For International Women’s Day, I was part of a panel of women from Harvard OEB talking about our experiences in science for a conference on Gender and Science, happening in San Michele all’Adige, Trentino, Italy. The panel was organized by Francesca Cagnacci, who is visiting the Harvard University Centre for the Environment this year. I wrote up what I said in response to questions about the experience of people from underrepresented groups in graduate school, and what we can do at the grad student level to make academia more welcoming of URMs. Obviously none of this is new or original (and THANKS to all of you who’ve influenced these thoughts), but here it is, all in one place:
For me, personally, graduate school is when I realized the impact that sexism and racism and other forms of bias and discrimination can have on someone learning to be a scientist. Graduate school is a really important time in developing one’s identity as a scientist, and a huge part of being a scientist is persisting in the face of things going wrong—ideas being bad, experiments failing, field seasons going badly. Having the self-confidence to get through these times is really important, and scientific self-confidence develops in large part based on how the scientific community responds to our work. It can be harder for people from underrepresented groups–whose ideas get ignored, who are assumed to be less knowledgeable or less skilled, who are not given the benefit of the doubt, and who may not feel fully integrated into the social side of the scientific community simply on the basis of parts of their identity–to develop that self-confidence. This is why I believe that cultural change, which gives people from underrepresented groups the space to thrive and succeed, is essential to retaining diversity and excellence in science.
I think the biggest challenge we face in science is this strange belief that because we do science, we are somehow magically objective and free of bias. This is complete nonsense—we have ample evidence that, like everyone else on the planet, most scientists are unconsciously biased in all the usual stereotypical ways. This means that the solution to this bias has to come from all of us, and has to involve being aware of our biases and working towards reducing them. We have to create an atmosphere, an institutional framework, where it’s safe to bring attention to each other’s biases and work to rectify them, and I think graduate school can be an important place to begin or hone that process. The burden to change the system has to be on all of us, not consistently on the people with the least power in the system. When we have institutional support for this cultural change along with policy initiatives to support families and strong action against sexual harassment and assault, then we have a chance of making science welcoming to women from diverse backgrounds.
Thanks to my friend and colleague and culture-change-co-conspirator Talia Moore for her feedback on this, <60 minutes before the panel 🙂