to initiate conversations, “signal support” to mentees (Laura Williams, @MicroWaveSci), and figure out “stating your stance” to the community at large (Luna CM Centifanti, @LunaCentifanti). As Chris Rock has put it recently, racism is really a white problem. It is about white actions, it is white people that need to be educated and it is our behavior that needs to be altered. It is up to us as white people to make change. Our silence, our inability or unwillingness to speak up, does nothing for that change.

But how do we go about it? We also shared some experiences and some tips for bringing up what are indeed difficult subjects that are outside the scope of the classes we seek. For instance, it can be as simple as checking in with our students.

…and it can be helpful and safe to have the conversation one-on-one:

In addition to smaller conversations, we can bring these things up in class:

Sometimes other issues are more important than science.

There is a larger world out there with significant problems we as a society need to address, issues that feed back into scientific institutions and communities that claim to be above the fray. They are not, and if we do nothing, they will remain that way.

One piece of advice was to bring recent events and transition them to discussions of why they matter to the science we’re doing and discussing.

However, albatrossphd (@albatrossphd) shared that her attempt at conversation didn’t go that well at first:

Despite this, we determined that even bringing it up at all still demonstrates these issues are important to you, and could be helpful in the long term – that students may think about later. It still clearly mattered to some in the classroom, even if they didn’t know how to continue the dialogue:


In addition to students, as Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci) pointed out, we also need to be thinking about ways to reach out to staff, faculty, and others.

We can mentor and support junior faculty and junior staff, including postdocs. In addition, for me, this means being visible and vocal. Show up for rallies and on-campus conversations, volunteer to be on committees. Share your views on the importance of diversity at your institution and be informed on why diversity matters. We are scientists – every day we discuss evidence and make arguments. We can and should do that with diversity at our respective institutions. Speak up about student issues, hiring, promotion, etc.

…and encourage our institutions to directly address diversity:

This is also happening at my previous institution, the University of New Hampshire, but we need people ensuring it isn’t just lip service and translates into action. This, of course, means we get leadership and administration on board. After all, leadership is key for systemic change, and determining the direction, priorities, and environment of an institution:

We can do more to make clear that these things matter to us. That we are allies, and we are (or want to be) engaged in the movement.

We can also “just check in” with our friends and colleagues, with our peers.

But we should follow such check-ins with “what can I do?”

Check-ins should also be done broadly, as a way to focus attention on these important issues. It’s not just checking in individually, it’s checking in with our communities, our institutions, asking “how are we doing on this? What are we doing about this?” Doing this alone makes clear you know these things affect everyone together, and that it is something we address together.

Doing all of these things are critical steps we can all take, and they have a secondary result: they also mean you help share the responsibility of creating change.


Of course, it’s more than just our immediate academic communities. We need to look at the people around us, too – including our families and our kids.


In the end, I realized the connection between science and diversity is not just about how we speak up and take action around diversity and for social justice specifically, but it also means doing great, interesting science that we share with others.

This is also where it matters. Where we connect with others, with the next generations. Where we encourage passion and curiosity – and where we say “yes. You can do this too.”


For me, it also means doing the best science now will put me in a better position, in a leadership position, later down the line – one I can leverage to address diversity issues, to amplify diverse voices, and support diverse careers. This is also how my science can make a difference one day. I am committed to a career that focuses on diversity issues, as well as a career of interesting and useful science. These are not mutually exclusive career objectives.


I know I am not alone.


Thank you to everyone who joined in and followed the discussion! Please let me know if there are any errors here, or if I missed anyone. Leave additional thoughts, questions, etc, in the comments here, or on twitter under #DiversityJC!


Give these fine folks a follow, too (in no particular order)!

Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer)
Luna CM Centifanti (@LunaCentifanti)
Megan McCuller (@mccullermi)
Laura Williams (@MicroWaveSci)
albatrossphd (@albatrossphd)
Rebecca Pollet (@rmpollet)
urbie delgado (@urbie)
Joshua Drew (@Drew_Lab)
Cynthia Malone (@cynth_malone)
Cleyde Helena (@cleydevan)
Roy W. Smolens Jr (@smoroi)
April Wright (@WrightingApril)
Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee)


Thanks again and watch for a new article – the last of 2014! – on Monday 15 December.

Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS)
Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein)

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2nd #DiversityJC recap

For those who don’t know, the idea to create a #DiversityJC (a twitter journal club discussion around #diversity in #STEM) was born of twitter interactions between Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein), Jonathan Goaya (@jkgoya), and myself (@Doctor_PMS). You can read more about it here. For our first #DiversityJC we discussed the paper that started the conversation and it was a great discussion (recap)! For this second #DiversityJC we chose a more general article by Kenneth Gibbs (@KennyGibbsPhD), describing what is diversity more broadly and why it matters in science and STEM fields. I was gladly surprised by the number of people that joined our discussion, I barely could keep up with my feed! There was a lot going on, so I’m going to try to focus on the main points in this recap.

