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June 29, 2017

DIVERSITY

Diversity in STEM and how implicit bias and privilege play a role

J. Marcela Hernandez, PhD

Graduate/STEM Diversity Director
The Ohio State University

The benefits of a having a diverse workforce have been well documented in academic publications, mainstream media, and think tank publications. However, according to the data collected by NSF, the diversity of PhD recipients and the postdoctoral workforce is very low. African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans as well as people with disabilities are severely underrepresented in the STEM fields. As a consequence STEM research and other related enterprises cannot enjoy the advantages that diversity provides in spite of the fact that the US is becoming increasingly multiracial. By the year 2044 the Census Bureau projects that the majority of the US population will identify as other than white. Funding agencies (public and private) are investing heavily in programs to encourage a more inclusive and diverse STEM workforce. This task is undoubtedly a big challenge due in great part to the misconceptions and ignorance regarding the obstacles that “diverse scholars” face during their training. There are two important reasons for the lack of diversity in STEM: implicit bias and privilege. To make STEM fields more inclusive, these two concepts need to be understood, acknowledged, and mitigated. This will in turn bring a wave of change in attitudes and perceptions regarding the importance of efforts to broaden participation in STEM fields.

Implicit bias refers to judgments made as a result of subconscious cognitive processes that often rely on implicit attitudes and stereotypes. These cognitive processes impact every aspect of life as they have a profound effect on decision making, interactions between scientists and mentees, teachers and students, as well as the dynamics of admissions committees and hiring processes. Thus there is no doubt that the lack of diverse scholars is in part attributable to the effect of implicit bias. The good news is that those biases don’t need to be perpetuated since further understanding and their recognition can give individuals the power to change. Efforts for change are currently in place to combat implicit bias, such as “Project Implicit”, an international collaboration of researchers, aiming to educate the public about this concept, by collecting data, and providing training services.

Regarding the concept of privilege, sociologist Allan G. Johnson defines it as “any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred” and a system of privilege as one that “is organized around three basic principles: dominance, identification, and centeredness.” Every individual enjoys or is denied privilege based on one or more of his or her identities: gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, disability status, etc. This is a concept that probably few STEM professionals get to reflect on, and as our work environment becomes more diverse is not safe or sensitive to assume that all STEM trainees have walked the same path. Discrepancies in privilege can lead some people to receive more exposure, opportunities and/or mentoring that translates into success, while others had to overcome many obstacles to reach the same goal due to lack of privilege. Those overcoming obstacles relied on their own courage, ingenuity, hard work, tenacity, and resilience, which need to be accounted for when evaluating their accomplishments. Thus, when making decisions about doctoral program admissions or hiring at the postdoctoral level and beyond, the presence or absence of privilege needs to be acknowledged.

A diverse set of minds are necessary to finding better solutions, in an effective and efficient manner and to progressively face the challenges of the 21st century. Promoting and strengthening diversity is critical to achieving this goal, and understanding implicit bias and privilege are essential tools we cannot afford to relinquish.

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