Over the past month alone, a series of reports have highlighted the role of scientists in promoting gender and racial disparities in work-life balance,1 grant awards,2 and academic achievement,3 to say nothing of our shortfall in creating learning and workplace climates devoid of sexual harassment.4 These studies reveal that scientists (that’s us) are restricting who advances and persists in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) careers. Making these decisions based on anything other than ability inhibits personal and scientific progress. To reverse this reality, it’s up to each one of us to work to make our profession more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
I have been interested in and have been an advocate for that goal throughout my academic career, and I am often asked to speak about “what works.” I firmly believe that it will take our collective effort to get there. That’s why I have grown increasingly concerned about the polarizing chatter on social media around this challenge. These efforts have clearly and importantly increased the urgency to promote positive change. Nonetheless, I can’t help but worry that they are also creating a new barrier by discouraging conversations that I believe we must have to bridge our divides and chart a successful path forward. How can we emerge from the understandable disappointment and outrage about our current state to create a future that maximizes individual potential and the pace of scientific discovery?
While I don’t have definitive answers, my own approach has been influenced by the idea that effective change requires two components: an understanding of how our lives will improve and a path to achieving that goal.5 Within this context, these are the lessons that I’ve learned on how to positively promote change.
Learn from the Past, Work toward the Future
Statistics on the lack of diversity in STEMM fields and studies of its underlying causes can push even the most optimistic of us to a sense of helplessness in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Rather than settling into despair, use these data to create teachable moments to change our trajectory toward a future that supports the success of all members of our community and the scientific enterprise. For example, I began a project in 2016 to collect stories about microaggressions in STEM not only to give voice to our experiences but also to raise awareness of them.6 I have used these submissions to identify common themes that negatively impact perceptions of learning and workplace climate in STEMM (e.g., comments on pregnancy, choice of dress, dedication) and discussed them in presentations and workshops to demonstrate that impact is often independent of intent. You might consider doing something similar in your own department by presenting published studies in a journal club, where discussion is possible.
Engage to Create a Learning Culture
Our lived experiences give us unique perspectives on our learning and workplace climates that may inhibit us from seeing the challenges faced by others. It’s difficult to motivate people, including ourselves, to change if the problem is not apparent or if we are being criticized for not seeing it. Respectful conversations across divides are an important component of building that understanding and often the most challenging because we have to be willing to publicly unpack, confront, and reconsider the basis of our own beliefs. In my own life, a friend elsewhere on the ideological spectrum has broadened my perspective by challenging my viewpoints and answering even my naïve questions on topics ranging from consent to scientific credit. These conversations push both of us outside of our comfort zones. Yet we emerge with greater understanding rather than with bruised egos because we come to these conversations from a place of mutual respect, where blame, criticism, and personal attacks are absent. Be a part of creating such a learning culture at your institution by emulating the psychological safety of my friendship.7 For example, you can build and/or participate in forums for exchange, such as surveys, book clubs, focus groups, and workshops. In these activities, suggest ground rules for discussions and plans for addressing conflict before sensitive topics are broached. My own university, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, has successfully implemented these strategies8 to foster honest dialog9 and the work necessary to respectfully bridge divides.
Respectful conversations across divides are an important component of building…understanding….
Focus on End Goals Rather than a Single Fix
In my current role, I’m often asked to “fix” things in a way that is specific to the perspective of a single person or group, but I’m wary of doing so because such actions can often have unintended consequences. For example, term limitations on postdoctoral appointments were introduced to promote career progression but have created new challenges10 for persistence of underrepresented groups in STEMM. Instead, find ways to bring people together to leverage the power of diverse groups to solve complex problems. In my own college, I have approached systemic learning and workplace climate change by creating a network of climate advisory committees with broad representation. I have found that working together to articulate a shared vision,11 empowering the groups to identify the actions that will have the greatest impact, and recognizing and rewarding success tailors solutions to the unique needs of each unit. By bringing these groups together, we allow common themes to be identified more quickly and addressed more globally. You can do the same by creating advocacy groups not only to advise leaders on concerns and possible solutions but also to listen to their constraints. By giving light to all perspectives, we enable outcomes to emerge that are better than any single group could have constructed on its own.
Recognize the Importance of Your Own Contributions
Our workplace and learning climates place each of us within a network. Be bold in engaging your own sphere of influence. No matter how small our individual contributions may seem, they will positively ripple outward from our primary connections. Over time, the scale of my own efforts has expanded from supporting individual friends in graduate school, to talking about work-life balance,12 to suggesting institutional policy changes,13 but they have always been motivated by something that mattered to me. More often than not, I have found that I am not alone in those perspectives and that others are willing to join and amplify my effort. Start by sharing your own perspectives and also consider joining conversations that have already begun.
Change is never easy. The complexity of this work makes it nearly impossible to chart a positive course that is devoid of setbacks and pitfalls, proceeds at a pace that is not too fast for some or too slow for others, and reaches all perspectives. Nevertheless, I am optimistic: Even imperfect attempts will help us to create a more productive path forward and even small steps will bring us closer to our aspirations. The current state of STEMM professions arose from our past actions, but together we have the power to determine what is possible for our future by daring to be different.
1Cech EA, Blair-Loy M (2019). The changing career trajectories of new parents in STEM. PNAS 116, 4182–4187.
2Oliveira DFM, Ma Y, Woodruff TK, et al. (2018). Comparison of National Institutes of Health grant amounts to first-time male and female principal investigators. JAMA 321, 898–900.
3Canning EA, Muenks K, Green DJ, Murphy MC (2019). STEM faculty who believe ability is fixed have larger racial achievement gaps and inspire less student motivation in their classes. Science Advances 5, eaau4734.
6Serio T (2016). Speak up about subtle sexism in science. Nature 532, 415.
7Edmondson A (1999). Psychological safety and learning behavior in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly 44, 350–383.
10Schaller MD, McDowell G, Porter A, Shippen D, Friedman KL, Gentry MS, Serio TR, Sundquist WI (2017). Point of view: What’s in a name? eLife 6, e32437.
12Serio T, Vaillancourt AM (March 2, 2016; updated March 2, 2017). It’s time to reveal the secrets we’ve been keeping about work–life balance. Huffpost.
13Serio T (June 26, 2018). How colleges and organizations can stop the cycle of faculty sexual abuse. Chronicle of Higher Education.
About the Author:
Tricia Serio is a professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.