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Redefining Diversity in Science

There is a lot of discussion in science right now (though not nearly enough) about women and racial minorities in science.  This discussion is important.  We must become better about uplifting any individual who loves science and wants to do it for the rest of their life.  However, I often wonder if we’re focusing on the wrong thing.

I often hear how we can make things better for underrepresented minorities.  This topic is well-covered, so I’ll leave that discussion alone.  Today I’d instead like to focus on, 1) how I define diversity and 2) what diversity does for science.

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My definition of diversity

When I mention diversity in scientific environments, I’m usually met with two topics: women and racial minorities.  Yet, in my advocacy circles, the word diversity means much more than this.  It spans sex and race, but also gender, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic status, and spirituality to name a few.  This means that when I say that we need more diverse scientists, I, of course, mean women and African Americans and Latinos.  But I also mean people who struggle with mental health issues, people with physical disabilities, mixed race people, First Nations citizens, first generation college graduates, queer people, etc ad nauseum.

Importantly, this also means thinking about intersections.  People who are in more than one underrepresented population (for example, a low-income Latina woman with a physical disability) must be considered, a topic that I find is incredibly underappreciated.  Unfortunately, this topic is a little too broad for me to discuss here today, but as you start thinking more about diversity, these intersections and how they change a person’s perspective become obvious.

Experience > Background

When I think about diversity in science, I think beyond just that person’s identity or background.  I think about their experiences (Socioeconomic status and effects on brain development, Boosting Science with Diversity).  Our measure of diversity ISN’T that someone is trans*.  What makes diversity so important is that the experiences of being trans* shape the way we do science, give us an angle of problem-solving that someone who isn’t trans* doesn’t have.  A person who grew up poor has learned how to approach answering a question differently than someone who never had to wonder where their next meal came from.
What’s important to how a person approaches the scientific process is not the background that a person is from, but the EXPERIENCES the person has had because they come from that background.
When science is done by people who have generally the same background, no matter what that background is, science loses out.  I’ll get to that in a moment, but let me just drive this point home a little more.

I think that we as a scientific community have chosen to focus on two groups because they’re easily identified and a large proportion of our population.  I think it’s easy to promote things for women and racial minorities because there are relatively few accommodations that need to occur in theory.  It becomes a question of recruitment and retention.  In other words, how can we get more Latinos to be scientists and how do we retain women through tenure track?  This simplistic view ignores the varied experiences of these individuals.

Compare that to the following issues that face underrepresented populations, but that are rarely discussed:

  • How do I get a sense of community if I’m the only one?
  • Will I have insurance that covers my medical/mental health needs?
  • Will my pay and quality of life keep me out of “panic” mode?
  • Will I be able to access and use the equipment?
  • Am I even able to run and interpret experiments properly?
  • How can I succeed when I have never had the tools necessary to succeed?
  • How do I keep my grades up when I have to take care of my family and work 2 jobs while in school?
  • Will I be judged for who I am and is it worth the struggle?

These questions are just a small sample of those asked by underrepresented and disadvantaged individuals, and they aren’t easily answered or even addressed.  The only answer I can think of is to continue to push for the recruitment and retention of people from all walks of life, all different kinds of experience, and to be mindful that the system was not built for people of color, for non-male individuals, for people with disabilities or mental health issues or chronic illnesses, for people who had to work while in school, or for people whose belief systems are outside of a certain box.

Importantly, the more diverse the scientific community becomes, the more future scientists will see themselves in science.  The sense of pride and personal ability is broadened when we see someone like us in places of success.  There was always a first (the first scientist, the first woman scientist, the first African American scientist, etc), there is always a second, and we should move past these until whatever background we are from, we can find countless others who we can identify with.

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What does diversity do for science?

Diversity does several key things for the scientific community:

  • Brings new perspectives (solutions) to old problems
  • Helps identify new problems
  • Allows us to connect to diverse non-scientific communities
  • Helps identify problems with the way we do science & solutions to fix those problems
  • Helps create meaningful collaborations that push a given field forward with multiple perspectives & backgrounds working on the same problem

I know I just threw that bullet list out there, but it’s simple.  If we all thought about problems in the same way, science would move very slowly.  It is when we challenge each other and are challenged ourselves that we push our fields forward.  That challenge is limited by who we surround ourselves by in our labs, in our departments, and in our institutions.

It is through new people with new ideas that we push the boundary of human knowledge.  And it is through the diversity of scientists’ experiences that we improve the speed at which we can push that boundary.

“Embrace our differences” can be more powerful than “We are mostly the same”

Whenever diversity comes up, I often hear this phrase.  We are more alike than different.  It serves the purpose to make people feel more comfortable with others because people are more likely to accept people who are like them.  Earlier in this article, I mentioned how important this is for underrepresented groups.

However, I would argue that we should learn to embrace diversity and differences.  I know there are limits to this, but I don’t think that we can worry about that while trying to increase diversity.  I may be an idealist, but I believe that if we could learn to accept each other’s differences while not trying to force our beliefs and customs on each other, the world would be a better place for it.  I won’t harp on this, but I think it’s worth thinking about the next time you’re busy prepping 96 PCRs or waiting for your program to finish running or during any other downtime you might have.

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How do you recruit diverse scientists?  What unique perspective do you bring to the scientific roundtable?  How do your experiences differ from those in your lab, department, and field?  How do you go beyond “recruitment and retention”?  Let me know in the comments below.


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Special thank you to DiAngele Augustus & Amber Crowell for helping me find some of the research in this area.

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