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Ten easy ways you can support diversity in academia

It’s resolution season, which means we’re spending more time than usual assessing ourselves, our efforts, and our goals. I’ve had a few people reach out to me lately asking me for suggestions on how to actively promote diversity in their departments, so I thought I’d share some strategies that are relatively easy. Not everyone is in a position where they can rock the boat — you can’t always call out a senior colleague, or start a letter campaign about an unfair policy — and many diversity issues are likely outside most of our scope of influence (It might be ineffective to put “improve maternity policy” on your list of things to do this year, because you’re not likely to personally make traction in that regard).

So what do you do if you have good intentions and a desire to do your part for diversity in 2016, but you’re not in higher administration? Let’s say you’re educating yourself on diversity issues, and you’re ready to add something tangible to your annual list of goals. Here are some suggestions:

1. Start a diversity journal club. A regular gathering where you talk about diversity research is a really great way to start conversations, to subtly educate your colleagues and students, and to highlight areas for improvement. The beauty of this is that, as academics, we tend to appreciate scholarship, and so we give it a certain cachet over personal anecdotes. We have data on what works and what doesn’t work to improve diversity! Data! Who doesn’t love data!? You can pair this up with #diversityjc on Twitter, or you can focus on your discipline or a subset of diversity issues relevant to your department’s needs — maybe focus on teaching, for example. This is something anyone can do, from graduate students to department chairs. I recommend having a rotation of people suggesting papers and leading discussion, and modeling pro-diversity structures in your meetings (sit in a circle, have moderators who don’t let just a few people dominate discussion, let students speak first, etc.).


Perhaps this woman teaching geometry in the Middle Ages was frowning because of a hostile work climate, poor work-life balance, or lack of institutional support. Image from a medieval copy of Euclid’s Elementa. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Write a lab mission statement. One thing I found really valuable was to sit down with my lab and write our mission statement: who we are, what we do, and what we stand for. We made a special effort to include everyone, from undergrads to lab techs, and we explicitly addressed diversity. The mission statement then goes on your lab website, where it lets prospective students, your colleagues, and others know that diversity is something you value as much as your scholarship. This was inspired by my grad lab (you can read the Williams Lab mission statement here). You can read the BEAST lab’s mission statement here.

3. Ask your chair for a diversity training or workshop. There are professionals and nonprofits dedicated to bringing discussions about diversity to professional settings. Not all of these are equally good, so it’s worth asking around about local options. While the Ada Initiative no longer offers the Ally Skills Workshops, it’s still possible to contact them to find a trainer (I’m one!), and all the materials are online. ESA’s SEEDS program also does a nice training for mentors. A workshop, either for your department, through your university’s ADVANCE program, or even in your lab, can be a great way to get some hands-on skills and ideas. One thing, about these, though: there’s evidence that making them mandatory backfires, so it’s better to research what’s available, find a good fit for your program, keep it optional, and then find as many people as you can to go.

4. Nominate someone from an underrepresented background for an award. Women, people of color, GLBTQ folks, and people with disabilities are highly underrepresented in awards, especially at the national level. Awards like these can help with tenure and promotion, and also help raise the visibility of underrepresented scholars. Find out what medals your society gives out each year, and make a pledge that you’ll nominate someone from an underrepresented group for one of them. Put the nomination deadline on your calendar, and give yourself another note well in advance to start preparing a nomination. Note: try to do this for regular, not “diversity” awards. Women, for example, are often ignored for regular awards under the assumption that they’ll be eligible for “women’s” awards.

5. Make your seminars, committees, and conferences diverse. If you’re an organizer, make sure your department seminars, panel discussions, symposia applications, workshops, and other scholarly endeavors are balanced and diverse — and don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need suggestions for great speakers to add (Twitter is great for this). Make a personal pledge to decline to participate on all-male panels, and let organizers know why you’re turning them down. I guarantee there are strong scholars out there from underrepresented backgrounds, and finding names will not be hard. If someone turns you down (which they may, especially if they get hit up a lot), don’t just give up; ask for some alternatives, and keep trying until you succeed.

6. Have discussions with your students about harassment and safety. Last year, Josh Drew and I hosted a workshop at ESA about ways you can make your fieldwork safer for everyone (we’re coming up with some best practices now, so stay tuned). You can start a conversation with a lab reading of the Clancy et al., 2014 SAFE paper on the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault in the field, and brainstorm some ideas about policies that will make your fieldwork safer. Familiarize yourself with your university’s policies — are you a mandatory reporter? Do you or your students know who to contact if they’ve been assaulted or harassed? Do your conferences have harassment policies? Where are the gaps, either in your knowledge or in university regulations? This may be a tough conversation, so do some background reading, and reach out to colleagues first. Consider inviting someone to help lead this discussion if you’re really uncomfortable (we had Katie Hinde, an author of the SAFE study, lead a presentation in our lab when she gave a departmental seminar, and invited students from other labs). Go into this from a reporter-centered place; university policies are often designed more to protect themselves from liability, which means that the people who report harassment are often left without a lot of support. You probably won’t have all the answers, but having the conversation is important, especially in letting your students know that you support them and that you won’t tolerate harassment of any kind in your lab.

7. Focus on hiring and retention. If you sit on a hiring committee this year, you can advocate for diversity in your candidates. On a recent hire I was involved with, the chair sent out resources on things like implicit bias and gendered language in letters of recommendation, and coached us to avoid certain kinds of wording when we ranked candidates. This was all really helpful! However, many departments are focusing so strongly on hiring that they miss a crucial aspect of diversity: retention. This is more of a task for the department chairs out there, but make it a point to find out why people leave (do you do exit interviews?), what your current faculty need to succeed that they may not be getting, and find out whether you’re modeling good behavior as a leader in your department. If your department doesn’t have a structure in place for mentoring or supporting new faculty members, start one (and request one if you’re a new professor).

how_it_works xkcd

This XKCD comic sums up implicit bias really well.

