This post was originally hosted on my blog Confluxion, at  Nature Network Blogs

A recent blog entry by Nature Network editor Corie Lok has pointed to the ongoing problems that Harvard (and implicitly its peers) have in increasing faculty diversity.

What follows is my own opinion on the issue based on my perceptions.

I want to point in particular to science faculty, but I suspect this applies across the board to anyone employed in the sciences.

Consider that self-identification and projection are probably significant obstacles to increasing faculty diversity

Increasing faculty diversity will likely require individual and institutional sensitivity for typical human bias towards what is usually termed ingroup identification, where individuals tend to exhibit favorable bias to those people they recognize as belonging to their peer group. This subject is difficult and will likely make many people uncomfortable. However, it is not necessarily the most negative feelings within our personal biases that may be hindering attaining reasonable faculty diversity, but rather more importantly positive bias towards those people whom offer us a quick social shortcut into identification.

An integral part of initiating social interaction (as I understand it) is the establishment of common ground—understanding of another. The projection of “self” onto another person greatly simplifies the process of social interaction as common ground can already be assumed. Communication will seem to go more smoothly. Trust is more easily established through a sense of familiarity, so collaboration might be easier. Some of this identification process likely requires social or class clues, but I’m just going to state the obvious and say that like most species, humans also base self-identification strongly on appearance which is then followed by other social cues.

I argue that self-identification is a limiting factor in compromised social interaction skills. The subtle point is that as professionals, we may not be conscious that we are socially discriminating against another individual if we are not feeling identifiably negative feelings about that person. However, without social identification and common ground, the effects of neutrality are likely as damaging as overt negative feelings could be. Neutrality would be acceptable if we could apply neutral social discrimination across the board and not favor some over others. As social animals, we will find perfect neutrality impossible.

Scientists will generally suffer from this kind of unconscious favoritism, I feel, even more than the average person. Although there are exceptions, in my experience, we scientists are not always known for deft socialization skills which would allow for ease in finding important common ground between us and those with diverse backgrounds. Since scientists make decisions on everything from grants to departmental resources and tenure awards on ‘best fit’, the dangers of social categorization and identification could be quite significant, especially if a significant part of any administrative decision is based on subjective perception.

To consider this issue with a real example, see the article by a former senior MIT faculty member, Dr. Frank Douglas that was also mentioned in Corie’s blog. Dr. Douglas makes the observation that the normal tenure process of discriminating for academic excellence is likely affected by more personal forms of discrimination.

Dr. Douglas decided to resign from MIT on June 3, 2007 as a result of his observation that critical issues for minority faculty at MIT were not likely to be addressed, in his estimation, by the Institute’s administration. Dr. Douglas decided he could not properly fit where an administration was unwilling to address the problems of discrimination in the academic environment, nor did he feel he could he advise young Black faculty as to how they could navigate the tenure process themselves.

Dr. Douglas does not question the tenure process itself, but rather the ability of the tenure process to carefully guard against the biases of personal discrimination.

If the success of the tenure process is partly reflected in an expected diversity of faculty, then one could argue some part of the tenure process may be broken for those departments that radically skew from the observed demographics of their field. Can discrimination for academic excellence be protected or separated from personal forms of discrimination? Might neutrally involving an outside group in the tenure evaluation process protect and educate all parties, from the Universities through the faculty to the applicant?

Examine and diversify science pedagogy

Graduate schools need to examine the pedagogy behind graduate science classes at the least. It has been known for quite some time that females and males have different learning styles.
All my graduate science and mathematics classes at the U. of Michigan were taught by men during my time as a graduate student, with one two-week exception.The more mathematical the science being taught, the less accessible the pedagogy seemed to make the subject to a non-linear or collaborative learner who desires synthesis and discussion with the equations. Some of the faculty were very good at presenting synthesis before calculation, but in most classes I found that I had to work harder than many of my male study-group colleagues because the material seemed to be better taught or designed for their overall learning style. I suggest we change the pedagogy for mathematical sciences to include concept before equations or organize additional resources for non-linear thinkers. It makes for thicker books and more effort on the part of instructors, but can yield better scientific intuition.