As a heterogeneous group, many issues were brought up in the beginning of the discussion. Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek) stated the importance of having people who make determined efforts to promote diversity, Dr. Wrasse (@labroides) pointed out the loss of smart people from the academy when only traditional groups are supported, with big implications in conservation because we are closing doors to people from biodiverse countries. Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein) commented on the serious issue of meritocracy in academia (that is, the idea that diversity can be ignored because those that are best at science will still rise like cream to the top). Importantly, @PhdGeek pointed out the comments of the article, where it seems many people don’t recognize the issue as a problem “we need deportation programs”.

Exactly. “So if the answer is increasing diversity, can we do that through recruiting more diverse applicants into programs?” (@labroides). This is one option. Other alternatives suggested were diversity training at work (@MicroWavesSci), mentoring programs for minorities (@Doctor_PMS), target grant-writing seminars, fellowships for diverse peoples aim to prepare women and POC (@AlyciaPhD), on-paper diversity (@jkgoya), and more formal hiring criteria (@PhdGeek). Perhaps formalized diversity committees in Institutions. Of course, hiring is one end of the pipeline. “Problem has to be tackled at an earlier stage than job search” (@CoralReefFish).

Another point was  the importance of a good mentor. “Potential mentors should be approaching minorities, not wait to be approached” (@mccullermi). The importance of having a role model, teaching not only skills but also demonstrating passion for research. To this end, we also needmentoring training, as well as diversity training.

Our second Diversity Journal Club made clear we all cared about this issue, and had a lot to say. The take home message I believe it’s that “Diversity needs to be seen as mission-critical, not as an add-on” (@AlyciaPhD).

Please feel free to contact me to be added to the #DiversityJC twitter list. And here is the article for our next #DiversityJC on October 17th, 11EST: Diversity at 100: women and underrepresented minorities in the ESA. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 12: 434–436 from Kate Boersma (@kateboersma). All are welcome to join!

Thanks to all participants: Emily Klein (@DrEmilySKlein), Jonathan Goaya (@jkgoya), Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek), Dr. Wrasse (@labroides), Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee), Rhiannon Jeans (@PositronicNet), Laura Williams (@MicroWavesSci), Alycia Mosley Austin (@AlyciaPhD), Rebecca Weinberg (@sciliz), albatrossphd (@albatrossphd), Luiz Rocha (@CoralReefFish), Megan McCuller (@mccullermi), Wes Wilson (@WesleyWilson), Cara Fiore (@clfiore1).

#DiversityJC recap, guest post by @DrEmilySKlein

“According to my clock it’s 1100EST, let’s get this #DiversityJC rolling!”

 

And with that, we were off.

 

You know, it’s funny how things get started these days (especially for a twitter newbie like myself). One little tweet can ring so true, and next thing you know, you’re talking with complete strangers over the interwebs. But they don’t really feel like strangers, do they?

 

The Diversity Journal Club (#DiveristyJC) was born of conversations between Jonathan Goaya (@jkgoya), Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) and myself (@DrEmilySKlein). For our first paper, we discussed the one that got it all started (learn more here, and read the article here. The premise of the paper was that women get more positive feedback on their grant proposals than men do.

 

And our thoughts?

 

First and foremost, many had concerns with the methods used. Of course, as scientists assessing study in an unfamiliar field, we tempered that with a healthy dose of “well, the methodology was new for me so…”. Regardless, we generally agreed that the methods had to be somewhat addressed to assess the limitations of the study and critique results.

 

Concerns with methods included weighting very different words with the same value (i.e. being a genius is apparently the same as having a knack for something), distribution of words used, and how words were categorized and what those categories meant. Re-doing the study as a double-blind would also help, as well as a more narrow choice of words in general (such words like “queen*” and “king*” seemed… excessive, and were – let’s hope – doubtful found in a single response.) Authors should have limited the words addressed by their analysis to those that may have actually been used by reviewers instead of what appears to be a standard list of YAY and NAY words. Also, pretty small sample size. Of course, as Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek) pointed out, it could be a pilot study. In any event, we agreed that the methods needed some work, but we’d all like someone versed in them to provide a better critique.

 

However, a note: My understanding was the words used did come from other, published studies and methodologies. Either way, there did appear to be a underlying bias in the words used – perhaps indicating a larger, systemic problem with the words we use to define people along the gender binary, and how we code and value those words. As Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee) noted, “In perhaps not-so-subtle way, this could have incorporated broader biases about masculine vs feminine words into the analysis.”

 

Moving on to those “larger issues.” First and foremost, why would women be praised more than men? Especially given the increasing evidence that women are seen as less competent and are overlooked for jobs, tenure, even mentoring, and described using less capable words even by people trying to get them a job/money (e.g. in letters of rec)?

