I recently served on a student-organized diversity and inclusion panel at the EMBL Spectra of Life Symposium. While it’s still fresh in my memories, I wanted to write down some of the key points and takeaways from the panel discussion. Special thanks to Victoria Witte and Hosna Baniadam for their leadership in organizing the panel and moderating the discussions and many other students for their thoughtful questions and comments.
Why does diversity and inclusion matter?
Because addressing the needs of the marginalized benefits the collective.
A common question is why diversity and inclusion matter and why we should care. Both moderators and panelists noted a plethora of studies demonstrating how diverse people bring in diverse perspectives that help troubleshoot, mitigate bias, and ultimately improve the scientific output.
In my own experience, diversity and inclusion has mattered in a less direct way when it comes to improving our science. Specifically, it’s worth noting that diversity can come in many forms, many of which are not immediately visible. One example of such less visible axes of diversity is economic status - more specifically, access to financial flexibility and fluidity. When one of my students expressed difficulty paying for travel expenses associated with a conference upfront and getting reimbursed later, we worked together to hire a travel agent that could reserve all travel expenses and be paid directly using lab funds. Because my student was willing to voice this difficulty and because we were able to work together to address this challenge, all my students now work with travel agents for conference travel. All travel expenses get paid directly using lab funds and no student has to worry about major reimbursements. And I believe that when students don’t have to worry about administrative tasks like reimbursements, they can focus more on improving our science.
Achieving this inclusive outcome means not only having diverse people be present but ensuring that they are able to voice their opinions, contribute to decisions, and exercise power in shaping the outcomes.
How can we best work to improve diversity and inclusion?
Focus on systemic structures not individuals.
Even from observing the room, it was evidence that at the student level, there was more diversity than at the faculty level. Such reduction in diversity as one progresses has often been named the ‘leaky pipeline’ and was referred to as a ‘gap reversal from school to work’ in the context of this panel discussion.
In thinking about this ‘gap reversal’, we must call to attention the systemic structures that perpetuate and enable it. Fellow panelists noted the rigidity of early stage opportunity timelines and its incongruence with the biological clock in terms of having children as well as the continuing imbalance in household responsibilities among men and women as contributing factors to the ‘gap reversal’.
I would further like to call to attention the metrics we use to evaluate and select for the people who get to progress through the academic ladder. At the student level, many hiring decisions still rely on metrics like grades. Women statistically do well when it comes to grades, so we would not expect such a metric to disadvantage women. However, as we progress up the academic ladder, metrics such as publication count or citation numbers begin being used for hiring decisions. For these metrics, perhaps women do become systematically disadvantaged. For example, even for myself, I have experienced situations where I’ve contributed to papers but was not included as an author, thereby impacting my publication count. If such a situation disproportionally affects women, even for a small number of papers, the consequences would propagate to result in a systematic disadvantage in publication count. It is worth noting that these systematic disadvantages do not have to be malicious. For example, I recall being a speaker at an event where afterwards the speakers wanted to go out for dinner together. The men, most of whom were much more senior in the field, decided to go to a “cigar bar”, an activity that I was not interested in. So, I and another young woman decided to go to a restaurant together, thereby potentially missing out on networking opportunities with our senior colleagues to tell them about our work. Again, if such a situation disproportionally affects women, even for a small number of networking opportunities, the consequences would propagate to result in a systematic disadvantage. This also means interventions at the organizational level, such as conferences providing meals together, can help foster inclusion.
Ultimately, I believe we are all interested in the same outcome: to enable great science. We assume metrics such as grades, publication counts, and citation numbers as proxies to guide the selection for individuals who will be able to do great science. It is worth keeping in mind that these metrics are, at the end of the day, proxies and not replacements for the real thing: a person existing within a system, and as such, these metrics must be evaluated within the context of these systemic structures and the forces they exert.
What can we do as students (and junior faculty)?
We show up. We be visible. We exist. We thrive.
“What can we do?” two young women ask as the first question from the audience.
First, we must recognize that diversity and inclusion work is WORK. Unfortunately, it is often not recognized as work. Were diversity and inclusion work to be recognized as work, it would count as an important service contribution in hiring, grant evaluation, and tenure decisions. It would also be eligible for offsetting the amount of time spent on other institutional service commitments such as teaching formal courses or service on other institutional committees.
This means that we, as those who do this diversity and inclusion work, must be judicious in choosing who we do this work for. For myself, I am willing to do this work in collaboration with students who I know will be able to integrate my views and perspectives towards their own efforts in supporting diversity and inclusion. I am not willing to do this work as a performance to make people in positions of leadership feel good about themselves for supporting women.
Second, the onus of elucidating the value of diversity and the possible avenues towards inclusion must shift away from those who are the most disproportionally impacted and onto those in positions of leadership and authority who have the most opportunity to create change. Even for myself, I experience privilege as an able-bodied person. So the onus of learning about ableism falls on me as I seek out voices in the disability activism community to educate myself on potential avenues towards their inclusion. Other panelists noted the abundance of online resources for self-education including the Gendered Innovations project.
At the end of the day, we do what we can. And we do it now.