Is perceived attractiveness a factor?

Many people are socialized from an early age to assign social roles or worth to others based on how attractive they look. I’ve attended meetings where I’ve been the senior scientist in charge of a project but people were not aware of my role (though I was sitting near the head of a table), and as the conversation started I was addressed/attended to much differently than someone who was perceived to be more attractive. Developing a thick skin is important if you want to be a scientist, as is cultivating a healthy sense of humor, so when I notice that kind of odd behavior, it makes for a secret grin on my part and I move on. However, how do we address this? Female faculty at MIT brought evidence to their administration that they were treated differently than male scientists and MIT has conceded bias against women faculty. The same hazards of self-identification apply as above, probably deeply confounded with human socio-sexual roles. As for attractiveness, I’d hazard to say that most women are not perfectly in line with this culture’s ideal of “highly attractive”, and if some people unconsciously gauge how interesting a woman scientist is by her subjective reproductive worth, we’re not going very far with this science thing.

Why does industry attract more minorities and women?

I’ve known many talented minority and/or female scientists in my time. In fact, many of them work in industry. Why are they in industry and not in academia? It’s not as if industry is less demanding of talent than academia is. I’d say that industry is more demanding on many other levels, and from personal experience, the work can be as intense. The reward system, however, is much different and generally there are more minorities and women in the lower-levels of industry than in academia, though going up the ranks it becomes less diverse once again. Despite this, why are many women and minorities deliberately moving to and remaining in industry and not academia?

Change science culture

Since science culture is based on human values, asking science culture to change is probably as difficult as asking people to stop privately gauging attractiveness in their social interactions with others. However, the science culture in many of the physical sciences values independence and personality. The cult of personality and “big names” could be perceived as having greater value than collaboration and consensus. Projects might seem less important than the labs they’re coming out of. I’m not slamming big labs, here. Excellent scientists should continue to be valued and rewarded, and I’m not bashing those who have good names. I’m pro-achievement. I hope established scientists are encouraged to reach out and collaborate with smaller groups, especially those headed by minority and women scientists.

Also, this is not to say that women and minorities are innocent of playing the “big name” game, but we should encourage students to value collaboration and consensus as much as star status if we expect the scientific population to continue to become more diverse. There is the challenge that good collaborative work may not help distinguish a young faculty member during the tenure process, but I hope money continues to go to collaborative projects that have at least a small training grant for minority and women students/postdocs attached if they can’t get diverse people to join. Which brings me to…

Last, but certainly most important: mentoring
We should all attempt to mentor students and postdocs, and make that a priority. In graduate school, I ended up scrambling alone to figure out what I’d do for a postdoc position. My advisor was helpful but perhaps because of his own schedule could only offer minimal guidance. I’ve heard similar stories from other women scientists—mentorship, or the perception of mentorship—was something that seemed to be lacking in their experience. Departments should make (or continue) efforts to provide mentorship to graduate students (and postdocs) in addition to the mentoring offered by their advisor.

Early mentorship or collaborative projects could also give young scientists the ability to tune themselves into the science culture of their field, which might address several of the challenges in the paragraphs above, including allowing students and postdocs to tailor their own work towards obtaining a faculty position as well as becoming part of—and enriching—the culture of the field they want to enter professionally. MentorNet, a website that pairs underrepresented students with mentors drawn from the scientific community, has recently concluded a study that shows underrepresented students are more likely to value mentoring but may not feel they are getting the mentoring they want.

There’s a lot that needs to be done before we can see women and minorities moving into faculty positions. These were just some suggestions.

This post was selected to be part of Openlab 2007: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2007


Post filed under Higher Education.

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