 

Given the findings argued by this study… What’s going on with grants?

 

Well. Perhaps we should be looking at it a bit differently. As Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya), the premise could be seen another way: “Do reviewers use different language to review women and men?” Ahhhh… now we’re getting somewhere…

 

For the first potential explanation, an old favorite of mine: Chivalry and the gender binary. Ladies be all soft and sensitive, duh, and, moreover, a true gentleman is not rude to ladies. Yes that’s an exaggeration, but you get my drift: Men used “nicer” language when speaking with women than with men.

 

Although… the women were also better funded, according to the study, so there’s less evidence that men were just being nice and letting the ladies down easy. That said, Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya) still noted “from personal [experience], I’m pretty sure men speak to each other in much more directly critical language than between men and women.” Also personally believing this to be true, I’m unwilling to throw out this explanation as a possibility. In addition, R. Deborah Overath (@scienceknitsteryes on that name) pointed out that, given how awesome the words were for women, they should actually have scored better.

 

Alternatively, as Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer) suggested, maybe men are becoming more aware of their biases and are overcompensating or being too careful… ?

 

Another explanation: The bar is lower for women. Many people are just surprised (surprised!) when women write a stellar grant proposal. They don’t expect it, so are more glowing in response. Moreover, Jonathan Goya noted “…to get the same scores, women have to really wow the reviewers” and Lauren Sakowski (@LaSaks87) reiterated that the women may have put in “extra effort for the same funding/recognition”.

 

Basically, we either don’t expect women to do well, or they have to put in the extra effort for the same recognition. Or both.

 

As some additional evident, Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek) noted that there is a larger difference between the positive and negative words used for funded women, but little difference for men. Perhaps the actual content of proposals from men somehow counted more. In addition, again to R. Deborah Overath’s (@scienceknitster) point that women possibly should have gotten better scores given the words used in their reviews. Perhaps the bias is not in the language used, but in the actual score that, you know, actually matters.

 

Of course, perhaps women just write better grants.

 

Or… they have more experience with them and exactly what reviewers are looking for. We all know grants can be formulaic. We also know women are less likely to be tenured or in leadership positions. Maybe these women have spent more time in soft-money jobs that simply require more grant writing to stay afloat in the world. Consequently, they’re just better at it.

 

Yet, again, as scientists assessing a study from a generally unfamiliar field, we craved more information. We speculated on additional variables that may help us piece apart the methods and the results, and really assess why this paper, on its surface, seems to contradict what more and more studies are telling us, and what many if not most of us know from experience: women are biased against in the sciences. We are still going up the stairs, when men have had an elevator.

 

 

Finally, Ruth Hufbauer reminds us that, yes, we’re scientist, but we’re also human. Just like the reviewers and the authors. It’s difficult to do things, like be on review panels, without either being biased in some way, or at least being worried about it.

 

This would be the final point I’d make, and I hope it’s one we come back to repeatedly in the Diversity Journal Club: As Dr. Wrasse (@labroides) asked: does a fish know it’s in water?

 

How do we recognize our own biases?

 

And what do we do about them when we start to figure them out? How do we deal with them in others?

 

That was where the Diversity Journal Club left off: contemplating how we become more self-aware, how we educate ourselves and others, and how we raise awareness.

 

We hope we’re doing our little part of this, in our own little corner of the twitterverse. Until next time, kids…

 

Lastly, a quick but very important note from Jonathan Goya and Beth Hellen that I was absolutely guilty of: avoid using karyotype (e.g. XX or XY) when discussing men or women. This automatically assumes sex, and negates a person’s right to self-identify their gender. Therefore, please instead use M, F or alternative. And please keep these critical hints coming!

 

 

The next Journal Club will be next week! We will post a paper on Monday 9/29 to review on Friday 10/3 at 11am EST. Have one we should read? Let us know! Since we just did one on gender, let’s have a new diversity topic for the next one – any and all welcome.

 

Thank you to all participants (and give them a follow, they’re awesome!)*

 

Doctor PMS (@Doctor_PMS) – the one who got us started with one little tweet!

Jonathan Goya (@jkgoya)

Dr. Wrasse (@labroides)

Beth Hellen (@PhdGeek)

biochem belle (@biochembelle)

Ruth Hufbauer (@hufbauer)

Mark (@NE14NaCl_aq)

PinkGlitteryBrain (@aiquintero)

Cheng H. Lee (@chenghlee)

Lauren Sakowski (@LaSaks87)

Deborah Overath (@scienceknitster)

Ian Street (@IHStreet)

Storify of the #DiversityJC

 

… and anyone else who checked in and followed the discussion. Again, we invite any and all participants, as long as you read the article and no trolling, please (although that just means we’ll ignore you. Which is a bummer. For you.)

 

‘Til next time!

 

Emily (@DrEmilySKlein)

 

*Let me know if I got any names wrong or you have trouble finding someone!