8. Model good behavior. Often, we get so concerned with the big picture that we miss the small things, including how our own actions might be contributing to a hostile climate for underrepresented students or faculty. Volunteering do work like that’s historically been considered “women’s work,” like note-taking or hosting a department social is a really good resolution for male faculty. If your partner is an academic (which is likelier for women than for men, so this becomes a diversity issue) do a long, hard assessment of whether you’re doing an equal share of domestic work and childcare. Tenure, She Wrote’s Don’t Be That Dude has some really handy suggestions for male faculty on how to avoid bad behavior.

9. Support diverse work and ideas with your voice and your dollars. There are lots of people doing great work, and if you have a voice, consider being generous with how you use it to support people from underrepresented backgrounds. Seek out, read, share, and promote diverse scholarship, blog posts, achievements, opportunities, and efforts. Put your money where your mouth is: contribute your funds to crowd-sourced science by underrepresented scholars, and donate to diversity initiatives (like ESA’s SEEDS or your local SACNAS chapter) and scholarships.

10. Talk openly about your struggles as well as your successes. Scholars from underrepresented backgrounds face unique challenges, but there’s one that we all share: rejection. Having a paper or proposal declined, or an experiment go terribly wrong, can be really demoralizing even for the most successful amongst us, but for someone weighing whether to stay in academia on a daily basis, they can be devastating. Whenever I’ve shared my failures or struggles, whether with math anxiety in college, the death of a parent, a rejected proposal, or the challenges of a long-distance partnership, I’m contacted by women (usually grad students) who are grateful to hear they’re not alone. Hearing that even successful academics struggle can be surprisingly helpful. One colleague of mine has a Wall of Rejection, where everyone (including him!) tapes print-outs of paper and grant rejections. It’s surprisingly inspiring, and it normalizes failure as something related to success.

These are just a few suggestions to get you started; feel free to add more in the comments. One important thing I’ve learned is not to leave it to women and underrepresented minorities to do all the diversity work — if you’re in a position where you can say something and be an advocate, as long as you’re not speaking over (or for) others, that can make a huge difference. You should involve a diverse group of people in your efforts, but also don’t be afraid to reach out to your “overrepresented” colleagues and invite them to join conversations or efforts to improve.


Categories: Academia Diversity Good Causes Professional Development Tips & Tricks Women in Science

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Jacquelyn Gill

17 replies

  1. As a person of color who struggled in academia and had to walk away from something I once loved, I truly wish my department had been filled with people like you who took the challenge of making science more inclusive head on. Unfortunately, it gets lonely when your values are not reflected and implicit biases influence to many of your interactions. On the good side, I am much more happy and centered now. I had a few more suggestions.

    1. Teach to the values of your classes. I find that minority, first generation and even most other students want to do something practical with science. But our focus on the esoteric convinces them that if they want something practical, science is not for them. I lost to many great students who wanted to solve problems and help people not write journal papers to define their success. Understand that we can also bring more students into the fields of science if we acknowledge what is important to them. Speak about careers in the sciences that acknowledge different pathways and show that you value them.

    2. Stand up for diversity and inclusion. As a person of color, I got tired of being the person colleagues turned to on social matters or the person that had to speak up. If a committee or most of the folks you are interviewing are men, don’t leave it to the women and minorities to point this out. This helps create a safer environment for open discussions.

    3. Diversity = excellence. Students from many different backgrounds have different strengths and weaknesses. This is why they come to college and we must embrace the challenge of preparing them for their futures. But don’t let our biased expectations define how you perceive and interact with them. That is, I have been thanked for mentoring students of color by well meaning colleagues because these students have “difficult transitions”, are “not well prepared”, “value money over academia” or spend more time with social/ financial matters rather than focusing on school. I have also been told that colleagues don’t see me as a minority, suggesting that I somehow am “better” (but I am no different). I believe these implicit biases influence who they respond to when they get inquiries and how they treat different students. This also leads students to feel that you are doing them a favor and that you have lower expectations of them. These are the ideas that lead colleagues to think they are giving up something if they choose an equally qualified woman or minority candidate, and when they do, it leads to them feeling good that they pushed someone that is challenged over the line. It influences their narrative for evaluations, expectation and promotion. It defined my experience throughout.

    This year, reflect on diversity and inclusion as being value added and not a crutch and see how it influences your interactions and behavior.

    I enjoyed your excellent post!


  2. I agree with number 10. 🙂 Although no one likes to talk about failures, talking about it with colleagues may lead to major troubleshooting help, a new perspective, or advice that can only be got from experience.


  3. I liked all the points, especially the last one. I will keep it in mind during my review assessment tomorrow, and when it is past, will suggest it at the department level. Thanks!


  4. Excellent list! A minor addition, along the lines of #5: If you are in a position as author or editor to select or suggest peer reviewers, work to put together a list with a broad cross-section of the relevant experts. Ask yourself (as editor or author, if the journal allows authors to suggest reviewers): Am I omitting someone who has expertise and should be included? As an editor, I’ve frequently seen suggested reviewer lists from authors that were less than what I would call diverse or comprehensive. I doubt it is purposeful, but nonetheless the peer review process suffers, and our field’s diversity suffers, when it’s the same people from the same institutions in the same geographic region over and over again in the reviewer’s chair.


      1. Yes! I won’t claim perfection in this area, but discussion on this blog and elsewhere definitely helped on the road to self-reflection and changes in the way I did/do things.


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