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Is there a problem? II. Revisiting “diversity”

02/11/2010

In a previous post entitled “Is there a problem?” I posed the question, Do women preferentially leave professional science careers because they want to? And if so, is that a problem? My own answer to this question is that if women don’t want careers in science, then we (as a society) are doing something wrong. Science is fun, interesting, and rewarding – and yes, very difficult. It’s a problem not because people are unhappy about being shuffled elsewhere in society after getting a PhD (or before that), but rather because science thrives with diverse opinions and viewpoints. This, of course, requires diversity in scientists.

I want to revisit that post because it is obvious that diversity covers LOTS of other things besides gender identity. At the Women in Astronomy conference, I was impressed by the objectivity of Claude Canizares when he said that if the pool from which eventual scientists emerge is restricted to white males, then two-thirds of the population is not being sampled! (I know, even in a blog I talk like a scientist.) I think you’d have to be completely off your rocker to think that we’re going to get the best and brightest by digging deeper into a smaller pool, rather than taking the cream off of a larger pool.

Recently, I was at an interest meeting for a scientific education/outreach program designed to increase the participation of elementary- and middle school-aged students in science, especially those identified with groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. There was one person in the meeting who was appalled. She insisted that exactly these people were taking all the low-income jobs; so if they also took the snazzy jobs, what would the white men do?! Woe!

The idea here is not to increase the representation of underrepresented groups in science because we (white people) feel bad for anyone*; it is instead to increase the representation because it is socially just, and in this case, it also happens to be necessary to science. So the same result applies, in my mind, as for women. That is, it’s not a problem because people are unhappy about not being in science; it is a problem because we are doing something wrong in not making them want those jobs, and giving them the proper training and encouragement.

*I’ll speak more to the guilt issue later. Acknowledging, taking responsibility for, and changing one’s behavior and attitudes are an essential part of becoming an ally to underprivileged groups, which requires getting past guilt.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 02/12/2010 5:03 am

    Thank you for sharing the ideas, and the Claude Canizares comment. It is always good to see balanced approaches coming to the fore.

    I would only add that I expected to see the last two clauses reversed in your comment, “The idea here is not to increase the representation of underrepresented groups in science because we (white people) feel bad for anyone*; it is instead to increase the representation because it is socially just, and in this case, it also happens to be necessary to science.” I prefer your and Claude’s point that diversity is necessary to science … and oh, by the way, it also happens to be socially just.

    Looking forward to reading about guilt!

    • 02/12/2010 11:08 am

      Excellent point. I struggle with which is more important, science or social justice; both are essential to a progressive society. But I think, as much as I love and value science, social justice affects even more people in even more profound ways, and I was trying to make the point that the playing field should be evened out for every job, not just those in science. But in the context of the post, I definitely understand what you’re getting at!

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