There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in science lately: Minority scientists have written op-eds about their struggles; science’s top journals cover the issue extensively; and one 47-year-old untenured female scientist recently sued the National Institutes of Health for gender discrimination.

But what if we’re getting it all wrong? Yes, there are very real benefits to expanding the number of racial, sexual, socioeconomic, and other minorities in charge of labs; the problem is in our approach to fostering that growth.

After all, despite decades of awareness of how much white men dominate the sciences, a majority of scientists are still white and male. More than three-quarters of full professors in science in America are men, and more than 90 percent are white or Asian.

To learn about where some diversity initiatives may be flawed — and how to fix them — Pacific Standard talked with three scientists who work on recruiting and retaining minorities in their fields:

  • Sherilynn Black, neuroscientist and director of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Diversity at the Duke University School of Medicine
  • Gabriel Montaño, biologist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and president of Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science
  • Hannah Valantine, surgeon and chief officer for workforce diversity at the National Institutes of Health

In asking them to name the top myths they encountered over the years, we noticed some recurring themes, some of which could apply to a variety of workplaces, including Pacific Standard’s own field — journalism.

Myth 1: Not Enough Black and Latino Americans Go Into Science

HV: Myth number one is that there aren’t enough graduate Ph.D.s in the biomedical sciences to recruit them into academic positions. We know now that, over the last 20 years, there has been a seven-fold growth in the Ph.D.s who are from underrepresented groups that are in biomedical research. The actual number is about 1,760 every year. So there is an adequate pool to be able to draw from to diversify the biomedical research workforce in academia.

If a search committee is trying to look at a resume quickly — and they don’t even know they’re doing this — they’re looking for the one-word journals and for certain, big-name institutions. That automatically cuts out a lot of diversity. [Editor’s Note: “One-word journals” is a light-hearted shorthand for science’s most prestigious journals, such as Nature, Science, and Cell.] It is important to note that having published in those one-word journals is not a reflection of how good you are as a scientist. It’s a reflection of the reputation of the lab that you worked in and of your boss. That’s why the situation is perpetuated. You continually make decisions not on the potential of the person, but really on their boss, who happens to be wildly successful. There has been data showing that these elite labs are very low in postdoctoral and graduate students who are women or from underrepresented groups, so you see where this goes. We’re going to the same pool all the time.

The Fix: Education, a Database, and Actively Asking People to Apply

HV: One of the things that I’ve done is to go to each search committee and give them an educational module about implicit bias and how it affects their decision-making. I ask them to take an implicit attitude test.

Another thing that I’ve done at NIH is to create a search tool, a way to find people from underrepresented groups who fit with this position that you’re looking for, and then you can positively outreach to them because, generally speaking, women and underrepresented minorities will not apply cold to a position.

It is illegal, in most states, to hire based on race. There is no law against outreach by race. You can do any outreach you like, by race, gender. The purpose of this database is to be able to find the candidates and say to them: “Hey! I got a position.”

Myth 2: Underrepresented Students Need Extra Help to Succeed in the Sciences

SB: I’ve heard this at many different institutions where I’ve gone to give talks. People will say, “Our underrepresented students, we’re going to make sure they’re up to par with all of their coursework because some of them come from places where maybe we’re not sure that the science is as top-notch as an Ivy League institution.”

I did an institutional baseline study at Duke. When we actually looked at the data, we saw that those students were performing equally well at coursework and at milestone events. What the students were reporting was the actual issue was the climate that they were training in.

What I always tell people is, it’s hard for people who have not been underrepresented to imagine a climate that’s already competitive and you’re walking into it as an n of one. You feel that every expectation is riding on your shoulders. I think that would make anyone feel a level of pressure that would be perceived as a burden and not as a motivator.

GM: Over 90 percent of our students [in Advancing Chicanos/Hispanics & Native Americans in Science] don’t have any parent that’s graduated with a college degree. If they have a logistical issue, they have nobody to check with back home. I had a student who had a bursar’s hold on her scholarship. It was simple to fix, but my student came very close to dropping out of school because her mom said: “Well, I guess it just didn’t work out. That’s how it goes.”

When they get to college, the culture shock can be extremely intimidating. Honestly, the academia still tends to dismiss these types of issues and consider them to be secondary in importance.

The Fix: Change the Culture at Institutions to Be More Welcoming

SB: Once I focused on altering the climate through the programming my office provided, we saw the students reporting that they felt at home. Suddenly the perception that it was an academic performance issue was seen not to be the case.

Myth 3: A White, Well-Off Professor Can’t Be a Good Mentor to a Student From an Underrepresented Background

SB: I really encourage all scientists from all walks of life to get engaged in this area. I always say, “It’s better to just go in and try, even if you’re a little nervous, than to allow your self-paralysis to prevent something positive from happening.” If that means you have to seek out resources and help, then that’s what you do, instead of doing nothing.

What I’ve helped the faculty who are not from diverse backgrounds to see is that they still bring an element to diversity through their own life experiences and where they were educated and how they view the world. That is something that all of the students really gain from.

The Fix: Offer Training and a Go-to Advisor So Students and Faculty Better Understand Each Other

SB: We talk a lot. We have some training at Duke for the faculty. A lot of the faculty want to talk about the things that come up that are not about science. There’s been a heck of a lot going on, societally, that if you are an underrepresented individual in America, it’s hard to wake up and not have that directly impact you. It’s not necessarily the same situation for a student who’s not from an underrepresented group.

I obviously wouldn’t want to put a student in a situation where they would be vulnerable and would be made to feel they didn’t belong. If people perceive there could be challenges in a discussion of a certain topic of a sensitive nature, I am there to assist.

Myth 4: A ‘Colorblind’ Policy Is Best

GM: I’ve had a lot of colleagues that have talked to me about: “We’re colorblind in my lab. That doesn’t matter.” They look for my approval and I tell them, “That’s the worst thing you can have.” Diversity is good. Trying to bring in people and assimilate them to be one type of individual is not a good thing.

Because when you’re a student coming into something like that, what that tells a student is, “Either I assimilate, or I don’t belong.” That’s a very dangerous thing.

When we talk about true diversity, it’s not just having a lab that looks diverse or a group that looks diverse, it’s one that acts diverse.

The Fix: Welcome New Ideas

GM: When you have a question on the board, ask them each to answer and you’re going to get different answers. The idea is to talk through those answers and not just dismiss one as incorrect. What you find is that the lab members end up feeling the importance that they bring to the table. Their approach to this problem may be a little different from somebody else’s and that’s a good thing because that’s where you actually make transformation.

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